Our Lady of Darkness:

A Jamesian Classic

by Rosemary Pardoe

(from Ghosts & Scholars 20.)

Fritz Leiber's novel Our Lady of Darkness (1977), which originally appeared at shorter length as "The Pale Brown Thing" in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine (1977), is a marvellous tour-de-force which serves (among other things) as Leiber's tribute to the authors he most admired. The full set of annotations for the book (issued as a supplement to G&S 21) lists references to Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, Jack London, Arthur Machen, Ambrose Bierce, Sax Rohmer and Dashiell Hammett, as well as M.R. James. It is the Jamesian references I want to concentrate on here. The page numbers given throughout are those in the 1978 UK editions from Millington (hardback) and Fontana (paperback). The page numbers referring to M.R. James's ghost stories are from the Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James (and are the same in Edward Arnold's Collected Ghost Stories and Brompton Books' The Ghost Stories of M.R. James).

Our Lady of Darkness is set in contemporary San Francisco and tells of Franz Westen (in many ways a thinly disguised version of Fritz Leiber himself), a writer of supernatural fiction, recently recovered from both alcoholism and the death of his wife. For the novel Leiber devised an entirely new but very believable mythology; that of "Megapolisomancy", strictly speaking the prediction of the future by means of large cities. The cities have created beings called "paramentals", as Franz discovers when he finds a book by Thibaut de Castries, the inventor of megapolisomancy, together with a journal apparently by Clark Ashton Smith.

Our Lady has several minor and some major Jamesian touches, and climaxes with a scene which can be seen as almost entirely a homage to M.R. James. One of the central motifs of the first part of the book is Franz's pair of binoculars. Through these he sees a strange dancing figure on Corona Heights, a hill a few miles from his apartment. He decides to investigate:

"'If you won't come to me, then I will come to you,' he said aloud, quoting an eerie bit from a Montague Rhodes James ghost story." (p.29)

This is the message in Latin ("Si tu non veneris ad me, ego veniam ad te") communicated to the teacher, Mr Sampson, by the revenant of the man he had murdered in "A School Story" (MRJ p.111).

As Franz climbs Corona Heights he teases himself with another MRJ quote, wondering "what face or no-face might he not see" around each rock clump he passes (p.32). In "Stories I Have Tried to Write", one of the briefer story ideas mentioned by MRJ is:

"...the touch on the shoulder that comes when you are walking quickly homewards in the dark hours, full of anticipation of the warm room and bright fire, and when you pull up, startled, what face or no-face do you see?" (MRJ p.361)

Through his binoculars, Franz then gets the first of two 'views from a hill' and an unpleasant one it is too, for when he trains them back on his apartment he receives a shock: "A pale brown shape had leaned out of his window and waved at him" (p.36). Here the reader is given the first hint that "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" might be of importance to the plot. In "Oh, Whistle", a boy sees something that "warn't a right thing" ... "a-wiving at him" from Professor Parkins' window at the hotel (MRJ pp.86-87).

Having returned home and checked that the figure was not simply a thief raiding his room, Franz goes again to Corona Heights to confirm that he had located the correct window. He had, and this time he gets a better look at the creature before "the paramental entity reached through the glasses at his eyes" (p.89). The binoculars break when he hurls them to the ground, and he flees the hill at speed. Much of the account of his flight is told in Jamesian language: for instance, there is the impression he has of being followed by "something that was wonderfully clever in making its swift moves from one bit of cover to the next, something of which he saw (or thought he saw) only the edges" (p.91). Franz goes from imagining his pursuers as dogs to picturing them as "spiders as furry and as big". It is tempting to make a connection with the spiders in "The Ash-tree" which, to begin with, are likened to kittens. However, Leiber had an independent fascination with spiderlike beings - they recur in many of his stories - so this reference should probably not be seen as specifically Jamesian.

There is no similar problem with the link between the field glasses in "A View from a Hill" and Franz's binoculars. Until they are damaged, Franz sees the paramental only when looking through them, and in the light of this he thinks of:

"...the binoculars in James's ghost story A View from a Hill that had been magicked to see the past by being filled with a black fluid from boiled bones that had oozed out nastily when they were broken. Could his own binoculars have been somehow doctored or gimmicked so that they saw things that weren't there? A wildly far-fetched notion..." (p.136)

Not so far-fetched perhaps, for later he asks a scientist friend about the possibility, and eventually the binoculars are checked by an optical expert who finds "no trace of any gimmicking".

As Franz learns more about Thibaut de Castries and the mysterious, veiled woman who apparently accompanied him on all occasions, he feels increasingly under threat. De Castries proves to have been very much a Karswell type, who had hidden a curse in Clark Ashton Smith's journal; a curse which is now directed at Franz. When Franz's friend Jaime Donaldus Byers first finds the curse between two glued-together pages, he says, "Upon their vestments is a writing no man may see..." (p.124), a garbled version of "Habent in vestimentis suis scripturam quam nemo novit" ("They have on their raiment a writing which no man knoweth"). This is the line (MRJ p.93) on the scroll held by St John in the stained glass window from Steinfeld Abbey, which sets Mr Somerton on the trail of "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas".

In one of the air wells of his building, Franz thinks he sees "something with rather too many limbs moving about, rapidly down and up" (p.160); a description reminiscent of the inhabitant of a more traditional sort of well in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", with its "several - I don't know how many - legs or arms or tentacles or something" (MRJ p.105). Franz is reassured, however, by the presence on his bed of his "Scholar's Mistress", a random pile of books and magazines which forms a roughly human shape and which he talks to as though it were a real woman. Inevitably (though it in no way mars the book that it is inevitable), in the climactic scene the Scholar's Mistress comes to life and rises from the bed to attack him, only to be vanquished by the appearance of his (female) musician friend Cal, who lives in a nearby apartment.

The demon in "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" forms itself out of bedclothes and has the famous "face of crumpled linen" (MRJ p.90), while Leiber's paramental is made of a different substance: "her thin, wide-shouldered body was apparently formed solely of shredded and tightly compacted paper" (p.180). They do, nevertheless, greatly resemble each other in that they are both blind, or at least eyeless, and would appear to have the intention of smothering their prey. The scene in Our Lady is a brilliant pastiche of the one in "Oh, Whistle", the irony being that part of the Scholar's Mistress is actually MRJ's Collected Ghost Stories, which Franz had added to the shape on the bed on the previous day.

Finally, and recalling the discovery of the magician's document in "Number 13", de Castries' "Grand Cipher" book is found in the wall behind the bed. Like Mag. Nicolas Francken's document, the "Grand Cipher" defies translation, but its removal ends the curse.

Our Lady of Darkness is that rarity, a successful Jamesian novel; perhaps it is the greatest of them all. It is certainly unique in being a successful American Jamesian novel. Fritz Leiber once said of the book: "It started as a short Jamesian horror story and just grew" (letter to Foundation magazine, issue 16, May 1979). What it grew into is much, much more than an M.R. James pastiche.

Copyright (c) 1995 Rosemary Pardoe

back to top

back to Ghosts & Scholars Archive

back to Ghosts & Scholars Home Page

Bar by Syruss