Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber

(2010-10-29)

Tor Trade Paperback
September 2010
220 Pages

I am a bibliophile. I guess that shouldn't come as much of a surprise, considering that I write book reviews for this website. But saying that one loves books is different from saying that one loves literature, a distinction becoming even more meaningful in these days of online publishing and ebooks. At the same time I do not mean to fetishize the book, waxing rhapsodic about leather bindings and deckle-edged paper; on the contrary, my library is a diverse collection of everything from pristine first edition hardcovers to beat-up secondhand mass market paperbacks.

I am speaking instead of something in between, an idea that is quickly becoming irrelevant in the digital age: the book as an artifact filled with information, insight and inspiration that you can hold in your hands, give to someone else... or destroy.

Fritz Leiber wrote a book called Our Lady of Darkness in 1978 (it would go on to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel that year), and in 2010 Tor has reprinted it in trade paperback (it's also available as an ebook). It could be categorized under a variety of genres, including mystery, thriller, horror, dark fantasy and urban fantasy, but here is another category, one that is very close to my heart: it is a book about books.

Franz Westen is a late-1970s version of the pulp writer, churning out novelizations of the television show Weird Underground, which Leiber describes as a "mélange of witchcraft, Watergate, and puppy love." Franz is a fan and writer of horror fiction and an avid collector of unusual books, frequently referring to (and addressing) his "scholar's mistress" – the pile of books that perpetually occupies half of his bed. In his journeys among San Francisco's used bookstores, he discovers two tomes of particular interest. One is Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities by Thibaut de Castries, a turn-of-the-century pseudoscientific treatise about the proliferation of giant cities across the world and the frightening "paramental" potential building up in all of them. The other is a personal journal which Franz suspects was written by the 1930s pulp writer Clark Ashton Smith and recounts bizarre conversations between Smith and de Castries. These books are on Franz's mind when, looking out the window of his sixth floor apartment at nearby Corona Heights, he sees a solitary figure who appears to be dancing upon the hill. At the time it seems little more than a bit of innocuous bohemianism characteristic of a city only a few years removed from the hippie revolution, but it turns out to be the first of a series of increasingly mysterious and unnerving events as Franz delves into a secret history of San Francisco and the biographies of de Castries, Smith, and a host of other famous San Franciscan writers, including Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, George Sterling and Nora May French.

Our Lady of Darkness is a gripping mystery filled with darkly fantastic elements, but what I love most about this book is how it serves as a tribute to the rich literary heritage of both the city of San Francisco – a mist-swirled "megapolis" rendered in a gothic beauty reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's London – and the horror fiction of Bierce, Smith, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and H.P. Lovecraft, whose works are invoked as frames of reference throughout the novel.

Fritz Leiber and his alter ego Franz Westen are part of this literary tradition, and Our Lady of Darkness explores themes popular among all of these writers: mankind's unceasing quest for knowledge and understanding of our universe and the horrific peril attached to such knowledge and understanding, and the simultaneous compulsion to share what one has experienced and fear of what may happen should one do so – a sentiment that could be attributed to all acts of writing. This book is a relic from a time when it was still conceivable for a book to be consigned to the abyss of history. Fortunately for us, however, Our Lady of Darkness has not met that fate.

© 2010 Arthur Bangs

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