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Our Lady of Darkness
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Monthly Reads > April 2019 LH Monthly Read: Our Lady of Darkness

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Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments Ladies and germs, theys and thems and all those with a gender pronoun I neglected to list, we are ready to read the April 2019 Literary Horror Monthly Novel Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber. Contrary to popular rumor this is not a fictionalized biography of Ivanka Trump but a little bit of pulp by horror meister Leiber author of Conjure Wife and the oft anthologized proto-urban horror story Smoke Ghost, among others. So find a comfortable spot and stop worrying about how much the atmosphere is heating up as we enjoy the chills of Our Lady in Darkness.


Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments Mimi, I've just started this (about 20% in) and was immediately struck by the references to urban development/decay. I was not expecting this and it seems very timely and curiously contemporary given current concerns about climate change. It's certainly vastly different in feel so far from the last Leiber horror novel I read, Conjure Wife (which I enjoyed as a bit of rather retro camp). There's a lot in these first pages that seems excessively expository (almost of the "As you know, Bob..." type) but I'm curious about where this will go and am willing to keep reading despite that.

I also find Franz Westen an affecting and sympathetic character. I don't know much about Leiber so I have no idea if Franz is autobiographical. I have friends who were children and teens in that era in San Francisco whose parents knew some of the local literary crowd. I should ask them if they knew Leiber and what he was like (at least one of my friends had a mother who took writing classes taught by Theodore Sturgeon!) I used to visit San Francisco and Oakland often as a child in the 1970s and the descriptions of the streets and buildings, of finding one's way around the city in that period, feel really authentic to me. I keep trying to see the landscape in my mind's eye as I read. That level of topographical detail gives the book a few extra points for me.


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments Speaking of picturing this narrative, not sure who else is reading the Centipede Press edition of this, but there are fair number of John Stewart illustrations sprinkled through out, including a very ominous illustration of Corona Heights, as viewed by Franz.

I am about 3 chapters in... going well so far.


Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments I just finished this and am ready to delve deeper into it when others have caught up. I liked it more than I expected. It's old-fashioned but in a comforting way, and I found it a good, solid read.


Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments Mimi wrote: "Not sure if this is a spoiler or not so bracketing [spoilers removed]"

Oh, what an excellent find, Mimi! I really enjoyed that little essay. Hope to discuss it in more depth as others read further in the book.


message 6: by Tim (new)

Tim | 117 comments Okay, I'm sorry to say this, especially as it's so short, but I'm giving up on this one. Bare with me for a moment, because from the reviews and such I can tell a lot of people like this one, and I can appreciate that completely while personally disagreeing.

I find the characters in this book so bland and uninteresting that I kept finding my attention drawn elsewhere. I seriously could not even keep track of which of his friends was which (something I don't particularly have trouble with in books) and my brain just started assigning names like "friend 1" and "friend 2" because I saw nothing interesting enough in them to really remember them.

I found the constant references annoying, even though I was able to keep up with them. It really felt, to me at least, that Leiber was practically hanging up a sign with all the name drops, trying to keep only people "in the know" of early 20th century horror in and telling all others to get out. I kept thinking things like, "Yes, yes, you called Lovecraft, Howard and didn't use the last name, how clever you are. Now that reference went over a few readers heads leaving them confused. You're very clever. Get on with the plot." Again, I even understood the references to the writers in question, it just felt like an unnecessary alienation in my opinion and I found it frustrating.

The plot was also... uneventful. I love a good slow burning horror story, some of my personal favorites are classic haunted house style where the horror slowly grows as it moves along. That said, it moves so slow here that I found myself forgetting that it was supposed to be a horror story and found that I was just getting digressions about authors, architects and random friends drinking. I mean, yeah, there was a face in a window... but that's not exactly the most frighting of scenarios. Maybe it was about to pick up when I gave up, that's certainly a possibility, but at that point I was so uninvested in these characters and plot, that it ceased to matter. Seriously, the most exciting part for me was the enthusiasm in which a paper shredder was described... while that is a novelty of a statement, it is not enough to keep my drive for reading going. :)

I've never read Fritz Leiber before, so I don't know if this is an issue with his writing, or this specific book, but it's honestly a bit off putting to me on trying his other stuff.

One thing I will say, as I've been so negative about everything else I feel I need to leave a positive point, the urban development and urban decay points mentioned above WERE interesting. I found I was enjoying those aspects more than the actual plot... though they again added to the multiple digressions that kept the plot from moving forward. That said, they were at least interesting digressions.

Again though, I am glad that others have enjoyed the book, and my apologizes for dropping out on my first group read. Hopefully the next one will work out better. :)


message 7: by Dan (last edited Apr 17, 2019 03:29PM) (new)

Dan | 329 comments Mimi wrote: "But I know that he influenced Stephen King and have similar problems with a number of his novels, I just keep wanting to cut passages. Too much tell, not enough show."

Couldn't that be listed as a "fault" of almost anything written pre-1980 or so?


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments I don't know if I agree with Tim's points, at least at this point in where I am at in the book (I'm enjoying it so far... I like this kind of exposition)... although I will say this about Leiber, I have always enjoyed his short stories much more than his novel length stories.

Tim, if you like the urban decay theme, Leiber has a number of well known stories in this vein, like Smoke Ghost and Black Gondolier. You might enjoy his shorter fiction more.


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments I actually think this novel got stretched from a novellette, called Pale Brown Thing. Leiber in general is very highly regarded in the genre as well as other genres. I’m still withholding judgement on this novel until I finish. I might be one of those who rates it highly... 😁


message 10: by Dan (last edited Apr 17, 2019 09:49PM) (new)

Dan | 329 comments Funny you should mention John Saul, but I think I bought his Suffer the Children when it came out. I was thirteen then and made it a habit of trying to read everything on the NYT best-seller list from 1976-1981 since I had no idea what was worth reading and didn't want to be random. I have zero memory of this book now, even after reading the plot summary. Maybe if I started to reread the actual book, though it sounds sort of silly. I wonder if I DNRed it and decided not to sink any more paper route money into purchasing Saul.

One horror author from the 1970s that was a favorite that I never hear anything of today is British author James Herbert. I thought his first two novels The Rats and The Fog the equal of anything King was doing. But then he just seemed to fade.


Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments Herbert’s stuff is pure horror candy. I’ve read The Fog, The Dark, and the Rat trilogy. You won’t find him here but Horror Aficionados would be a good place to find fans.


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments Nah... Leiber’s references are either more literary or firmly in the Weird Tales realm. And I mean “Weird Tales” specifically referencing authors who were published by the WT magazine back in the day. Herbert, Koontz, Saul are very different kind of horror writer.


Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments Possible spoilers. Read on at risk of knowing more than you may wish.

*****************************************

Our Lady of Darkness felt to me very much like an old man's book and I wasn't surprised to find that Leiber was 67 years old when this was published and it was apparently his last major work (despite the fact that he lived another fifteen years). The constant reference to past writers, to genre history, and to classic tropes (the M.R. James references Mimi notes above) all speak to someone recalling former times and using his own personal past to flesh out a fresh story. Franz Westen is clearly an alter ego of Fritz Leiber and I found it easier to forgive the elements of the story that were likely wish-fulfillment (the lovely, gifted young girlfriend, the group of sympathetic co-tenants, and the conventionally domestic happy ending) because of that. There's a definite metafictional vibe to this but it's deeply nostalgic rather than experimental or self-consciously literary. Again, this feels like the reminiscence of an old man recalling literary acquaintances and heroes of his younger days.

The bulk of the tale reads like pulp: there are moments of awkward exposition, heavy-handed stereotyping, and long-winded interpolations from other characters that break the narrative flow and add little but seemingly endless bouts of ridiculously purple prose* to an otherwise rather clean and modern story. Pacing is jerky and inconsistent and there's a distinct slump towards the middle and last third, with the story only picking up again as the Westen faces truly dire (and extremely Jamesian) peril near the end. But I did find the horror Westen faces genuinely weird and truly creepy (M.R. James likely primed me for that) and those moments when he contemplates the thing awaiting him and the end when directly confronts it, did get my heart racing. So the book worked for me as a basic horror story and I'd give it three stars overall, with an extra half star as a nod to the interesting concept of megapolisomancy and Leiber's clever use of genuine literary history in a way that borders on the metafictional.

*Jaime Donaldus Byers I am looking at you!


message 14: by Bill (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1137 comments Randolph wrote: "Herbert’s stuff is pure horror candy."
Haha... I was a teen when I read my Herbert and Guy N. Smith. I'd use a less generous term than "candy" :-). Other than the titular animals, I mostly remember the occasional (deeply closeted, of course) LGBT character who almost inevitably comes to a horrible end.


message 15: by Bill (last edited Apr 20, 2019 12:32AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1137 comments I'm about halfway through Our Lady of Darkness. (Which I keep Freudian slipping into Our Lady of the Flowers, ha.) I'm afraid I side more with Tim and Marie-Therese here.

I'm (unsurprisingly!) getting pretty tired of the promiscuous spinning of fairly generic descriptive details that have little to do with the narrative. I actually live in San Francisco, quite close to the neighborhoods of the novel. I've walked up the steep hill on Duboce many times, and use regularly the contemporary equivalents of the public transit in the novel. (The routes seem unchanged, by the way.) Do I feel the need to bore y'all with all that, when I'm telling you the creepy story of the creature seen through the binoculars?

If there were specific aspects of Corona Heights, the TV tower etc, that were essential to the goings-on, I can see expending all this verbiage. Maybe they come later? So far, I'm only getting a fairly generic and superficial impression of how these locales are used. This could be any hill; purple prose descriptions not withstanding, I don't find Corona Heights that ominous.

I think I'd enjoy this a lot more if I were sitting in Leiber's living room, listening to him tell the story over a cup of coffee. (And there was plenty coffee-making and consumption in the novel, heh.) Kind of like listening to my mom tell stories (sorry mom!)


Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments Bill wrote: "I'm about halfway through Our Lady of Darkness. (Which I keep Freudian slipping into Our Lady of the Flowers, ha.)"

That made me laugh out loud! ;-)

I wondered if you were going to read this and also, as a genuine San Franciscan, what you'd think of the topographical descriptions. They have a certain nostalgia quotient for me (Leiber is essentially describing the SF of my childhood) but I imagine they must be dull for a resident.


message 17: by Bill (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1137 comments Marie-Therese wrote: "I wondered if you were going to read this and also, as a genuine San Franciscan, what you'd think of the topographical descriptions."
I wish Leiber had done more to connect the topography with the main story. But he just mentions a sprinkle of details in passing. He could have (say) stopped on the Duboce climb to admire one of the cute little houses, asked the inhabitant about the strange creature, get a related story for context, have coffee (of course) etc. Maybe that happens in the sequel, Our Lady of the Dark Flowers.


Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments I’m struggling with this dinky novel. It’s talked up quite a bit but I’m having trouble getting hooked on it.


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments It feels like it begins picking up pace in chapter 18...


message 20: by Bill (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1137 comments Randolph wrote: "I’m struggling with this dinky novel. It’s talked up quite a bit but I’m having trouble getting hooked on it."
More coffee.


Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments Bill wrote: "More coffee."

I recently bought these really amazing little chocolates which encase most of a shot of espresso in a compact dark chocolate shell. I think Randolph needs some of these! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pocket_...


message 22: by Tim (new)

Tim | 117 comments Marie-Therese wrote: "Bill wrote: "More coffee."

I recently bought these really amazing little chocolates which encase most of a shot of espresso in a compact dark chocolate shell. I think Randolph needs some of these!..."


That is a truly wonderful invention that... but as someone who worked as a barista for quite some time, I instantly am wondering what type of espresso they use and what the exact caffeine content is... and if there is a way to make it even more, because my caffeine addiction laughs at a mere one shot. :P


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments So... cruising through the chapters with Byers and getting the back story of de Castries, which is definitely interesting.

Just out of curiosity, my edition of the book ends with chapter 30. Am I correct in assuming that this novel is over at this point? I only ask because my edition also contains additional writings entitled... 'Those Wild Alien Worlds I', 'Those Wild Alien Worlds II', and a few others. These strike me as some additional musings by Leiber, perhaps related to the story but not part of the novel?


message 24: by Bill (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1137 comments Benjamin wrote: "So... cruising through the chapters with Byers and getting the back story of de Castries, which is definitely interesting.

I did grit my teeth at the purple prose and hyperbole, but the pace did pick up (thankfully) in that section. I also wish that the more interesting ideas manifested more in the subsequent narrative. I don't think calling something (ahem) "rugose" necessarily conjures up visions of cosmic horror.

"Just out of curiosity, my edition of the book ends with chapter 30."

My e-book also ends at Chapter 30.

(I'm tempted to complain about the orientalisms, but I think I've grumbled enough.)


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments Rugose!!! That is a great word. I'm even more curious as to the context within this narrative... =). I don't think I have gotten there yet.

Out of curiosity... with all of the Weird Tales references Leiber has made so far in this novel... anyone catch that he references himself as well? I think it is in Chapter 17.


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments Definitely coming down the home stretch here. I'm finding that this story is definitely growing on me... everything before Chapter 18 felt like a very slow buildup. Post 18... things have gotten very interesting.

Although I will say this... despite its plodding through the first 17 chapters, I think if viewed as an largely auto-biographical fictionalization of Leiber's time in SF, the minutia from the first 17 chapters is kind of interesting... at least revealing of the author.


Scott Still waiting for my copy to arrive.........


Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments I’m still hoping to finish before I die. This is part of the reason I quit being a moderator for awhile. I can’t vet everything and am disappointed when I don’t sift through the noms thoroughly


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments Beyond the fictionalized autobiographical aspects, this one has shades of the Case of Charles Dexter Ward and allusions to Joseph Kurwen= Thibault de Castries.. Anyone pick up on the references to the salts/ashes buried on Corona Heights?


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments Just finished this one. I really enjoyed it... the first third or so of the book is a bit slow, but I think I can appreciate the plodding pace, coupled with the daily minutia that Leiber adds. It allows the story to build and also provides some authentic autobiographical detail to our main character, very closely mirroring Leiber's own life in SF.

I definitely appreciated some of the core underlying themes, deep sense of loneliness/alienation+ dealing with prolonged grief (from losing a spouse), struggles with sobriety (Leiber dealt with issues of alcohol and barbiturate abuse in his day), confusion of what is real and what is not..., etc.

I thought Leiber handled these topics well, infusing a deeps sense of humanity, and ultimately tied them all into an interesting story of sinister old magicians, curses, and urban hauntings.

Leiber was definitely a forerunner in this arena of urban horror... and I think this novel (despite its imperfections) is well executed.


Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments Well see, a diversity of opinion.


message 32: by Bill (last edited Apr 25, 2019 10:52PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bill Hsu (billhsu) | 1137 comments Randolph wrote: "I’m still hoping to finish before I die. This is part of the reason I quit being a moderator for awhile. I can’t vet everything and am disappointed when I don’t sift through the noms thoroughly"
Randolph, you're being too conscientious. I don't think it's a moderator's job to make sure each Monthly Read is up to some standard. After all, most of the Monthly Reads were decided in polls.

And in my picky, tissue ablating opinion, voters who supported the winning book in a poll should feel like it's their job to participate in the conversation. It's more fun to have a diversity of perspectives and opinions on a book, even if it's not to everyone's tastes. Shouldn't a vote mean "I'm interested in reading this book and chatting about it", not "I'd like to hear Randolph, Marie-Therese, Mimi, Benjamin, Tim etc chat about this book"?


message 33: by Dan (last edited Apr 26, 2019 05:14AM) (new)

Dan | 329 comments All this discussion about the reading of the book, even if not much on the book itself these 60 posts, and we're only 10.4/30 (not quite 35%) of the way into the time allotted for the book! Like Scott, still planning to begin this soon.


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments Hey Mimi, that is a fair point, but by the time Leiber wrote this one, he was certainly a practiced hand at producing well written fiction. The flaws that I am hearing from folks are not accountable by the author making amateur mistakes in his writing (at least in my non-authoritative opinion). I think the "flaws" are more attributable to our own individual tastes and desires of the things that we like to see in a novel.

As to packing things in, sure, there is definitely a lot going on in this book, but I think Leiber has a way of tying minutia, humanistic theme, all with weird elements... all done fairly seemlessly. For example, in the beginning portion of the book, Leiber makes some offhand observations about Westen's living quarters including the "scholar's mistress". He spends a fair amount of word usage on actually describing the form of those books lying about on his bed actually taking a literal form of a female mistress. But this is intermixed with Westen's musings over the absence of his wife from his life. The fact that Westen has literally cultivated a scholar's mistress into an actual feminine shape really punctuates his loneliness (and perhaps unconscious slippage into madness from grief). But then... look at what happens to that scholar's mistress in one of the final scenes...? That scene would not have been meaningful had Leiber not earlier provided the reader with significant exposition on what his bed looked like and his own deep yearnings for his dead wife. I thought it was a very intentional and well executed touch that Leiber was able to tie together.


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments That's totally fair, that the payoff was not worth the wait. I can see how a reader reaches that judgement. I also agree that readers can approach this book in a myriad of ways stemming from their background and identity. This book may not resonate for some folks, like it did not for you.

For me... I think some of these things just didn't make it on my radar or weren't overly distracting to me, which allowed me to focus on some of the underlying topics that I had mentioned above.

To each his own... =)


message 36: by Dan (last edited Apr 26, 2019 08:15PM) (new)

Dan | 329 comments Mimi wrote: "...But I suspect that he was never that great a novelist, from my perspective at least, I thought what I read of 'Conjure Wife' was awful, and that's not to do with it being essentially pulp which I don't mind but that I found it dull pulp..."

Actually, Leiber began professional writing in the 1930s and had one of the best reputations for the sophistication of his writing craft of all the writers working in the speculative fiction genres in the 1940s and 50s. Most of his contemporaries considered him second only to Lovecraft in this regard. He published two essays assessing Lovecraft's writing in 1944 and 1945, for example, perhaps the only working author with sufficient credentials and respect from his peers to be able do it.

Conjure Wife was Leiber's first novel. Back then it was not really possible to publish genre fiction as a standalone novel. Publishers wouldn't do it. Conjure Wife therefore first appeared in a pulp magazine called Unknown Worlds, the April 1943 issue in fact. When it was first published it was accompanied by illustrations by Kramer that are pretty cool. The novel was revised and expanded for standalone publication (in 1953 I believe). It is probably that padded version you read. The story is best in its original 95-page version available here: https://archive.org/details/Unknown_v...

So well regarded was the 1943 version of the novel that they published all 95 pages of it in one issue as the lead story rather than break it up over two or three issues as was the normal practice. Conjure Wife is a current 2019 Retro Hugo finalist (http://www.thehugoawards.org/2019/04/...). I think it has a good chance of winning the top honor before the year is out, especially if they're considering the original, shorter version.

Leiber's other novel that year, Gather, Darkness!, began publication the following month in Astounding Science Fiction, appearing in three parts from May through July 1943. It too is a 2019 Retro Hugo finalist, but I doubt it will get the top spot. Leiber's third novel, Destiny Times Three, appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in two parts, March-April 1945, and won fourth place for the 1996 Retro Hugo award.

I don't write all this to subtract from Mimi's points on what she states about Leiber's writing. She's entitled to her opinions, of course, and I even agree with them to an extent. I just want to make the point Leiber's writing craft is highly respected and considered "great" by many.

Edit (one last point): According to Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conjure..., Conjure Wife was the inspiration for at least three films, to say nothing of the TV series Bewitched. I still see its influence today in the Netflix series Sabrina.


Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments Oh man, we haven’t turned over this much turf in awhile. I take back my comment about my editorial skills. A diversity of views makes me smile :)


message 38: by Marie-Therese (last edited Apr 26, 2019 10:16PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments Randolph wrote: "Oh man, we haven’t turned over this much turf in awhile. I take back my comment about my editorial skills. A diversity of views makes me smile :)"

Yeah, it's really lovely to see so much discussion and such a wide range of opinions civilly presented but argued with passion. This book didn't work for me as well as I'd hoped but I found it worth reading for its metafictional aspects and its historical interest (with some definite cringes due to the orientalism, the Hispanic stereotypes, and the sexism).

For whatever it's worth, I'll admit to a sneaking fondness for Leiber's 'Conjure Wife'. It's pulp but it's fun, rather subversive, satirical pulp. Leiber is clearly sending up the male academics and small college-town academia of his period and he does it in a way that pokes fun at conformity while slyly waiting until the last minute to really pull the rug from under it. It's definitely not a "feminist" book per se, but it's not misogynist or anti-feminist either. The women in this book are clearly in charge and they will remain that way. Like Dan, I suspect this book had some influence on the new Sabrina series.


Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments I’m probably going to read The Big Time


Randolph (us227381) | 2 comments Marie-Therese I inadvertently deleted your comment. So sorry. It was about Gather, Darkness!, and how curiosity killed the cat. So sorry.


Marie-Therese (mariethrse) | 550 comments Randolph wrote: "Marie-Therese I inadvertently deleted your comment. So sorry. It was about Gather, Darkness!, and how curiosity killed the cat. So sorry."

No problem, Randolph! I'll just note here that I said I was going to read 'Gather Darkness' soon because I was curious about it (despite suspecting it might not be good-curiousity killed the cat and all that!) and I'd let you all know what I thought in the "Also Reading" thread.

'The Big Time" looks fascinating. Never heard of it before and it seems quite different from the type of book I generally associate with Leiber. You have to report back to us in Also Reading, too, Randolph! ;-)


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments Yeah... I too have a soft spot for Conjure Wife,in all its pulp glory. I felt Leiber did well to go beyond a superficial layer of a pulp veneer to deliver an interesting satire that was both fun to read and also thought provoking.

As to novels in general, particularly in the Weird Genre, I often stay away. I think that the Weird is best delivered in a shorter form. As to Leiber, while I enjoyed both Conjure and Lady, I feel like his best work is in the shorter form.


message 43: by Scott (last edited Dec 04, 2019 07:24AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Scott I am about halfway through this and really enjoying it. The sighting of the alleged "paramental" reminds me of the "Smoke Ghost," a Lieber short I read a few years back. Maybe it's because of the urban setting but if I remember correctly that was also seen by the protagonist from a distance, and he wasn't entirely sure what he saw.

I really like Lieber's style. There are occasional moments when I felt it began to irritate me slightly, but then the charm wins me back.


message 44: by Dan (last edited Dec 03, 2019 08:57PM) (new)

Dan | 329 comments I think it's awesome that you're going back and revisiting this work. Of all the group read books I wanted to participate in that I haven't this one now tops my list. For me, it will have to wait further though. The Valancourt Victorian Christmas ghost stories group read looks too good if I can at all squeeze a third book in this month.

What urban setting is Lieber using for this novel? He was intimately familiar with both Chicago and New York.


Benjamin Uminsky (benjaminu) | 340 comments The setting is San Francisco... reflecting the time he spent towards the end of his life.


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