Monday, August 17, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Howling Tower

The question of which works of literary fantasy most strongly evoke the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons (and, by extension, all fantasy roleplaying games) is a hotly contested one, with the works of Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien both being commonly cited and not without good reason. I cannot claim consistency in my own opinion of the matter; over the years, my stance has oscillated. Recently, though, I've grown more certain – or at least as certain as one can be about a question as vexed as this one – that Fritz Leiber's stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are likely the best candidates for this honor.

There are many reasons for why I believe this, but chief among them is that the tales of the Twain possess the right mix of elements. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are an unlikely duo: one a burly northern barbarian, the other a small, witty urbanite. Further, their primary goal is self-enrichment. In these two respects, they are not unlike most D&D player characters in my experience. Notable too, I think, is the way that Leiber writes the stories of the pair's adventures. They are equal parts dramatic and comedic. They neither take themselves too seriously nor devolve into farce. Instead, there is a balance that, again in my experience, comes closest to what it's like to play in a fantasy RPG campaign.

"The Howling Tower" is an early entry in the saga of these two brothers in arms, first appearing in the June 1941 issue of Unknown, edited by John W. Campbell. Unknown was the fantasy sister publication to the more well-known Astounding, for which Campbell also acted as editor. Looking at the cover, I am struck by two things. First, compared to the covers of, say, Astounding or Weird Tales, Unknown looks rather dull. There is no art to speak of, certainly not of the gory or titillating sort that was commonplace for the pulps of the era. Second, the featured authors are, with the exception of Theodore Sturgeon, largely forgotten today. That shouldn't be a surprise, given that, at the time, Leiber was still comparatively unknown (his first piece of published fiction having only appeared two years previously), but I think it's remarkable all the same. 

In the best tradition of pulp fantasy, "The Howling Tower" begins abruptly.

The sound was not loud, yet it seemed to fill the whole vast, darkening plain, and the palely luminous, hollow sky: a wailing and howling, so faint and monotonous that it might have been inaudible save for the pulsing rise and fall––an ancient, ominous sound that was somehow in harmony with the wild, sparsely vegetated landscape and the barbaric garb of the three men who sheltered in a little dip in the ground, lying close to a dying fire. 

The three men are Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and a local guide whom they have employed to help them traverse the wilderness. Fafhrd is convinced that the sound comes from wolves, whom he is eager to engage in combat, but the guide demurs,

"I have never seen a wolf in these parts, nor spoke with a man who killed one." He paused, then rambled off abstractedly. "They tell of an older tower somewhere out on the plain. They say the sound is strongest there."

The next morning, the guide has disappeared and Fafhrd surmises that he was a superstitious coward who fled rather than face the howling wolves. The Mouser is not so sure and counsels caution. His companion will have none of it and seems obsessed with the idea of taking on the "little wolves" that he remains convinced lurk nearby. Scanning the terrain, the Mouser spies "an irregularity in the horizon toward which they were tending." Squinting, he concludes that it "a tower of some sort."

The next morning, like the morning before, someone goes missing, in this case Fafhrd. The Gray Mouser awakens to find that his friend has seemingly wandered off during the night. He follows Fafhrd's footprints, which are "wide-spaced, made by a man running," across the countryside, They lead the Mouser, inevitably, toward the tower he'd spied on the horizon. The closer he gets to the tower, the louder the howling becomes. After carefully surveying the area near the tower, out of concern that perhaps Fafhrd was right after all about the presence of wolves, he concludes that the big swordsman must have somehow entered the tower, which

was not as high as he had thought; five stories or perhaps six. The narrow windows were irregularly placed, and did not give any clear idea of inner configuration. The stones were rudely hewn; seemed firmly set, save for those of the battlement, which had shifted somewhat. Almost facing him was that dark, uninformative rectangle of a doorway.

Naturally, the Mouser enters the doorway in search of his friend. What follows is a well executed ghost story, filled with mounting dread and barreling toward a terrific climax in the best tradition of sword and sorcery literature. Leiber's command of mood and emotion is put to very good effect in this story. "The Howling Tower" is very short in length and I think its brevity contributes greatly to its power. Leiber is concise and to the point, which lends an urgency to the Mouser's quest to locate Fafhrd and save him from whatever – or whoever – it is that dwells within the eponymous tower. It's great stuff, maybe not Leiber's best, but certainly memorable and well worth a read.

"The Howling Tower" was later collected, along with nine other short stories (most notably "Bazaar of the Bizarre"), in Swords Against Death in 1970. 

1 comment:

  1. good review or should I say a good reminder of the " key " influences of classic D&D. Hope to see more of this to come.