Our Lady of Darkness – Fritz Leiber
Berkley Publishing – 1977
A recovering alcoholic reads a weird book about evil architecture and a notebook belonging to Clark Ashton Smith and then begins to see weird stuff through his binoculars. That’s the premise of Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber. The protagonist is also an author of weird fiction, and repeatedly references Lovecraft, M.R. James and Bierce. I really enjoyed this book, and reading it has made me want to check out more stuff by Leiber.
I didn’t know anything about the author when I started reading Our Lady of Darkness, but I only got a few chapters into this book before I realised that the main character is supposed to be him. Leiber’s name was Fritz, and the character’s name is Franz. They have the same job, and I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but there was something about the sections on the protagonist’s wife and her death that had me convinced that Leiber was writing from experience. Sure enough, he lapsed into alcoholism after the death of his own wife, and this is obviously a largely autobiographical work. Although this novel contains some fantastic elements, this autobiographical stuff keeps it grounded and makes the weirdness all the more discomforting.
And the weirdness here is quite weird. The antagonist of the book is Thibaut de Castries, the author of Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities, a book about the supernatural power of large cities and their buildings. I found this idea quite Ballardian, not in the sense that Ballard was also fascinated with architecture but in the pairing of two seemingly disparate concepts. (De Castries links occult forces with architecture in a similar way to how Ballard links sex and car crashes.) It was cool to come across an idea as strange as this in a fantasy/horror novel.
I don’t have a huge amount else to say about this book. It’s a classic of weird fiction, and you should read it if you haven’t already. An earlier version of the story was published as The Pale Brown Thing in Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I read yesterday that Leiber considered this an alternative telling of the same tale rather than just an earlier draft. Swan River Press published an edition of this version in 2016, but it’s long sold out. It would be cool if somebody could upload scans of the original printing to the internet. I’d be delighted to read another version of this story.