From his window there thrust itself a pale brown thing that wildly waved its long, uplifted arms at him. While low between them, he could see a face stretched toward him, a mask as narrow as a ferret’s, a pale brown, utterly blank triangle, two points above that might mean eyes or ears, and one ending below in a tapered chin… a questing mouth that looked as if it were sucking for marrow.
If you’ve been paying attention to my posts, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: the other half of Tor Double #36, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness. While the double only has one cover (unlike earlier books in the series), at least the cover is for this half of the book. And it’s by Wayne Barlowe; I think he did a nice moody job for Our Lady’s Megapolisomancy.
Franz Westen is a San Fransisco-based writer, doing schlocky teleplays for an “I want to believe” style supernatural TV show. He happens to look out his window and sees a figure dancing on a nearby hill, waving at him. Stricken by curiosity, he goes hiking, but can’t find this strange figure; instead, he looks home, and sees the figure leaning out the window of his locked apartment waving back at him. Woah! I guess that’s supposed to be scary, though I think “eerie” is a better descriptor. But it’s a hook, and it gets Franz interested. He’s also got a journal from Clark Ashton Smith dealing with an obscure book he’s found: the pseudoscience of megapolisomancy, by a mysterious occultist named Thibaut de Castries.
This is a very, very, very dull book after the “strange thing waving back at me place” incident. For the first hundred or so pages, expect to see a lot of excellent San Fransisco setting description, and a lot of info about Franz’s friends. And a lot of telling. The group tells each other stories, including a pair of rather weak “ghost stories.” Then they tell each other dialogue: someone tells a paragraph of text, someone else responds with a paragraph of text. At other points, one character tells numerous paragraphs of text, followed by paragraphs of text recapping all the responses and discussion the other character interrupted with. This isn’t anywhere near natural dialogue, it’s just bad; things I took for granted in Conjure Wife—realistic dialogue, characters who are realistic and likeable—were hard to come by in Our Lady.
I’m not joking on the bad dialogue part; forget show don’t tell, let’s start with talk not tell. It’s so unnaturally forced that it’s painful, as in causing me physical pain. In the midst of a conversation, Franz begins a paragraph about Dashiell Hammett with “Besides being one of America’s few great novelists, Hammett…” Seriously, who the hell talks like that? Informational pamphlets, Wikipedia entries, people reading a book review out loud, and curators at the museum of Badass Detective Writers, that’s who. Leiber’s sword-and-sorcery tales are fantastic for their character banter, even in the stories where Fafhrd’s sullen and the Grey Mouser has the urge to pontificate (e.g., “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” the best of the bunch). I don’t see any of that natural bantering dialogue here.
Likewise, the characters are flat and under-developed. There are a number introduced early on who seem to fill no purpose other than being there. There’s an ambiguously gay duo, a Latino immigrant family, and Franz’s kinda love interest slash woman of mystery. Later on, Franz runs into a fellow scholar/exposition dump who I don’t remember hearing about earlier, and who helps by stringing the plot together. A few add some cryptic stories which are pieces of a later, bigger puzzle, but most of them felt extraneous.
It’s worth noting that a lot of other books I’ve read that I didn’t end up liking had something to keep me reading—likeable characters, complex and involved plots, a good mystery, the promise of a rewarding payoff at the end. I had serious thoughts of giving up the novel, but many comparisons to Lovecraft kept me from shelving it indefinitely.
This may or may not be a good thing; after the hundred-page-mark or so, when our scholar has a round of Expository Story Time, you realize that the cryptic pieces Leiber has seeded through the book compose a much larger puzzle than imagined. A lot of things which don’t seem to have much importance or don’t go anywhere end up being critical to the climax. It doesn’t excuse the abominable dialogue or wooden characters, but it does give things a good Lovecraftian horror tone. The actual horror parts—when they show up—are indeed Lovecraftian. The kind of horror that makes your mind reel from its staggering form, a monolithic concept that seems too unreal to be possible. I’m not going to spoil any surprises, but it revolves around the rare book Franz has acquired: Megapolisomancy, the magic of big cities. It’s a fantastic idea, something Smith or Lovecraft would have loved.
Sadly it’s not developed beyond a long history/story and a few strange occurances, and the finale; unlike with Lovecraft, I didn’t get a good sense of horror lurking just beyond our protagonist. Sure, it’s a logical progression from what we’ve learned (as the reader), but the tendrils of dread don’t infest this work like they do Lovecraft or Smith. Conjure Wife was amazing for its atmospheric dread: you know full well something is happening, but you don’t know why, and Norman doesn’t want to admit to any of this superstition gobbledegook, and it keeps building until he can’t deny it any more. By comparison, Our Lady of Darkness isn’t just subdued psychological horror; its horror is narcoleptic and spotty. Without tension or dread, the payoff isn’t rewarding: the puzzle is complete, yes, but the pieces never did anything to begin with.
I do have to give Leiber mad props for tying in much of San Francisco’s literary figures into the mystery; authors as important and diverse as Ambrose Bierce, Dashiell Hammett, and Jack London are important to the plot. There’s a lot of Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft references, hinting at the slow-to-develop plot of eldritch horror, sanity and madness which those two authors espoused in Weird Tales. Leiber also does a remarkable job at building San Francisco in terms of setting and atmosphere; you can close your eyes and see the sights of the city, smell the waterfront, hear the bustle and foghorns and BART buses. Much of the setting is autobiographical, including the apartment/hotel which the story revolves around, and that setting shines. (Note that this is the stereotypical San Fran, but while drugs and sex are mentioned, we never see anybody having either.)
Alas, gold stars for promoting Clark Ashton Smith and doing a great job on San Fran settings do not a good book make. Our Lady of Darkness reads like an over-long short novel that should instead have become a short story. The characters are flat and lifeless, and most of them add nothing to the plot other than the verisimilitude of the protagonist having a few friends. I love a well-done tale in the vein of Smith or Lovecraft, and modern authors have the added advantage of not having to write in antiquated prose. Our Lady is a very weak entry, and though its horror is spot on, it has neither the punch nor grandeur it deserves. Many readers swear by it, and it did win the World Fantasy Award, but I felt it was bloated, slow to develop, and lacking the suspenseful tension that horror fiction needs.
There are a number of ways to acquire Our Lady. It was first printed in 1978 as a stand-alone paperback by Berkley; it was reprinted in 1984 by Ace; in 1991 it became the above noted Tor Double with Conjure Wife; since then Tor’s classics imprint Orb has reprinted the Tor Double as the trade paperback Dark Ladies. I’d recommend one of the latter, since at the least you’ll get Conjure Wife, which I consider a superior horror work, and the Tor Double has the better cover art between those two options. In a mix of decidedly horrible covers, Wayne Barlowe’s entry is the best.