Crom Your Enthusiasm (4)

By: David Smay
August 6, 2015

Sword of Sorcery #2 (February 1973), featuring Denny O'Neil and Howard Chaykin's adaptation of Fritz Leiber's Thieves' House
Sword of Sorcery #2 (February 1973), featuring Denny O’Neil and Howard Chaykin’s adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s Thieves’ House

One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite fantasy novels from the Thirties (1934–43). Enjoy!

THIEVES’ HOUSE | FRITZ LEIBER | 1943

In the novella Thieves’ House, first published in Unknown, Fritz Leiber established the city of Lankhmar (“that primal sink of iniquity”) as the most enticing supporting character in his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. Stealing only from the best of Weird Tales, Leiber filched Clark Ashton Smith’s louche, lapidary style, lifted Lovecraft’s creepy dread, and ran off with Robert E. Howard’s bravado — to create something wholly his own.

Part of the pleasure of Thieves’ House comes from Leiber skipping past the plot elements that would define, say, a Conan story and getting right to the jibes, betrayal, and horror that interest him. Leiber delights in concussing Fafhrd several times for farcical effect, then interrupts Mouser’s cunning plan of putty-faced, skull-ventriloquizing jiggery-pokery with a sharp hairpin. As a teenager, Leiber toured with his parents’ Shakespeare company; you feel that training in his mix of high action and low humor, cynical wordplay and sumptuous language. Leiber leads us through a merry hell of the vengeful dead, duplicitous wenches, and all the death-traps the Thieves’ Guild can muster… then circles back to the Silver Eel, where so many Fafhrd and Mouser stories conclude with spiced wine and tavern girls. Also: Nobody writes better swordfights than Leiber, himself a master fencer.

Leiber’s sophistication and wit easily wring a grin out of a wry aside (“…the Street of Thinkers — called by theologians Atheist’s Avenue…”), not to mention Faf and the Mouser’s inexhaustible bantering, bickering, and philosophizing. He mixes sly bawdry with sharp satire, broad comedy with black humor. Whenever Game of Thrones pairs off an odd couple of characters who parry insults you’re seeing Leiber’s hand, and whenever you roll a 12-sided die you’re stepping into the No When of Leiber’s world, Nehwon. Gary Gygax, GRRM, and other Leiber fans will tell you that there’s no greater company than the Grey Mouser and Fafhrd.

PS: Read the comic-book version here.

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CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): Erik Davis on Jack Williamson’s DARKER THAN YOU THINK | Sara Ryan on T.H. White’s THE SWORD IN THE STONE | Mark Kingwell on C.S. Lewis’s OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | David Smay on Fritz Leiber’s THIEVES’ HOUSE | Natalie Zutter on Robert E. Howard’s QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | James Parker on J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT | Adrienne Crew on Dion Fortune’s THE SEA PRIESTESS | Gabriel Boyer on Clark Ashton Smith’s ZOTHIQUE stories | John Hilgart on H.P. Lovecraft’s THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD | Barbara Bogaev on William Sloane’s TO WALK THE NIGHT | Rob Wringham on Flann O’Brien’s THE THIRD POLICEMAN | Dan Fox on Hergé’s THE SEVEN CRYSTAL BALLS | Flourish Klink on C.S. Lewis’s PERELANDRA | Tor Aarestad on L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s THE ROARING TRUMPET | Anthony Miller on H.P. Lovecraft’s THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH | Suzanne Fischer on E.R. Eddison’s MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES | Molly Sauter on Herbert Read’s THE GREEN CHILD | Diana Leto on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s TARZAN AND THE LION MAN | Joshua Glenn on Robert E. Howard’s THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON | Andrew Hultkrans on H.P. Lovecraft’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS | Lynn Peril on Fritz Leiber’s CONJURE WIFE | Gordon Dahlquist on H.P. Lovecraft’s THE SHADOW OUT OF TIME | Adam McGovern on C.L. Moore’s JIREL OF JOIRY stories | Tom Nealon on Fritz Leiber’s TWO SOUGHT ADVENTURE | John Holbo on Robert E. Howard’s CONAN MYTHOS.

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KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | GILL SANS | AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | SHE’S NOT THERE | FAUX DEVANAGARI | FUTURA | JENSON’S ROMAN | SAVANNAH SIGN | TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | KUMON WORKSHEET | ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | DIPLOMA REGULAR | SCREAM QUEEN | CHICAGO | CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | SHATTER | COMIC SANS | WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | GOTHAM.

HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | “That’s the Joint” | “Freedom” | “Rapture” | “The New Rap Language” | “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | “Making Cash Money” | “The Message” | “Pak Jam” | “Buffalo Gals” | “Ya Mama” | “No Sell Out” | “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | “Rockit” | “The Coldest Rap” | “The Dream Team is in the House” | The Lockers.

KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| The joke is on Kirk | Kirk vs. Decker | Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Captain Camelot | Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | Federation exceptionalism | Wizard fight | A million things you can’t have | Debating in a vacuum | Klingon diplomacy | “We… the PEOPLE” | Brinksmanship on the brink | Captain Smirk | Sisko meets Kirk | Noninterference policy | Kirk’s countdown | Kirk’s ghost | Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | How Spock wins

KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | KAMANDI | MACHINE MAN | SANDMAN | THE X-MEN | THE FANTASTIC FOUR | TALES TO ASTONISH | YOUNG LOVE | STRANGE TALES | MISTER MIRACLE | BLACK PANTHER | THOR | JIMMY OLSEN | DEVIL DINOSAUR | THE AVENGERS | TALES OF SUSPENSE | THE NEW GODS | REAL CLUE | THE FOREVER PEOPLE | JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

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What do you think?

  1. You definitely hit on all the things I love about Leiber. He, in his Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, both manages to be lighter and darker than most fantasy. And it seems to come so easy!

    Mentioning Game of Thrones and seeing television networks scrambling for some fantasy books to adapt to ape its success, I think Leiber’s stuff would do well. Just find two charming leads with good chemistry, loosely adapt the books and the rest seems like it would flow together easily enough.

  2. Excellent! Just what I loved about these books – all the smart assery, fighting and calamity with none of the wearisome fretting and wandering.

  3. You have such an amazing ability to create a stunning visual playground through your words. Plus I love the way you placed Leiber within the realm of Lovecraft, Smith and even Shakespeare, where he so rightly belongs. Excellent piece!

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