Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber
1978 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel
It's funny how something can fly under your radar. I had heard of Our Lady of Darkness and I knew that it was a well respected horror novel in the mold of H. P. Lovecraft. Still it never occurred to me to pick it up. Leiber is an author who from experience I prefer his pulpy fantasy efforts (really that should have told me something right there). A modern horror novel from him was something I just ignored.
I was very wrong to do that. Our Lady of Darkness is an extremely good work only marred slightly by a weak ending.
Franz Weston is the author of cheap paperback horror novel and a recovering alcoholic. While in a drunken stupor years before he purchased two books from a forgotten shop: a guide detailing the mystical geometries in large cities and the diary of pulp fantasy and horror author Clark Ashton Smith who apparently visited with the guru who authored the first book.
One day while scanning a distant hilltop park through binoculars from his apartment window Weston spots a brown robed figured dancing. The figure stops and appears to wave at him before vanishing. Inspired by the books he purchased before Weston travels out to the site on a lark and looks back at his own apartment where he can see the same figure waving to him from his window. And so begins a terrifying journey where Weston is stalked by the eldritch forces of the city itself.
The concept of the geometry of cities having their own magic has become more common as the popularity of urban fantasy waxed. Still I cannot think of anyone who did it before Leiber and none that have done it so well. His magic comes from an insane guru trying to obfuscate meaning and so it reads much like the works of other magic gurus from the early twentieth century.
The novel is very coy about what is really happening. The events could be the result of a recovering drunk with an overactive imagination triggered by some strange books or it could be that a decades old scheme to harness San Francisco to a madman's will is come to fruition. There are those within the circle of strange and mystic which will claim one and those in the rational world who would claim the other.
It helps that the novel is focused on an interesting character who is just as lost in the strange situation as the reader. Our viewpoint novelist is torn apart by conflict with his past and the reality of the present. He knows intellectually how things could be but every scrap he uncovers pushes him closer to madness in the mold of the ideal Lovecraftian character.
In my view the strongest aspect of the novel, the portion that ties everything good in it together so well, is the pacing. Our Lady of Darkness is a relatively short book and there is little wasted space. Leiber carefully hands our spooky occurrence and strange revelation leading the reader on along with the novel's protagonist.
I had only two real problems with the book. First and foremost, the ending was not as strong as I would like. Although it is foreshadowed well in the book it is still abrupt and anticlimactic. Given how well paced the novel had been up to that point with it's gentle hints and slow revelations to have things just slam to a stop is annoying.
The other problem is the book is firmly stuck in the mid-70's. This wasn't a problem for me, it's antecedents after all are very much the product of their own time, but to have the book dance around homosexuality in mid-seventies San Francisco feels awkward to a modern reader. Perhaps in another twenty years it will feel more like a period piece.
Still even with those reservations I enjoyed Our Lady of Darkness quite a bit and recommend it. It is right up my ally when it comes to horror: creepy, carefully developing, and sinister. It is cut from the same mold as Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft without depending on the crutches of strange monsters that so many of their imatators do. I just wish I had found it sooner.