WHEN I WAS 14 or so, in the late ’70s, I knew an Advanced Boy, a connoisseur of all that was cooler than whatever his classmates were listening to, smoking or reading. I was impressed with myself for having graduated from Tolkien to E. R. Eddison and Michael Moorcock. “Kid stuff,” said the Advanced Boy. “Try this.” He handed me a paperback copy of Vance’s “Eyes of the Overworld.” On the cover a giant lizardlike creature was tipping over a rowboat containing a man in regulation swords-and-sorcery attire and a buxom woman in regulation dishabille.
I can remember the exact lines on the second page that sank the hook in me for keeps, a passing exchange of dialogue between two hawkers of sorcerous curios at a bazaar:
“ ‘I can resolve your perplexity,’ said Fianosther. ‘Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.’
‘No need,’ said Cugel. ‘My interest was cursory.’ ”
The feral, angling politesse, the marriage of high-flown language to low motives, the way Cugel’s clipped phrases rounded off Fianosther’s ornate ones — I felt myself seized by a writer’s style in a way I had never experienced before. Vance didn’t even have to describe the “captive erb.” The phrase itself conjured up rows of teeth and the awful strength of a long, sinewy body surging up your leg.