Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review of Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber

There are a lot of ways to get yourself out of a hole. Get a dog, drown yourself in work, take up a new hobby, and if all else fails, become a Christian—ha!, just kidding. (Buy a motorcycle; it will be more fun.) Another common enough approach is writing; keeping a journal is one way to get the funk out. Writing fiction is another. Surely there are many writers who have taken their frustrations with work or marriage out in their stories. But perhaps no one knows the cathartic value of writing better than Fritz Leiber.

The death of his wife, problems with alcohol, and a career not exactly sparkling with new book sales, in the mid-70s Fritz Leiber turned his issues over to the typewriter. Our Lady of Darkness (1977) the result, Leiber put on the page what had been ailing him—not in self-abusing, self-pitying form, rather in a semi-autobiographical, occult quest. What else would a writer of the supernatural do?

Franz Weston is down on his luck, and trying to find his spiritual side again. He has friends, but none seem to be able to explain away his lethargy. Likewise, none seem able to explain the strange noises and visages in his San Francisco apartment. Seeking answers in a journal which may or may not have been kept by Clark Ashton Smith, as well as an occult book called Megapolisomancy by the fictional Thibaut de Castriesa, Weston is not without geese to chase. Very concerned with paramental space and the dire prophecies surrounding mega-cities, he attempts to explain his uncanny experiences from various geographical points around the city, trying to reconcile personal issues in parallel.

Full of references and general knowledge about horror fiction from the turn of the century, Our Lady of Darkness is at least partially an homage to Arthur Machen, Clark Ashton Smith, Alastair Crowley, H.P. Lovecraft, Jack London, and other such writers of the period. Not pure gushing, however, Leiber/Weston use their work primarily as a sounding board of sorts, from both a career and cogitative perspectives. (“What was the whole literature of supernatural horror but an essay to make death itself exciting.” is a quote at one point in Weston’s rumination on his situation.) Thus, the potential reader need not worry the novel is retro horror simply for the sake of being retro, rather it is respectful to its forebears, contextualized for the 1970s and Leiber’s own situation.

Written late in Leiber’s career, Our Lady of Darkness shows a writer in full control of his craft. The opposite of the gawdy imaginings of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Our Lady is a refined, subtle work of paranormal fantasy less exciting than ruminative—as would be expected of a man digging his way out of a hole . Likewise possessing more integrity for the personal and meta-fictional aspects, it rivals the best of Leiber’s oeuvre, and hopefully, helped him out of his funk. (Or not. It was the last novel of his career.)

(Note: I can’t close this without taking issue with comments left on LibraryThing regarding Our Lady of Darkness. Herebedragons writes: “A fairly standard horror book…” and Moomin_Mama: “Pulpy supernatural thriller…” Neither could be more wrong-headed. Standard/pulp horror is populated by ghosts and vampires, pentagrams and full moons, not to mention overt plotting and cheap thrills. Our Lady of Darkness is none of this. There are elements of the supernatural, but they are restrained, subtle—no masked serial killers or mysterious pools of blood forming on the ceiling. Most importantly, the novel’s plot is elusive. It’s perhaps only upon completion of the story that the reader finally realizes they’ve experienced the delicate rise and climax of story, its resolution implicit.)

No comments:

Post a Comment