Fritz Leiber is one of the giants of the genre with whom I’m unfortunately not terribly familiar…A Grand Master best known for the “Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser” series, of which I read a few stories, and for his horror, of which the most famous, Conjure Wife, didn’t grab me the way I had hoped. Although I enjoyed some of his other work, I was never able to properly suspend my disbelief and enjoy it.
Our Lady of Darkness is a different matter entirely. It deservedly won the World Fantasy Award. Originally published in two parts in the January and February 1977 issues of F&SF under the title “The Pale Brown Thing,” and novelized without major changes, the novel is short by modern standards, under 200 pages. The modern edition, published by Orb, is packaged along with Conjure Wife under the combined title Dark Ladies and is a nice trade paperback with a cover that shows part of the downtown SF skyline. The protagonist in this story is Franz Westen, who writes novelizations for a popular television show called Weird Underground and who is slowly emerging from a dark period in his life. As with Leiber himself at the time, Westen is a recently widowed author of horror fiction emerging from a three-year bout of alcoholism. Leiber’s own wife, Jonquil, had died in 1969 after which Leiber moved to San Francisco, and he experienced his own troubles with drinking throughout his life.
In the novel Westen uses his rediscovered interest in the world around him to pull himself out of his depression. Partly he does this by simply investigating the view from his window, which looks out onto Twin Peaks and the recently erected Sutro Tower, whose prominent silhouette and blinking lights fascinate him. Things start to get weird when he turns his binoculars to a nearer landscape feature, Corona Heights, “a shape like a crouching beast,” and spies a vague, robed figure moving along the top. Intrigued by both the hill itself and whatever he saw, he wanders up the hill the next day, and while idly looking back towards his own window is startled to see what appears to be the same figure, the pale brown thing, looking back at him.
Intertwined with this unsettling incident is his fascination with an occult book and an accompanying handwritten journal purchased during one of his drunken wanderings the previous year. The book is a nonfiction tome by an obscure occultist called Thibaut de Castries describing his theories of megapolisomancy which consist of the idea that big cities and their large monolithic edifices are composed of materials and patterns which poison our world and that their very existence breeds hostile paranatural entities called “paramentals.” Additionally de Castries claims to have developed the magic formulas that allow one to manipulate these forces to predict the future, change it, and even bring about certain specific events.
Investigating the authorship of the journal, which came bound together with the book and which clearly belonged to the owner of that copy, Westen becomes convinced that the man who wrote it was Clark Ashton Smith during his years in San Francisco. As he delves also into the history of de Castries and Smith he discovers that the occultist was part of a circle of notable figures at the turn of the century including Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, George Sterling and others of the Bohemian Club set, and that they formed a secret order to implement his ideas.
There are excerpts of the tome provided, written in a wonderfully overwrought Victorian pseudoscientific style with phrases such as “The electro-mephitic city-stuff whereof I speak has potencies for achieving vast effects at distant times and localities, even in the far future and on other orbs.” The first thing I did after finishing Our Lady of Darkness was to check the Internet in the vain hope that de Castries and his theories were real.
The combination of detective work and supernatural horror is one I greatly enjoy, and this is no exception. The San Francisco setting feels very real and natural, which is not surprising given that Leiber had lived in the city for seven years when he wrote it, and remained here until his death in 1992. The story revolves also around one of my favorite supernatural gimmicks, that of the urban center as something greater than the sum of its parts, with its own magic and rituals. More than any of the stories that I’ve previously read and reviewed here, Our Lady of Darkness really runs with the idea and makes it work.
SF/SF Issue #80, January 2009