Swords in the Mist Re-Read: “The Cloud of Hate”
Bill Ward and I are reading another collection of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, Swords in the Mist. This week we’re starting with the first story in the collection, “The Cloud of Hate.” We hope you’ll grab a copy and join in.
Howard: Maybe this isn’t quite top drawer Lankhmar, but it’s darned close. This is a strong start to the collection. If Leiber wasn’t in competition with the very best of his own writing, I’d number this as one of the better sword-and-sorcery tales I’ve ever read.
Bill: Well, that’s always the thing, isn’t it? I don’t hesitate to call Leiber or (our last read-along subject for those of you who may not know) Dunsany geniuses, but when you’ve got to analyze their work they are going to face some tough comparisons — with themselves. That said, this is a great little gem, a compact story full of beautiful language, rich and inventive details, and fun banter between our heroes.
Howard: Oddly enough, I think the best scenes in the story are between all the other characters rather than Fafhrd and the Mouser themselves. Leiber does a fantastic job growing the dread of the evil cloud, starting with his description of the underground temple where the thing is generated. I’ve no idea how many times I ran role-playing games after this where my players walked into similar temples with oddly spaced columns.
Bill: That’s great! It’s amazing how a little detail like that can inspire a person. They do just seem to spark something in the imagination. And there is something much more sinister about oddly-spaced columns, it’s immediately alien.
I think it’s safe to say at this point that one of the common threads of the Lankhmar stories is possession — many times we’ve seen our heroes or others lose control of themselves and follow the compulsion of another. The great imagery of this hate fog rising up collectively out of an evil cult is a new spin, our heroes being immune to it for a change is a nice look at just how far above some of the other more extraordinary denizens of Lankhmar they stand. Indeed, one of my favorite things about the story is how each of our heroes rejects the cloud — Fafhrd isn’t really a hateful person and the Mouser is so self-absorbed he just can’t bear not to be the “source of his own evil.”
Howard: I missed that “possession” angle. That’s a really good observation. I wonder if me reading and re-reading these stories isn’t one of the reasons I’ve had to fight possession as a theme in my own fiction. It cropped up once in a major way and I’ve tried not to revisit it.
The rejection of the cloud by our heroes may be the single best moment in the tale; it’s telling about who they really are.
Bill: For me, these little character moments are the things I really delight in, and between the friendly bickering around the brazier, and the fight where Mouser exhibits his knowledge of the underworld to his advantage and Fafhrd shows a talent for tactical improvisation, we get those little moments in spades.
Howard: Oh yeah, the fight is brilliant. Even though I knew they were going to get through it okay, there’s so much dread built up as the cloud recruits its minions that it was thrilling to see how they fought their way to the end. And the moment when the cloud reaches for the discarded weapons was still creepy as hell, even though I remembered it was going to happen.
Next week, one of the very best of all the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales, “Lean Times in Lankhmar.” Hope to see you here!