There wasn't a whole lot going on in the 1940s for sword-and-sorcery. You had Skull Face and Others
by Arkham House, published in 1946, Unknown
published 4-5 Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. There were a few other exceptions. But in general it was like someone pressed the pause button on the subgenre after the creative outburst of Weird Tales
Then came Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, published by Hillman Periodicals in 1950. Boom. I want
to talk about one of my favorites from that fine collection, “Liane the Wayfarer.”
Apparently this story also appeared in the December 1950 issue of Worlds Beyond magazine, though the details of this are sketchy.
The main character Liane is a genuine prick—S&S through and through. Mercenary, but
much worse than the selfish Cugel. He casually kills a merchant, and is put out
that the man dared to splash blood on his sandals. The nerve! He’s ready to rape a golden haired “witch” named Lith after spying on her as she bathes in a stream. She barely manages to fend off his amorous advances with the threat of ensorcelled knives. Liane is possessed of a
“manifest will and power” and so believes that gives him the right to take her.
But Lith is cunning. The witch is in possession of a beautiful tapestry depicting an idyllic valley, but it's ripped
in half. The other half is with a being called Chun the Unavoidable. Lith tells Liane he can have her, if he gets the
other half of the tapestry.
Liane is cocksure of his success, as he has in his possession a magic ring, which he found while digging a pit for the body of murdered merchant. When worn the ring transports him to an alternate plane of existence, rendering him invisible to the eye or perhaps whisking him away from this plane entirely. It works like a D&D bag of holding.
This is Vance, a master stylist, so the writing of course is exquisite. Describing the Dying Earth, Vance writes of “the red sun, drifting across
the universe like an old man creeping to his death bed.” Vance does a brilliant job building up the suspense, dropping clues about Chun and steadily increasing the menace (and in turn the unease in the reader). For example, Liane mentions Chun to a group of wizards in an inn. They slink off, avoiding conversation. Liane finds a series of corpses, some warriors in armor, brave men, but all
without eyes, staring up at the sky with empty sockets.
But he presses on. Liane encounters an old man trying to warn him off from
Chun. Liane casually kills him by dropping a rock on his head. Did I mention he's an absolute bastard?
Liane approaches Chun's lair, and you can feel the quiet and the dull thudding of Liane’s
heart as he eyes the tapestry. This is so well done (fiction writers take note, and read this scene).
Then comes the ending, which is a terrible shock. “Behind came Chun” repeated, inevitable, “running like a
dog.” And the end is simply chilling, utterly disturbing. Lith gets another thread in her tapestry.
One final detail about "Liane the Wayfarer"--it was converted into a brief D&D scenario. Does anyone remember the RPG magazine White Dwarf? White Dwarf no. 48 (October 1984, which I have, and bought fresh off the newsstand from a local game store, and you cannot have) contained the mini-module "Chun the Unavoidable" of course based on this story. The accompanying artwork was simple but effective, depicting Chun as a creepy ape-like being with a skull face and a cloak made of human eyeballs.