Monday, March 8, 2010

1978 World Fantasy Award - OUR LADY OF DARKNESS by Fritz Leiber

One thing that worried me about the World Fantasy Award was that Fritz Leiber won one. He was not my favorite Hugo-winning novelist, but I know that his fantasy work was pioneering, genre-establishing stuff. Our Lady of Darkness isn’t really science fiction or fantasy though; it’s a horror novel. And it’s horror of the subtle, “there’s something dark and unsettling out there” style pioneered by Lovecraft (who warrants several mentions within the novel).

The main character is a genre writer named Franz Westen (which is similar enough to Leiber’s name to raise an eyebrow). Westen is living in San Francisco, and he’s become fascinated with a book called Megapolisomancy by a turn-of-the-century spiritualist named de Castries. Megapolisomancy turns out to be a form of magic that uses the reality distorting nature of big cities with their high (and, in San Francisco’s case, even sometimes pyramid-shaped) buildings to work. Most of the book actually reads like a love letter to San Francisco, which is my personal favorite city, so I enjoyed this quite a bit. The first third consists almost entirely of Westen hanging out with his quirky neighbors, and it almost feels like an Armistead Maupin knock-off. But, there are hints that something creepy is going on in Westen’s building, as he seems to witness a strange creature lurking in his room from a nearby hill. The next third of the novel consists entirely of a discussion of de Castries' life with a fellow connoisseur of the supernatural, and here we basically get Leiber’s love of Lovecraft and a discussion of Crowley and other figures of early twentieth-century mysticism.

It’s a bit creepy, but it’s not until the final third that any real sense of thrill, horror, or even suspense works its way into the book. The climax comes rather suddenly and ends even more quickly. In other words, the pacing is a little off. Still, compared to the other novels of his I’ve read, Leiber has reined in his reliance on stereotypes and his need for over-the-top, oddball characters (though neither is entirely gone). I didn’t mind the fact that this rather short book consists almost entirely of conversations or that the plot moved slowly, and I found megapolisomancy an interesting enough concept to make it all worthwhile. This was definitely my favorite Leiber book of the three I've now read.

Grade: B

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