Monday, November 1, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Bazaar of the Bizarre

Gamers of a certain vintage are sure to remember the title "Bazaar of the Bizarre" in association with irregular feature in Dragon that presented new magic items for use with Dungeons & Dragons. The title was itself an homage to a short story by Fritz Leiber that first appeared in the August 1963 issue of Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, whose cover image depicts a scene from this tale of Lankhmar, which begins with the arrival of the Gray Mouser.
The Gray Mouser slipped into the Plaza at the Fountain end as silently as if he had come to slit a throat or spy on the spies of the Overlord. His ratskin mocassins were soundless. His sword Scalpel in its mouseskin sheath did not swish ever so faintly against either his tunic or cloak, both of gray silk curiously coarse of weave. The glances he shot about him from under his gray silk hood half thrown back were freighted with menace and a freezing sense of superiority.

Inwardly, the Mouser was feeling very much like a schoolboy -- a schoolboy in dread of rebuke and a crushing assignment of homework. For in the Mouser's pouch of ratskin was a note scrawled in dark brown squid-ink on silvery fish-skin by Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, inviting Mouser to be at this spot at this time.
Meanwhile, the Mouser's boon companion, Fafhrd, found himself, as he so often did, in a parallel predicament, bidden by his own supernatural tutor, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, to seek out the same location -- the Plaza of Dark Delights. The Plaza is home to all manner of strange and debauched shops and entertainments:
For there the vendors of drugs and the peddlers of curiosa and the hawkers of assignations light their stalls and crouching places with foxfire, glowworms, and fire-pots with tiny single windows, and they conduct their business almost as silently as the stars conduct theirs.

There are plenty of raucous spots a-glare with torches in nocturnal Lankhmar, but by immemorial tradition soft whispers and a pleasant dimness are the rule in the Plaza of Dark Delights.
Recently, a new shop has opened up in the Plaza, one whose peculiarly dressed proprietor dares to "defil[e] the Dark Plaza with glare." The Mouser begins to think that perhaps it is this that Sheelba has sent him to investigate, a fact confirmed separately by Fafhrd as not only Sheelba but Ningauble too appear to him in the shadows, a fact that worries him:
Moreover that those two bitter wizardly rivals would have joined forces, that they should apparently be operating together in amity ... Something of great note must be afoot! There was no doubting that.
The two wizards explain to the red-headed northerner that beings known as "the Devourers" threaten Lankhmar and that it is his task to defeat them.
"The Devourers are the most accomplished merchants in all the many universes -- so accomplished, indeed, that they sell only trash. There is a deep necessity in this, for the Devourers must occupy all their cunning in perfecting methods of selling and so have not an instant to spare in considering the worth of what they sell. Indeed, they dare not concern themselves with such matters for a moment, for fear of losing their golden touch -- and yet such are their skills that their wares are utterly irresistible, indeed the finest wares in all the many universes -- if you follow me?"
The two wizards bid Fafhrd to assist them ousting the Devourers from Lankhmar before they ensnare its population into buying trash in exchange for "good money and even finer things," in effect stripping the City of the Black Togas -- and eventually all of Nehwon -- of its valuable items. Fafhrd initially has no interest in such a plan, at which point Sheelba plays on the northerner's friendship with the Gray Mouser.
"It was intended that you have a comrade in this quest, a fellow soldier against noisome evil -- to wit, the Gray Mouser. But unfortunately he came early to his appointment with my colleague here and was enticed into the shop of the Devourers and is doubtless now deep in their snares, if not already extinct. So you can see that we do take thought for your welfare and have no wish to overburden you with solo quests."
For the sake of "that poor little gray fool," Fafhrd undertakes the alien wizards' mission and, with that, one of Leiber's most memorable stories of the Twain kicks into high gear.

I'm finding that, as I get older, I enjoy Leiber's writing, particularly his early stories of Lankhmar, better than I did as a younger man. There's a delightful world weariness and cynicism, shot through with playfulness, that's very attractive to me. "Bizarre of the Bizarre" is a terrific romp, one that, I think, nicely showcases Lankhmar and its most famous denizens. Re-reading it reminded me of just how much D&D owes to Leiber for many of its most basic conceptions. It's a pity that he's not more widely read and lauded, even within the RPG community, for, as this story reveals, Fritz Leiber had a powerful influence on the founders of our hobby.

21 comments:

  1. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are the epitome of adventure, exploration and the raucous lifestyle that goes along with it all.

    They were, and still are my favorite fantasy heroes, by far.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love Lieber! It's my second favourite author (after Howard.) To day, my AD&D Lankhmar campaign has been one of the most successful I ever had.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @ Jeff

    Agreed.

    The world they exist in is ripe for adventure as well, and Lankhmar is the be-all end-all of fantasy cities.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oddly enough, White Wolf put out a three-volume set of the Fafhrd and Mouser stories a few years ago.

    Those are the volumes I have. I first encountered the stories by picking up an issue of Marvel's 1990's Lankhmar comic on a whim in a Half Price Books, just because it had Mike Mignola art.

    I found myself entranced by the setting, and the characters and -- finding further issues of the comic too difficult or expensive to acquire -- I went back to the original stories via the White Wolf collections.

    I think they may be my favourite fantasy books, as Leiber's writing is a joy to read, never slacking, always imaginative, and often funny.

    Dark Horse put out a collection of the Marvel series a couple of years ago, so I was finally able to catch up. I'd recommend the adaptations, by the way, as they're quite true to the original stories, and Mignola does a great job of bringing the characters and setting to life. It's no accident, I'm sure, that White Wolf brought him in to do the covers and chapter headings for their printings of the original stories.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think this also had an effect on Tekumel, as the company of Gijj, based in the city of Dlash in Livyanu (I think) is basically a large inter-planar trading business, where many things may be had for the right price, and usually that's not money.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "Gamers of a certain vintage..."

    I believe the Paizo version of Dragon included Bazaar of the Bizarre articles, though I could be mistaken.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I only got to read Lieber recently, but it's very, very D&D.

    At one point Fafhrd is under a curse, where any girl he kisses will turn into a pig (for a little while). The Grey Mouser, of course, tries to work out a way to profit from this.

    If that's not Player Character behavior, I don't know what is.

    ReplyDelete
  8. If it's a pity that Leiber isn't more widely read, you should take some solace from the fact that I never would have picked him up without stumbling across your blog a while back. I'm now loaning the books out to friends as fast as I can finish them.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Even with a gigantic queue of classic sword & sorcery stories that I still need to read, I still find time to re-read the stories of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser on a regular basis. When I read about Lankhmar I feel like I am coming home.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think one of the reasons more people don't read him is the lack of availability. When I first heard of him (which was sometime before 4e came out. I'm a youngin.), it was difficult to find him in print.

    Even today, I've never seen the Dark Horse editions in a book store, and the price for them is rather high for the page count. Still, it is Leiber, and I'll take what I can get.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The stories are in print via the Fantasy Masterworks range, which may be UK only. I can't seem to find them on amazon.com anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  12. . As usual, I feel I have to point out that the correct spellings of the names are "Gray" Mouser and "Leiber".

    The books are available from Dark Horse, though the quality of these volumes is low. White Wolf put out a four (not three) volume hardcover edition, as well as 4 trade paperbacks which can still be had on amazon or eBay for relatively cheap.

    ReplyDelete
  13. These stories are absolute classics, and this is truly a gem among them.

    A little known fact is that Leiber acted in the weird movie "Equinox" as Dr. Waterman (sometimes as Watermann).

    ReplyDelete
  14. The current, online version of Dragon still runs Bazaar of the Bizarre articles, albeit for 4th edition.

    Steve

    ReplyDelete
  15. One of my favorite lines ever comes from this story (semi-spoiler):

    "Girls are for dessert, and unfortunaetly, Spiders, too."

    :)

    ReplyDelete
  16. I think this also had an effect on Tekumel, as the company of Gijj, based in the city of Dlash in Livyanu (I think) is basically a large inter-planar trading business, where many things may be had for the right price, and usually that's not money.

    You may well be right about that. It's intimated in several places, as I recall, that Gijj and Sons are not only not quite what they appear to be, but also that their actual motives are somewhat sinister, or at least not conventionally altruistic.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I believe the Paizo version of Dragon included Bazaar of the Bizarre articles, though I could be mistaken.

    You're probably correct. I stopped reading Dragon when Reagan was still president, so my knowledge of its regular features and columns after about 1987 or so is minimal at best. I'd simply assumed it hadn't continued on into the WotC era, but I'm likely mistaken.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Interestingly, Mike Mearls and Dave Noonan brought up Leiber on a D&D podcast in the latter days of 3.5. I think it was about the book Cityscape, but I'm not 100% certain. They spoke of him with some reverence, and thats when I became aware that he wasn't widely available.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Apparently the Dragon column was renamed, but there was enough outcry that it got changed back. I'd like to think the outcry was due, not to fear of change, but a fondness for Leiber.

    ReplyDelete
  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Funny coincidence, I just re-read this story a few weeks ago, after a gap of about fifteen years since last reading the stories. It really hit me how much of D&D comes from this pair and their adventures. We owe them quite a bit, and the stories are still very readable (not always the case with older literature).

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.