I'll admit it: Sometimes I'm a bad book reviewer. In Picked Up Pieces, literary icon John Updike urged critics to not let their personal ideologies or prior opinions color their comments on a title. I try to do this, I really do. But occasionally I catch myself importing prejudices before I've even finished a novel. Consider what happened when I picked up Fritz Leiber's supernatural thriller Our Lady of Darkness. Lieber has a reputation as a godfather of speculative fiction of all stripes, from down-and-dirty fantasy to creepy horror. Buoyed by such accolades, I made the critical mistake of approaching Lady with a distinctly partial anticipation.
Franz Westen has only just begun to emerge from the alcoholic fog into which he plunged after a brain tumor felled his wife. An author of weird fiction, he dwells in an old San Francisco hotel, a once grand structure now supplanted by ever larger towers that scrape the sky. He's made friends with a few folks who live in the building and even started a relationship with a young philharmonic harpsichordist. But one day he happens upon an odd book he barely remembers buying, something he must've (literally) stumbled upon while befuddled by booze. Titled Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities, it predicts catastrophic upheavals for any overgrown metropolis, a sort of apocalypse facilitated by strange entities called paramentals. Of course, Franz knows it's all nonsense, half-baked hullaballoo cooked up by some turn-of-the-century conman. Still, he keeps the book and the strange journal bundled with it for novelty's sake. Then while climbing a hill outside the city one day, he tries to find his hotel with a pair of high-powered binoculars. What he sees there shakes him to the core -- a strange, shadowy form skulking in his room.
From its multiple references to H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James, you can tell that Lady wants to be a successor to their spooky stories, and it comes close to doing so at times. The climax truly chills, and a nightmare Franz has about his deceased wife made my neck want to detach itself from my body:
"Her fingers were so very slim and silken dry, so very strong and many, all starting to grip tightly -- they were not fingers but wiry black vines rooted inside her skull, growing in profusion out of her cavernous orbits, gushing luxuriantly out of the triangular hold between the nasal and the vomer bones, twining in tendrils from under her upper teeth so white, pushing insidiously and insistently, like grass from sidewalk cracks, out of her pale brown cranium, bursting apart the squamous, sagittal, and coronal sutures."Sublimely eerie stuff. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to get there. The reference I included to Updike in the beginning is apropos, because for the first half of the novel Leiber seems to channel him rather than the masters of classic horror. Lady's protagonist and secondary characters dawdle about for about half of the novel's length, talking about liberated sexuality and the wonders of drug use and any number of other subjects fashionable among the artistic set in the seventies. (Leiber penned the book in 1977.) Dull and dated. Perhaps my anticipation of discovering a standout work in the genre has colored my opinion, but this is one Lady best left in the gloom.
(Picture: CC 2006 by Thomas Hawk)