Monday, May 29, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Cloud of Hate

One of the reasons I find pulp fantasies so congenial is that their preferred format, the short story, actively works against tales that are unnecessarily complex and overwrought. Indeed, many of my favorite fantasy stories are little more than situations, in which characters I like encounter a problem and then use their wits in order to overcome it. The stakes are straightforward and largely personal – nothing epic or world-changing, just a simple yarn in which cleverness and swordplay win the day for the protagonist (I don't say "hero," because the best pulp fantasy characters would probably blanch at being called such).

Of course, the truly great writers of pulp fantasy were capable of threading the needle, so to speak, by doing everything I just described above and nevertheless finding a way to invest it with greater significance. Fritz Leiber was such a writer and his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser demonstrate this again and again. Take, for example, "The Cloud of Hate," which first appeared in the May 1963 issue of Fantastic Stories of Imagination. On the one hand, it's just another story of the Twain on the make, but, on another, there are intimations of their adventures having a larger significance, even if they do not realize it.

"The Cloud of Hate" opens, not with the protagonists, but beneath the streets of Lankhmar, in the subterranean Temple of Hates, "where five thousand worshipers knelt and abased themselves and ecstatically pressed foreheads against the cold and gritty cobbles as the trance took hold and the human venom rose in them." 

The drumbeat was low. And save for snarls and mewlings, the inner pulsing was inaudible. Yet together they made a hellish vibration which threatened to shake the city and land of Lankhmar and the whole world of Nehwon.

Lankhmar had been at peace for many moons, and so the hates were greater. Tonight, furthermore, at a spot halfway across the city, Lankhmar's black-togaed nobility celebrated in merriment and feasting and twinkling dance the betrothal of their Overlord's daughter to the Prince of Ilthmar, and so the hates were redoubled.

This ritual within the Temple of Hates – what a wonderfully evocative name! – has a purpose beyond mere worship. Led by the Archpriest of the Hates, the worshipers have called forth "tendrils, which in another world might have been described as ectoplasmic" which "quickly multiplied, thickened, lengthened, and then coalesced into questing white serpentine shapes" and then billowed out of the temple to the streets above. Once there, this "billowing white" fog "in which a redness lurked" began to seek out victims among Lankhmar's populace.

It's at this point that the reader is introduced to Fafhrd and the Mouser, who are employed as watchmen during the aforementioned festivities in honor of the Overlord's daughter. The northerner states that "There'll be fog tonight. I smell it coming from the Hlal." His smaller companion is dubious of his prognostication, but Fafhrd insists "There's a taint in the fog tonight." Meanwhile, the fog summoned at the Temple of Hates makes its way into the Rats' Nest tavern, where it finds "the famed bravo Gnarlag." Touching him with a "fog-finger,"

Gnarlag's sneering look turned to one of pure hate, and the muscles of his forearm seemed to double in thickness as he rotated it more than a half turn.

Elsewhere, Mouser asks his friend about their lot in life, specifically why they are not dukes or emperors or demigods. Fafhrd explains that it's because they're "no man's man ... We go our own way, choosing our own adventures – and our own follies! Better freedom and a chilly road than a warm hearth and servitude." Mouser is skeptical of these explanations, pointing out how often they've chosen to serve others, but their philosophizing is interrupted by Fafhrd once again stating that something ill is afoot. His sword, he says, "hums a warning! ... The steel twangs softly in its sheath!" And once again, Mouser expresses disbelief.

The fog continues to make its way through Lankhmar, seeking out first "Gis the cutthroat" and then "the twin brothers Kreshmar and Skel, assassins and alleybashers by trade." In each case, the fog 

intoxicated them as surely as if it were a clouded white wine of murder and destruction, zestfully sluicing away all natural cautions and fears, promising an infinitude of thrilling and most profitable victims.

The "hate-enslaved" marched together in the fog "toward the quarter of the nobles and Glipkerio's rainbow-lanterned palace above the breakwater of the Inner Sea." Unfortunately for them, the Twain stand guard this night.

"The Cloud of Hate" is one of Leiber's shorter stories of Nehwon, but that works to its advantage in my opinion. Its brevity enables it to focus on what most matters, namely the inexorable movement of the otherworldly fog across the city of Lankhmar and the point when Fafhrd and the Mouser come into contact with it. This meeting is compelling first because the Mouser is initially so dismissive of the idea that there is anything odd happening and second because the reader has no idea what effect the fog might have on these comrades-in-arms. Would they, like all the others before them, become "hate-enslaved" or might they somehow escape this horrible fate? Leiber's answer to this and other questions is clever and offers insights into two of the most fascinating characters in fantasy – highly recommended.


  1. So, if the short story is the preferred format of pulp fantasy, should one-offs be the preferred format of pulp fantasy games?

    You can reuse your surviving PC from the last one-off adventure, but noticeable missing is everything that isn't adventure: downtime, inventory management, shopping, upkeep, establishing a stronghold, researching spells, et. al.

    1. It's a question I've pondered for a long time and about which I've come to no satisfactory – or at least consistent – answer.

    2. That feels like a false equivalency. What works well in fiction does not always translate to roleplaying intact, and vice versa - which is at least part of the reason "gaming fiction" is such a denigrated genre, for better or worse.

      In particular, one of those "between adventures" activities in gaming is character advancement. You could certainly leave that out of pulp-inspired games and remain faithful to the genre - neither of the Twain improve much in their careers, nor do most other protagonists. Even Conan changes from ragged thief to king without much actual improvement. But would that make for a better TTRPG experience?

      Going by the frequent critiques I see of game that lack obvious, rapid and significant advancement mechanics I don't think most folks would say so. And that's true even in genres where "leveling up" is not the norm, supers being a specific example. Other TTRPG mechanics might be more easily glossed over in the name of genre-recreation, but I don't think having essentially static power/skill levels for PCs will go over well even in loosely-linked "one-shots" where those characters recur.

    3. Anther counter-argument for trying to imitate fiction too closely - re-read the story and consider how maddening that ending would be for a GM? The PCs have been handed a great hook to go look into the mystery of the hate-cloud, and what do they do? They "Nope!" right on out of it with barely a flicker of interest. Makes a great read and stays entirely in character - but cripes, what a dreadful game that would be. That's the kind of thing that leads to GM's either quitting or becoming railroad conductors if you repeat it too often.

    4. Hi. I've long ago house-ruled the elimination of "training" in town to go up a level. XP awards and level increases could be quickly handled out-of-game, rather than something a PC does "in character." In this model, the PCs learn by doing, like Conan, Elric, et. al. And I would argue Conan is a different level in The Tower of the Elephant than when he gains the throne.

      Re: PCs avoiding obvious hooks: Well, that's always the trouble with allowing free will in a game! :D Imho, it's still better than railroading.

      One doesn't have to follow all aspects of pulp fantasy (another obvious example: that the protagonists almost always win!), to wonder if its format, a series of one-offs that focus primarily on derring-do (often joined in media res), is the way to go especially for a sword and sorcery game.

      Whereas protracted downtime, building a stronghold, raising a family, etc., might be a gaming format better suited to high fantasy, like Pendragon.

    5. I think an RPG campaign in the spirit of sword & sorcery can work very well as a sort of episodic, picaresque series of adventures. I'm starting to run Dungeon Crawl Classics games at my local game shop, and the idea is that each will be a one-shot but people can bring their characters from previous games. We will just gloss over the downtime in between adventures with a sort of "We next find our unlikely heroes trekking through the thickets of the western jungles in search of the lost pyramid of..."

      You lose something of the continuity of a closed campaign where players carefully choose and plan for their next adventures, but I think this sort of episodic campaign is very much in line with the source material.

  2. I've enjoyed this story since I first read it. It still seems vivid and has just the right level of sorcery to be adjacent to believable - a hate gas turning everyone berserk isn't that far into the realms of imagination and we're all aware of how religious or sporting crowds can turn into a frenzy.