Archives: Fritz Leiber

Flashing Swords #1: A Master Class in Exotica

Lin Carter opens the introduction of his first collection in the Flashing Swords series with a definition of Sword & Sorcery. I’ll quote it below in its entirety. It will provide an interesting benchmark. Do the stories included match this definition? If not, does it matter?

We call as story Sword & Sorcery when it is an action tale, derived from the traditions of the pulp magazine adventure story, set in a land, age, or world of the author’s invention — a milieu in which magic actually works and the gods are real — a story, moreover, which pits a stalwart warrior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil.

Carter also provides a brief history of the origin of SAGA: the Swordsmen and Sorcerer’s Guild of America. What I like most about that history is this line: “Think of it: an authors guild with no crusades, blacklists, burning causes, or prestigious annual awards.” That thought does my bitter, basalt heart good. I want to belong to such a group, a drinking club of scribblers that contains within its bylaws its own automatic dissolution the first time any of its members use its platform to espouse — anything.

Fritz Leiber leads off with The Sadness of the Executioner. I doubt anyone reading this post requires an introduction to either the author or the characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. So, let’s skip that bit. Leiber’s stories of the duo are characterized by an affection for — if not affectation of — the bizarre, the outré, and outlandish. Like a rococo palace, nothing goes unadorned. There are no plain, merely utilitarian features. Executioner is a story as a piece of art, from its narrative conceit of the Death of Newhon artistically filling his quota while considering his role in existence, to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s narrow escape of Death’s sentence through luck and the physical expression of their individual characteristics. It is all layered, from the descriptions of the players to the droll description of violent demise. The story also serves as a reminder that the “hero” of an S&S yarn might more accurately be described by the term “protagonist.” Good stuff, though it should decidedly not be used as the introductory tale of the Fafhrd and Mouser corpus.

Does Executioner meet Carter’s definition of S&S? I’d say it fits exactly. A perfect match.

Next: Morreion by Jack Vance. If Leiber relishes in the outré and rococo, Vance practically wallows in it. He is the stylist’s stylist, yielding position only — if at all — to Clark Ashton Smith. Here Vance provides one of the classic Dying Earth stories, a tale almost reaching novel length.

Vance’s typical cast of urbane, witty blackguards, turncoats, schemer, and backstabbers takes the stage. Even more so than the previous tale in this volume, sheer invention carries the narrative forward, leading the cabal of treacherous mages through increasingly bizarre locations `in search of IOUN stones. Vance conveys on space-faring palaces to the ends of the universe, using only his orotund lexicon and baroque syntax. Really, the man is just showing off. I, for one, don’t mind it a bit.

But, is it, per Carter, S&S? This is a tougher call than the previous. The story lacks a “stalwart warrior;” the “Sword” in S&S. And one might quibble that, instead of being in conflict with “the forces of supernatural evil,” Vance’s protagonists are the forces of supernatural evil. So, I’d say it doesn’t fit the definition? Does it matter? Not to me. Not in the least.

Poul Anderson’s The Merman’s Children follows. This story almost qualifies as a representative example of the S&S genre. Almost, but not quite. For protagonists, Anderson provides us with mermen. And, being the gifted, inventive writer he is, these aren’t merely humans with gills. These are creatures whose motives do not align perfectly with those of men. Anderson again indulges his fascination with Norsement, employing his considerable historical knowledge to include period authentic details that add verisimilitude; making a tale featuring water-breathing fantasy creatures feel grounded and real. The locations, language, and characters are the least ostentatious and colorfully bizarre of any of the fours stories, yet it still holds its own as a work of imagination. Anderson characteristically wants to know how the miraculous functions, the workings of the machinery of the wondrous. While his working this out aids suspension of disbelief and grounds his tales, it doesn limit the height of his castles in the sky. Merman might be the best pure S&S yarn in this volume (clearly passing the Carter test) but it is the least — prismatic.

Finally, we have Lin Carter and The HIgher Heresies of Oolimar. Carter is often dismissed as a derivative writer. Be that as it may, he makes a virtue of mimicry by consciously emulating the greats. With Oolimar, Carter suggests in his intro, he is continuing a trend in working in his own style. That is possible, I suppose. Personally, I believe Carter takes his stylistic inspiration for this story primarily from Clark Ashton Smith, and secondarily from Lord Dunsany. Oolimar is the first in a series of stories about Amalric, a demi-god in the mold of Hercules, going about his heroics on a planet with the typically Carterian name of Thoorana. With this story we are back to inventiveness as a higher good than realism. Carter gives us a virtual immortal for a protagonist along with an almost Vancian wizard as a sidekick. These are the normal, baseline features; our compass in a world filled with increasingly bizarre monsters and creatures. All of this charming weirdness serves as background color for a sort of Catch-22 satire on religion, with Carter creating an amusingly outlandish philosophy. The truth is, whatever his reputation, when Carter wished to stretch himself, he could sparkle.

Does Carter’s story fit his own definition of S&S. Yep.

What about some of my stuff? Does it pass the Carter test? If you’re curious, check out Thick As Thieves and let me know your verdict.

Remedial Fantasy For the Chronically Lazy: A Top Five List

A couple of weeks ago I moderated a panel on the essential science fiction writers of the Golden Age. The premise was which writers should someone read if he were interested in acquiring a grounding in sci-fi but possessed either limited time or small inclination to read copious amounts of early twentieth century fiction. Who are the not-to-be-missed highlights? It was an engaging, free-ranging conversation. Many writers were brought up and discussed. The panelists agreed more often than not. I doubt we managed to pare the options down to an easily digestible reading list.

My original concept for the panel included fantasy as well. But, as it was a science-fiction convention, that idea was (rightly) nixed. But I still think it worth discussing. What if you, dear reader, had an interest in fantasy, indeed enjoyed reading the current crop of authors? What if you wanted to learn more of the inspirations guiding your favorite writers and where certain tropes and archetypes originated. But what if, for whatever reason, you didn’t want read a bunch of old stuff? Which authors could you read, at a bare minimum to fill this gap?

Appendix N, Past Mid-Way

I’m about two-thirds of the way through my haphazardly completed reviews of Appendix N authors. Andre Norton is in the batter’s box. I’ve not read much of her output, so I’m taking in a few of her Witch World novels before writing up my assessment. But this seems a good time to look back on what I’ve covered so far.

I’m comfortable in saying that I can understand why each of the authors made the list. I can either point to a specific instance in a novel (an item, monster, concept, etc.) that filtered into the rules of D&D or I can see how the tenor or flavor of the writing influenced the style of play Gary Gygax was attempting to encourage and the archetypes he was attempting to emulate through the character classes.

Most of the tales are adventure stories, sitting in varying positions along the pulp-to-literary stylistic spectrum. Importantly, most were entertaining. I can see the influence of a few of these writers in my own output (for better or worse, depending on how you perceive my work.) These are deep-seated influences. I’ve been reading this stuff for a long time. I’ve only rarely had to hunt up a book or two in order to familiarize myself with an Appendix N notable. Most of the authors have had works sitting on my shelves for years.

Now, if someone were to ask for three authors one must read from the first two-thirds of the list in order to get a handle on what D&D is all about, I’d suggest (in alphabetical order) Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. This is not intended to slight any of the others (in fact, most of the others are, in my opinion, better writers than Moorcock) but to single these writers out as having the greatest influence on the game. Of course the final third will include some heavyweights. Might Jack Vance knock one of these off the podium?* You’ll have to wait.
* What about Tolkien, you ask? J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence on D&D is a matter of some controversy. I’m not sure I want to weigh in on that one. Not yet anyway.

Fritz Leiber, The Touchstone of Appendix N

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I intend to write today about Fritz Leiber. But first, I want to acknowledge Jan’s Paperbacks for once again arranging a book signing for me. My hat is off to you ladies.

What more can be written about Fritz Leiber? He was one of the giants of swords and sorcery. Among the genre’s congnoscenti, he is recognized as a peer of Robert E. Howard. Of course, to the casual reader he’s less likely to be a household name. For those of you who have played Dungeons and Dragons, Leiber has influenced you whether you’ve heard of him or not.

Top Ten Most Influential Fantasy Writers of the Twentieth Century

The wellsprings of modern fantasy run deep. Very deep. People could write books about it. And they have. So if I have the temerity to toss my two-cents worth into the conversation I’d best limit the scope. I’m limiting myself to author’s who wrote in the Twentieth Century (some continue on into this century) and ignoring all the giants of prior centuries upon whose shoulders they stand. This is pure subjective opinion on my part. I’ve done no empirical research to support my conclusions, so take this a grain of salt the size to meet your USDA daily sodium intake.

I’d like to include writers such as E.R. Eddison and James Branch Cabell. But their influence appears to have waned. You might see a touch of Eddison in Clark Ashton Smith, or a hint of Cabell in Jack Vance. Might be a faint echo of both in Gene Wolfe. But I don’t see elements of either in much contemporary fantasy. So my personal preferences won’t play much part in this list.

Note that I’m excluding YA authors from the list. Hey, it’s my list. Write your own damn list if that bothers you.

On with it.

Number 10. Some essayists claim you should begin with your strongest argument. I’m a contrarian, or a fool. Maybe both. Meaning I’m beginning with an entrant whose qualifications I’m least certain about, Anne Rice. “Anne Rice,” you splutter, “doesn’t she write horror?” I don’t know. Could be. These definitions get nebulous at the borders. She writes about vampires, werewolves, and mummies in a more lyrical vein than most horror writers. I think she can be considered a fantasist. Whether she qualifies as a fantasy writer or not, she was certainly influential. The shelves in the bookstore wouldn’t look the same absent her popularization of the vampire. Modern urban fantasy wouldn’t exist in its current form without her. The Science Fiction/Fantasy section wouldn’t feature covers of sword-wielding biker chicks embracing half-clad vampires. So, Ms. Rice leads off at number 10.

Number 9. Jack Vance.The great Jack Vance brought us world-weary amoral heroes. He brought sparkling dialogue and a sardonic sense of humor. His influence comes primarily through his Dying Earth stories. You can trace the genealogy of stories set in a future Earth nearing the end of its habitability to Vance. There are earlier examples of the subgenre, sure (e.g., William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith.) But Vance popularized the concept. You can find anthologies paying homage to the Dying Earth. Gene Wolfe’s Long Sun books owe much to Vance. Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison, to name just a couple, have written books in this subgenre.

Number 8. Fritz Leiber. Leiber and Vance shared a literary sensibility. Fitting they’re paired here. Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fathered any number of duos and odd couples. Leiber’s DNA is all over mismatched pairings ranging from Violette Mahan’s Dhulyn and Parno to Simon R. Green’s Hawk and Fisher.

Number 7. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fingerprints are all over fantasy. Tarzan helped popularize lost civilization stories. They are less common now in this time of satellites and Google Earth but writers from A. Merritt to Philip Jose Farmer used to spin those. ERB brought us the Sword and Planet or Planetary Romance novel. Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, and Henry Kuttner, to name three, carried on that tradition. Wasn’t that long ago Disney released a big budget John Carter film. Word is Edgar Rice Burrough’s Inc. is trying to get another version in the works. Hollow Earth novels are still seeing publication. ERB’s influence continues.

Number 6. Michael Moorcock. The speed-writing peddler of the multiverse, Law vs. Chaos cosmological conflict, and albino, elf-like anti-heros. Others may have preceded him with some of these. Poul Anderson was writing independently about a Law/Chaos divide. But Moorcock owned it with his Eternal Champion cycle. The concept of the multiverse is common parlance now, popping up in everything from novels to television shows. Elric of Melniboné can almost be considered an archetype now, cf Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

Number 5. Anne McCaffrey, mother of dragons. Time was you picked up a book with a dragon in it, you knew who the villain was. With The Dragonriders of Pern and those gorgeous Michael Whelan covers that all changed. Now you see a dragon on the cover it could just as easily be an ally as an enemy. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series can claim Pern as a progenitor.

Number 4. Howard Phillips Lovecraft. There’s the horror/fantasy question again, though there used to be little – if any – distinction made between fantasy, science fiction, and horror. HPL’s influence is unquestionable on horror, even science fiction (think Alien or any other H.R. Giger-involved film.) But he was also influential in the development of fantasy. Even immediately so. Think Conan, preventing a wizard from summoning a nameless cosmic horror from the gulfs in the blackness between the stars. This is HPL’s influence, the idea that the demon being conjured is not in fact a demon in the traditional sense at all, but an unknowable entity from a cold, uncaring universe with no interest in man one way or another. I’d argue that philosophically the “grimdark” school owes something to Lovecraft. And you know the Cthulhu mythos has wormed its tentacles deep within popular culture when you can buy a Cthulhu plush doll.

Number 3. Glen Cook. With The Black Company Cook altered the landscape of fantasy. Writing with a gritty, modern prose style, Cook laid the groundwork for the so-called ‘grimdark’ school. Without Cook there is no Joe Abercrombie, no Steven Erikson, possibly no Game of Thrones (though that’s hardly G.R.R. Martin’s only claim to fame.)

Number 2. Robert E. Howard. Can there be any question? One of the big three (along with HPL and Clark Ashton Smith) Weird Tales contributors, Howard was the quintessential pulp writer, churning out Westerns, boxing tales, hard-boiled detective stories, horror, and fantasy. He created the Puritan swordsman Solomon Kane, the barbarian-turned-king Kull, and the barbarian-turned-king Conan. Every broadsword wielding, mighty-thewed barbarian to come down the pike since owes his existence to Conan. From Brak the Barbarian to Druss the Legend, Howard’s influence is undeniable.

Number 1. Come on, say it with me. J.R.R. Tolkien. You saw that coming, right? Tolkien’s influence is deep and indelible. Starting with The Iron Tower and The Sword of Shannara the bookstore shelves have overflowed with Tolkien imitators. You couldn’t find a paperback fantasy back cover blurb in the 1980’s that didn’t compare the author to Tolkien. When people like something they want more of it. And if you’re going to imitate something you could do worse than The Lord of the Rings.

There you have it, the top ten. What do you think? Did I miss an obvious candidate? Is my order out of whack? Who is in your top ten?

James Branch Cabell: an Appreciation.

James Branch Cabell: an Appreciation.

Did America ever produce a more elegant writer than James Branch Cabell?  Every phrase, every simile, every line of dialog is smooth, cultured.  His work displayed urbane wit on par with Oscar Wilde.

Here is a paragraph from what many consider Cabell’s magnum opus, “Jurgen.”

So they fought.  Now Jurgen was a very acceptable swordsman, but from the start he found in Heitman Michael his master.  Jurgen had never reckoned upon that and he considered it annoying.  If Heitman Michael perforated Jurgen the future would be altered, certainly, but not quite as Jurgen had decided it ought to be remodeled.  This unlooked for complication seemed preposterous; and Jurgen began to be irritated by the suspicion that he was getting himself killed for nothing.

I love the droll, tongue-in-cheek understatement.  And the man filled volumes with this cultured verve.  Fritz Leiber often achieved similar heights, though he did not imbue his work with the same sense of aristocratic archness.  Clark Ashton Smith could weave words and worlds with the same facility as Cabell, but while both men wrote from a position of world weary cynicism, Smith seldom displayed the same degree of sustained humor and when he did it tended toward the grim rather than the philosophical.

And Cabell was doubtless a philosopher.  How should a man live in an uncaring universe, and does it matter?  Cabell addressed these issues.  And few since Shakespeare have delved as insightfully into love, lust, and marriage.

Cabell – at one point a household name – has sadly fallen into obscurity.  It is a shame that such a master – once banned in Boston, a sign of quality if there ever was one – should no longer be widely read.

What say we try to reverse that?