Friday, September 2, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber

Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.

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)


Todd Mason said...

Loren, we seem bound to be at loggerheads. First off, Leiber wasn't just talking about such subjects as sexual liberation and diversity and psychoactive substances in the '70s...they, and their significance, had been a recurring theme in his work since at least the latest '40s...and his autobiographical stories in the '60s and the '70s (such as this one) give evidence of his experience in these matters, for good and ill...the book was published in boards in '77, and the serialized version, THE PALE BROWN THING (which you might like better) was published in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE in the January and February '77 issues, the first available at the end of '76, so he probably actually wrote the novel in '75, or at least finished it.

The notion that Leiber is more longwinded than Lovecraft is pretty funny. But as one of the two youngest fiction-writing members of the Lovecraft Circle, along with Robert Bloch, he's more than proven his ability to distill the best of what Lovecraft attempted in his work, not least in his first novel, CONJURE WIFE...or in its near-contemporary short story, "Smoke Ghost," usually credited as the work that helped create the notion of urban fantasy as we understand it today...and whose theme is elaborated to some extent in OUR LADY OF DARKNESS.

Ah, well...sorry you had a bad time with'd probably like CONJURE WIFE or his other horror novel, YOU'RE ALL ALONE, better.

SteveHL said...

I liked this much better than you did. I didn't find it particularly slow, but then, I enjoy most of Leiber's work from around this time. I know that, as Todd says, Leiber was part of the Lovecraft circle but I much prefer his style to Lovecraft's. I would much rather read Updike than Lovecraft, so I am not bothered by this not being in the Lovecraft mode.

Have you read much of Leiber's other stuff? I don't think all of it is wonderful, but I do think that at his best Leiber was a remarkable writer. I tend to like his short stories better than his novels, although there is a fair amount of less than great material here as well. Try "The Button Molder", "The Winter Flies" or "Four Ghosts in Hamlet".

BTW, I think The Pale Brown Thing is a really lousy title. I'm glad it was changed.

Loren Eaton said...


I know! I seem to remember you mentioning this one before, and I really wanted to like it but just ... didn't. It frustrated me.

I'll definitely check out Conjure Wife and You're All Alone. I really want to get Lieber because he's repeatedly referred to as a luminary in the specfic field. I don't think I've hit on the right title yet.

Loren Eaton said...


You and Todd are quite right: Lieber had a much better prose style than Lovecraft. H.P. tended to get longwinded and lost with outrageous adjectives and adverbs. I felt ... I dunno, like it took half of Lady's length for him to decide it was a horror novel instead of a portrait of seventies-era artist.

I'll check out those short stories. I've only read two pieces from Lieber, and I don't believe I've run across the best he has to offer yet.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have only read one short story by Lieber much to my chagrin. So I can't speak to this at all. Have to get the Conjure Wife sometime.

Loren Eaton said...

I think I'll have to get it too, Patti.