Monday, February 21, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Price of Pain-Ease

Starting in 1968, Ace Books began collecting Fritz Leiber's stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, many of which had previously been published in various periodicals starting in the late 1930s, into a series of paperbacks. In addition, Leiber penned several new short stories intended to fill in the gaps in the chronology of the Twain's lives, two of which appear in the collection Swords Against Death (1970)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the captious nature of fantasy fans – or indeed fans of any sort – not all of these new tales have been well received. Some of the complaints focus on the content of the additions, which is a little less rollicking than earlier entries in the series, while others focus on their style, which is wordier. Both these complaints have merit, I think, which is why I can't wholly dismiss them as just the cantankerous grumblings of dyspeptic nerds. 

Yet, at least in the case of "The Price of Pain-Ease," these complaints sell the story short. Certainly, this story feels different from its predecessors, but, rather than detract from its place within the canon of Nehwon, I think that its differences strengthen it. Take, for example, the opening of the story:

The big barbarian Fafhrd, outcast of the World of Nehwon's Cold Waste and forever a foreigner in the land and city of Lankhmar, Nehwon's most notable area, and the small but deadly swordsman the Gray Mouser, a state-less person even in careless, unbureaucratic Nehwon, and man without a country (that he knew of), were fast friends and comrades from the moment they met in Lankhmar City near the intersection of Gold and Cash Streets. But they never shared a home. 

Overly fastidious devotees of Leiber's prose might deem the above in stark contrast with the fast-moving, buoyant tenor of his earlier works. There's no doubt that his style has changed between the publication of "Two Sought Adventure" in 1939 and 1970, but I don't see that as in any way diminishing the yarn he is about to spin, which is every bit as delightfully idiosyncratic – and, above all, human – as any other in the annals of Lankhmar. 

The Twain are still mourning the deaths of "their first and only true loves – Fafhrd's Vlana and the Mouser's Ivrian." who had been "foully murdered" in "Ill Met in Lankhmar" and this dark fact hangs like a cloud over the entire story. Drunk after an evening's revels at the Golden Lamprey inn, the friends stumble upon the little estate of Duke Danius, a local aristocrat presently away from the city.

It rested on six short cedar posts which in turn rested on flat rock. Nothing then would do but rush to Wall Street and the Marsh Gate, hire a brawny two-score of the inevitable nightlong idlers there with a silver coin and a big drink apiece and promise of a gold coin and bigger drink to come, lead them to Danius's dark abode, pick the iron gate-lock, lead them warily in, order them to heave up the garden house and carry it out – providentially without any great creakings and with no guards or watchmen appearing.

That's right: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, with the help of forty men, steal an entire house and transport it to an empty lot behind the Silver Eel tavern. It's a remarkable feat of thievery, even for the greatest thieves in all of Lankhmar, but it's only the beginning of the story. The pair then settle down to living in the Duke's garden home, which turns out to have been the nobleman's love nest, filled as it is with two thick-carpeted bedrooms and whose walls are festooned with erotic murals. It also holds a library of similarly "stimulating" books, which attracts Fafhrd's attention.

The theft was highly successful, they had no trouble from Lankhmar's brown-cuirassed and generally lazy guardsmen, no trouble from Duke Danius – if he hired house-spies, they botched their too-easy job. And for several days the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd were happy in their new domicile, eating and drinking up Danius's fine provender, making a quick run to the Eel for extra wine, the Mouser taking two or three perfumed, soapy, oily, slow baths a day, Fafhrd going every two days to the nearest steam-bath and putting in a lot of time on the books, sharpening his already considerable knowledge of High Lankhmarese, Ilthmarish, and Quarmallian.

Later, Fafhrd discovers a second library, whose books dealt "with nothing but death … at complete variance with the other supremely erotic volumes." The northerner then devotes himself as fervently to these tomes as he had to the more prurient ones he'd found earlier. The two comrades try to enjoy themselves and their stolen home.

However, they didn't invite any girls to their charming new home and perhaps for a very good reason, because after half a moon or so the ghost of slim Ivrian began to appear to the Mouser and the ghost of tall Vlana to Fafhrd, both spirits perhaps raised from their remaining mineral dust around-about, and even plastered on the outer walls. The girl-ghosts never spoke, even in the faintest whisper, they never touched, even so much as by the brush of a single hair; Fafhrd never spoke to Vlana to the Mouser, nor the Mouser to Fafhrd of Ivrian. The two girls were invariably invisible, inaudible, intangible, yet they were there.

After just a few days of these apparitions, both Fafhrd and the Mouser "were rapidly going mad" This compels the pair to seek out – secretly and separately from one another – the aid of "witches, witch doctors, astrologers, wizards, necromancers, fortune tellers, reputable physicians, priests even, seeking a cure for their ills … yet finding none." The apparitions continue and, one night, the Mouser flees from the wraith of Ivrian and into Fafhrd's room, which he finds empty. 

Worried, the Mouser heads over to the Silver Eel, where he asks the houseboy there if he'd seen his friend. "Yes," he replies. "He rode off at dawn on a big white horse." But Fafhrd doesn't own a horse. "It was the biggest horse I've ever seen. It had a brown saddle and harness, studded with gold." It's then that the thief notices "a huge jet-black horse with black saddle and harness, studded with silver." Throwing caution to the wind, he approaches the horses, mounts it, allowing it to carry him into the unknown, in the belief that it would lead him to Fafhrd – and perhaps an end to the apparitions that so trouble his sleep and his spirit.

I'm a sucker for moody, melancholic tales and "The Price of Pain-Ease" is very much that sort of story, dealing as it does with the Twain's attempts to get over the deaths of their lovers, deaths for which they blame themselves. The tale's moodiness unquestionably sets it apart from earlier entries in the series and that might not make it to everyone's taste. At the same time, there is plenty of humor – some of it dark – action, and camaraderie, all of which I strongly associate with Leiber's Nehwon works. This very much is a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, but it's one written by an older, more experienced Leiber and both in content and style it shows – not that I mind in the slightest.


  1. The intro to this story has had a tremendous effect on how I portray Lankhmar when my RQ players stumble into it. Cash, Gold, and Wall streets and the Marsh Gate, FORTY brawny idlers who will help you steal a bloody HOUSE and then move it through the shadowed streets of the greatest city in their world, unnoticed...I can make the City of Seven Score Thousand Smokes live for my players. Anyone interested in S&S should read the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories at least once. Fritz Leiber was one of the best and a master of dialogue.

    Excellent post.

  2. Count me in as someone who prefers the style of early Lieber by a fair margin. His prose becomes pretty unwieldy and almost self-congratulatory over time even if I agree that the content is still great.

    The same thing happened to Vance frankly - you can really tell the difference between the early and later writings in the Dying Earth collection.

    1. While Vance's style never palled on me as it evolved, I'm inclined to agree about Leiber. His earlier work is much more tightly written, and I really wonder how much of that should be credited to his editors. I mean, look at this:

      "The big barbarian Fafhrd, outcast of the World of Nehwon's Cold Waste and forever a foreigner in the land and city of Lankhmar, Nehwon's most notable area, and the small but deadly swordsman the Gray Mouser, a state-less person even in careless, unbureaucratic Nehwon, and man without a country (that he knew of), were fast friends and comrades from the moment they met in Lankhmar City near the intersection of Gold and Cash Streets."

      What editor let that mess go through as a single sentence? Never would have happened in the pulp days. He managed to use "Nehwon" three times and "Lankhmar" twice. It's just plain awkward, not a demonstration of a more skilled writer at all.

      Reminds me quite a lot of David Weber. The guy's writing was fine as long as his editors kept him on a short leash. Once he got big enough (and the publishing industry changed enough) for his work to go to press largely unaltered, we suddenly started getting 1300 page books with entire chapter dedicated to clumsy socio-political exposition, sometimes badly disguised as dialog, sometimes just thrown at the reader bare bones. Some writers just fall apart without the right kinds of editing, and I'd contend both Weber and Leiber fall into that category.

  3. A more mature Mr. Leiber could be expected to draw upon life experiences that a younger Fritz might lack. "Swords Against Death" - just how is a swordsman supposed to deal with "death"? Most of us learn from our own experience, but the truly fortunate may read authors such as Fritz Leiber.

  4. one of my favorites, possibly my favorite fantasy short story ever. steal a HOUSE, not just squatting, but MOVING IT, is epic metal awesome, kids!

    1. in one of the dortmunder novels, the thieves steal a bank. I always wondered if there was a link

  5. also, not having to publish in the pulps gives him a lot more leeway to expand on ideas. Age is also a factor, I notice a lot of my older authors meandering more. I generally like it, they are old pros, but it is noticeable. One mystery writer I read mentioned it, and now I cannot unsee it.

  6. I remember this as one of the better of the later stories. I do prefer his earlier stories but this one is not bad.