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Our Lady of Darkness – Fritz Leiber

January 9, 2015

(This post contains spoilers. Be warned.)

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I finished this book this week, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Like, is my general meh feeling towards it because it wasn’t quite the story I was expecting, because it wasn’t presented in the way I was expecting, because of its datedness, or something else?

The book’s about a guy, Franz Westen, who lives in San Francisco in … 1977, I’m going to say, because that’s when the book came out and the cultural background seems to fit. (The men are manly men who drink and smoke in many scenes, for instance.) He starts reading a turn-of-the-center work of pseudoscience in conjunction with a rather odd journal and begins to dig deeper into what they’re talking about because that’s what you do when you’re a horror novelist. Paranormal things happen around him—or do they?—and he starts getting more and more scared about what might be around the corner.

This is not the summary I was given, but it’s slightly more accurate. The summary I was given made me think “early urban fantasy” and “more of a paranormal mystery than it was”. I liked the story I was given, just my expectations weren’t met.

So, Leiber ties a lot of the weird fiction and turn-of-the-century zeitgeist stuff up very neatly in his world-building. In the scenes where he expounds on that and draws connections, I found myself nodding along even when I didn’t know the exact details of what he was referencing. (Some of his quotes from Lovecraft and Ashton Smith and the like passed me by because I haven’t read their work, though.) The idea of cities creating a separate mentality for the people living there and imprinting on the landscape in unnatural ways, both of which create malevolent beings and dark magical forces, was really intriguing. I can almost buy that it’s true, and I’d like to see someone take that kernel of idea, maybe even in the same world as Our Lady of Darkness, and run with it in a more modern, updated setting. Could be a lot of fun.

However, the scenes where he expounds … ack. They’re infodumping at its dubious finest. One scene, which went over a couple chapters, had such long passages I forgot it was, in fact, dialogue and started reading it as a flashback. The others, though—all dialogue scenes, stilted language that I don’t think people in the 1970s actually used, and the sorts of coincidences that make me hmm. Franz’s neighbour just happens to be a nurse for the mentally ill, eh? The scenes don’t read well, even if the information’s interesting. Leiber could’ve split things up a bit more, with more beats of action, and not lost anything, i think.

Granted, there are still books that do that, that sacrifice realism for a stylized language, a feel and a mood, and ease of plot momentum. It’s obviously still a thing, and a valid thing, and a reasonably popular thing. They’re just rarely for me, that’s all. (I have similar problems with Robert Sawyer as I have with Fritz Leiber, actually.) (At least Sawyer doesn’t artificially—for stylistics! possibly to mirror the class weird authors!—interrupt his sentences. He’s got that going for him.)

And then we hit the datedness. Most of it, I’m willing to accept because it’s very of the time and character, and if Our Lady of Darkness were historical fiction instead of just an older book, I’d expect it to be in there, but as a modern reader, I’m not comfortable. The drinking, smoking, and drug use—yes, fine. The one-dimensional female characters, all of whom are sexualized—less fine. The exotified Chinese lover of a supporting cast member, and the fierce Polish tigress who was the mistress of the pseudoscientist—even less fine. And then Westen meets a “Chinaman” and builds a Scholar’s Mistress of books on his bed that he fondles and wishes good night, and he and his friends make fun of their landlady’s Peruvian accent, which I don’t think Leiber actually writes accurately anyway… Yeah. Quite a bit of side-eye to all of that.

By the time I hit the climax, I was checking page counts, putting the book down in favour of glancing out bus windows, and forcing myself not to crack open a second book to give my brain a rest. Not a good sign.

I don’t regret asking for the book, or reading it, or anything. Like I said, I enjoyed the world-building, and the climax was strong even though the dénouement left a bit to be desired. However, there was a lot that I didn’t care for and occasionally threw me straight out of the story, and … I dunno, hate to say it, I might not read any more Leiber novels. And it kind of makes me want to read classic weird fiction less, too.

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