Swords in the Mist Re-Read: “The Cloud of Hate”

Swords_in_the_MistBill 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.

mist6Howard: 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.

fritz3Howard: 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.”

mist4Howard: 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!


5 Comments on “Swords in the Mist Re-Read: “The Cloud of Hate”

  1. It’s interesting that Howard thinks the best scenes are the ones that involve the other characters rather than Fafhrd and the Mouser, because I had the opposite response. It was the banter that really opened these characters up and let me see who they are within the story. While we’ve seen these attitudes in the men before, Leiber does an outstanding job of defining them through their words. I thought Fafhrd’s development was perhaps the strongest, with the devil-may-care, live in the moment attitude he displays. The Mouser’s defining moment, to me at least, was when he was described as having to be the source of his own evil.

    Your comments on the fight are spot on. It’s a great scene that really stands out.

    Looking forward to the next story, although I’m not sure I can fit it in before I head out to Robert E. Howard Days in Cross Plains.

    • Hi Keith,

      First, I’m jealous about your trip. I’ve always wanted to get to Robert E.Howard Days. Maybe one of these years…

      It’s not that I disliked the banter between Fafhrd and the Mouser, it’s that it felt just a little labored this time, especially in comparison to some of the other interactions from other tales. Almost it seemed like Leiber was trying to shoehorn in their location, attitudes, and situation under the guise of gentle conversation. I thought it worked pretty well, but perhaps was a little rough. But then maybe I’m overthinking it. Real people DO talk like that sometimes. I’m reminded of the lyrics to George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Sometimes I listen to the lyrics and think that some of them lack depth and that Harrison just took the easiest line (the whole weeping/sweeping bit, amongst others) and then sometimes I think that the simplicity implies greater depth. I can never truly decide, except that I think it’s both one of Harrison’s and the Beatles’ best songs. And that’s saying a lot.

  2. I agree that the greatest moment is why they both reject the cloud. Although this has never been one of my favorite stories, I enjoy it every time I read it, perhaps for different reasons. Leiber does create a wonderful sense of dread and it is in some ways one of his grimmest stories, in the descriptions of killings (something he doesn’t usually dwell on, unless there is good reason).

    If this were done as a contemporary fantasy story, maybe it would be changed to “The Cloud of Apathy,” and everyone overcome by it would wander around in the fog staring at their little handheld mobile devices (I guess that’s what zombies are).

  3. Howard, I get where you’re coming from. I guess my preference for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in this story is that I didn’t get a feel for the supporting characters being fully fleshed. They seemed to be to be the fantasy equivalent of red shirts.

    And you really ought to try to make it down to Cross Plains some time. You’ll really enjoy the experience.

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