Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Ill Met in Lankhmar" by Fritz Leiber

In the final story of Swords and Deviltry, we begin to see why Leiber had such a strong influence on D&D. Indeed, the second act, where our heroes drunkenly hatch a shockingly stupid plan and get neck-deep in trouble as a result, should sound familiar to any RPG player. We are all too delighted to see them narrowly escape, or at least it seems until the story reveals its tragic ending.

While the madcap drunken adventure of fools barely skating by a likely doom is the heart of many a D&D session, what impressed me the most was the first act of the story, where Fafhrd and Gray Mouser meet, get drunk, and introduce their respective girlfriends. Many details here, from the rickety staircase to the clipped dialogue, reminded me greatly of John Fante's Bandini novels (as well as his imitator, Charles Bukowski), depicting hard-edged blue-collar folks living as best they can.

Hardboiled tales depict an America that no longer exists, when the federal and corporate bureaucratic machinery did not entirely define human life, but instead was divided into hundreds or thousands of tiny fiefdoms. It is best defined, in my mind, in the story of New York. Corrupt in the extreme, but also perhaps more honest in its seediness, one can see glimpses of this in the histories of Tammany Hall, the Lower East Side from "Hell's Kitchen" to the punk clubs and art galleries of the early '80s until it was colonized into "East Village", and even the history of the pulps themselves.

"Ill Met in Lankhmar" was a forceful reminder that Leiber lived in such a world, growing up in Chicago in the 1910s and 1920s, the heyday of the Chicago Outfit. Although I have no way to prove it, I suspect these experiences informed Lankhmar, and should inform our understanding of pulp fantasy of the hardboiled type.
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