Monday, December 13, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Sadness of the Executioner

When I was in college, I had a music teacher who told the class about about another music teacher who felt that the strangest question anyone could be asked was whether he liked Beethoven's symphonies, because "everyone likes Beethoven's symphonies." For that reason, he suggested that, should anyone ever be asked that question, he should respond with mock sophistication by saying, "Yes, I like them, but only the odd numbered ones."

I feel increasingly like that music teacher when it comes to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, a feeling that's only grown since I took up reading those later stories that I somehow never read as a younger person. Taste being what it is, I suppose it's possible that someone, somewhere could read one of the Nehwon tales and not enjoy doing so, but I've never met one in real life. These adventures are near-perfect in achieving what Leiber set out to do and, while it's true that I do like some of them more than others, they're all impressively good.

A case in point is 1973's "The Sadness of the Executioner," which first appeared in Flashing Swords #1, an anthology edited by Lin Carter. A short story in every sense of the word -- it's only eight pages long in its original appearance -- "The Sadness of the Executioner" focuses on the character of Death and, like so many Leiber stories, opens in a fashion that makes it difficult to put down once begun:

There was a sky that was always gray.

There was a place that was always far away.

There was a being who was always sad.

Sitting on his dark-cushioned, modest throne in his low, rambling castle in the heart of the Shadowland, Death shook his pale head and pommeled a little his opalescent temples and slightly pursed his lips, which were the color of violet grapes with the silver bloom still on, above his slender figure armored in chain mail and his black belt, studded with silver skulls tarnished almost as black, from which hung his naked, irresistible sword.

He was a relatively minor death, only the Death of the World of Nehwon, but he had his problems. Tenscore flickering or flaring human lives to have their wicks pinched in the next twenty heartbeats. And although the heartbeats of Death resound like a leaden bell far underground and each has a little of eternity in it, yet they do finally pass. Only nineteen left now. And the Lords of Necessity, who outrank Death, still to be satisfied.

Let's see, thought Death with a vast coolness that yet had a tiny seething in it, one hundred sixty peasants and savages, twenty nomads, ten warriors, two beggars, a whore, a merchant, a priest, an aristocrat, a craftsman, a king, and two heroes. That would keep his books straight.

Much as I would love to say more about the specifics of the story after this point, I cannot. To do so would be to spoil what is, in my opinion, one of Leiber's finest and most subtle tales. What I can say is that the story's strength is not so much in its actual plot, though there's little question that there's great pleasure to be had in watching Death's scheming to meet his quota for the Lords of Necessity. For me, though, the appeal of "The Sadness of the Executioner" lies in the surprisingly affecting sketches of some of the individuals whom Death uses to fill out his cosmic balance sheet and the depiction of the lives they lead.

Leiber is generally thought of as a master portraitist and storyteller rather than a world-builder. This story suggests that perhaps that assessment is unfair, for, in the span of but a few pages, he reveals the breadth and depth of the world of Nehwon through some of its inhabitants as they face Death. I'm glad, in a way, that I only just read this story for the first time as an older person, because I doubt I'd have cared much for it as a young man. Death isn't something about which young people think much and, when they do, their thinking is rarely the stuff from which literature is made. But Leiber was over 60 years old when he wrote this story and it shows in the tale's combination of melancholy and gallows humor -- simultaneously mourning and laughing at man's response to his own mortality.

I highly recommend this story, which was later included in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser collection, Swords and Ice Magic, first published in 1977.


  1. Ah Flashing Swords! I loved this anthology, have treasured the 1st two books for years (even got Lin Carter to autograph the same edition shown above).

  2. Perhaps missing the point, but what an odd comment at the beginning! It's certainly possible to not like the 1st and 2nd symphonies, as they belong to the classicism rather than romanticism movement, and I've never been a fan of the classicist approach to music. The 3rds often considered the first truly "romanticist" piece of orchestral music, and it's a good one. The 4th is kinda forgettable.

    I mean, sure, the 5th and 9th are amongst the most famous pieces of classical music in existance, and the 6th, 7th and 9th have much to recommend them (I've always particularly been a fan of the 6th, perhaps in no small way because of Disney's Fantasia but it's certainly possible to not like Beethoven's symphonies, or perhaps to not like all of them, even if you appreciate classical music.

  3. Death isn't something about young people think much and, when they do, their thinking is rarely the stuff from which literature is made.

    I'm tempted to comment more copiously and eloquently, but I think I can sum up my reaction with just one word :):


  4. BTW, I recommend you don't begin reading The Knight and Knave of Swords with the expectation that Leiber can do no wrong with F & GM. There are a couple of real dogs in this his final collection, along with one of his best tales.

  5. One of these days I'm going to write a blog about great writers, adored by millions, that I really don't care for. On that list would be such notables as Glen Cook, Robert Jordan, and unfortunately, Fritz Leiber. Somewhere on one of my bookshelves is Swords and Deviltry. It sits there, nice and upright, one modest wrinkle blemishing its otherwise unblemished spine. Writing style... perhaps. Word usage...perhaps. There's something barring me from getting past the tenth page in any of the works of these gentlemen. When I put my finger on it, I'll write that blog.

    I never cared for Beethoven either.

  6. "The Sadness of the Executioner" was the first Leiber story I ever read. I was in my early teens at the time and it was a real eye opener for me. I've loved his stories ever since.

  7. @uwarr - I believe what's preventing you from enjoying Cook and Jordan is quite possibly that they suck. I have no explanation for your lack of appreciation of Leiber.

  8. Well, I have to say that much as I love F&GM the final book (The Knight and Knave of Swords) should have been burned by the publisher when the manuscript was handed in.

  9. Great story. I can forgive a fantasy or science fiction author for writing the occasional dud, since they're often contractually committed to write books long before they have an idea what to write. Which, of course, may lead them into creative cul-de-sacs where they lack inspiration, but the publisher is breathing down their necks.

  10. Great snippet, makes me want to read this asap.

    Personally, I thought about death much, much more when I was younger.

  11. FYI: In the Kindle edition of Swords and Ice Magic, "The Sadness of the Executioner" is the first story in the free sample portion of the book, and is complete in the free sample.

    So if you have the kindle app for your computer or your iPhone or other device, you could read this story free.

    (This is for the US kindle store. I've no idea what it will be like for non-US people)

  12. @dhowarth333 - dem's fighting words, about Cook at least, but you can have Jordan. :)

  13. @ Andrew - Yeah, I was being somewhat facetious. I've actually never read Cook, so I can't actually make a judgment, but I was "forced" to read the first three or so Wheel of Time books by Jordan and quit when I realized I wanted all of the major characters to die horribly.

    @ E.G.Palmer - Who's "Lieber"?

  14. I had that edition of Flashing Swords! Blast of nostalgia seeing it again...

    PS: have been re-reading Lieber for a while now. Can't believe I didn't remember how good they were.

  15. Well, I have to say that much as I love F&GM the final book (The Knight and Knave of Swords) should have been burned by the publisher when the manuscript was handed in.

    I'm just starting it, so I hope you're wrong, especially since the only reason I am reading it at all is that so many commenters told me that I was misled in thinking that Leiber's later works were lesser ones.

  16. Data-based follow-up (re: "Death isn't something about which young people think much"). Facebook just released an analysis of word categories & age/friend correlations here:

    If you look at "Word Categories and Age", the classes of "Anxiety or Fear/Death" are adjacent to each other, low on the chart, slightly pinkish in color, indicating slight negative correlation with age. That is: Writing about fear/death is actually more common for younger people.

  17. That is: Writing about fear/death is actually more common for younger people.

    There ya go. Shows what I know :)