Our Lady of Darkness

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First edition (publ. Berkley Books)
Cover art by Richard M. Powers

Our Lady of Darkness (1977) by Fritz Leiber is an urban fantasy. The novel is distinguished for three elements: the heavily autobiographical elements in the story, the use of Jungian psychology that informs the narrative, and its detailed description of "Megapolisomancy", a fictional occult science. It was originally published in shorter form as "The Pale Brown Thing." (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Feb 1971).

Autobiographical Elements[edit]

Like the protagonist Franz Western, at the time that Leiber wrote the novel, he was recovering from his wife's death a number of years ago, and his own subsequent descent into alcoholism. Like the author himself, Western is an amateur astronomer who is deliberately looking for ways to re-engage with the life around him, and who lives at an address (811 Geary St) that Leiber lived at during the early 1970s. The scenes of the novel are all actual San Francisco locations, including the fateful Corona Heights and the Sutro TV Tower behind it, and, as late as 2012, fantasy fans could take a walking tour of the city that included all the main settings. Several of the other characters are thinly disguised versions of people active in Bay Area fandom in the mid-1970s.

The novel is also shot through with a knowledge of fantasy, especially authors like Jack London and the baroque poet Clark Ashton Smith who lived part of their lives in San Francisco. The title itself is taken from Thomas De Quincey's Suspiria de Profundis, and references are also made to Montague Rhodes James' ghost stories, and other fantasy/horror writers such as H.P. Lovecraft. These allusions add an element of metafiction to the story, making it almost as much an examination and description of horror and the imagination as a straightforward story.

Jungian Elements[edit]

Adding to the metafiction elements of the story are Leiber's frequent references to Jung's descriptions of the Anima (female self) and Shadow (hidden self). These are elements that existed in Leiber's work nearly since the start of his career in the late 1930s, according to Bruce Byfield's Witches of the Mind: A Critical Study of Fritz Leiber. The main difference in Our Lady of Darkness is that, unlike much of his earlier works, the references to these figures are explicit, rather than implied, and at times supported by direct quotes.

Specifically, the novel offers three Anima/Shadows: the protagonist's dead wife, who continues to preoccupy him; his downstairs neighbor, with whom he is drifting into a relationship while fearing that he is too old for her, and the creature of modern magic that stalks him throughout the novel. All these figures are at once attractive and repellant, and through them the protagonist externalizes his internal debate about whether to re-enter life or give in to despair and loss.

The Occult Science[edit]

As featured in Leiber's novella, megapolisomancy is the art of predicting and manipulating the future through the existence of large cities. The primary practitioner of the pseudoscience of megapolisomancy is fictional occultist Thibaut de Castries, whose seminal work, Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities, concerns the physical, psychological and paramental (spiritual) effects of certain substances, including steel, electricity, paper, and so forth as they accumulate in cities. This book was primarily a book of occult theory; De Castries preserved all of his actual methods for practicing megapolisomancy in a second book, which he referred to as his Grand Cipher or Fifty-Book. The latter book contained a series of 50 astrological and astronomical signs and other cryptic sigils.

According to De Castries, excessively large cities pose a clear danger to the people living in and near them by allowing mass quantities of certain substances (city-stuff) to accumulate, which in turn draw the attention of paramental forces. Through the manipulation of the paramental forces, a megapolisomancer could predict and alter the future.

"The electro-mephitic city-stuff whereof I speak has potencies for achieving vast effects at distant times and localities, even in the far future and on other orbs, but of the manipulations required for the production and control of such I do not intend to discourse in these pages."

While large cities have always been present, he argued that the future would become vastly more dangerous as the number of megapolitan areas skyrocketed.

"At any particular time of history there have always been one or two cities of the monstrous sort -- viz., Babel or Babylon, Ur-Lhassa, Nineve, Syracuse, Rome, Samarkand, Tenochtitlan, Peking -- but we live in the Megapolitan (or Necropolitan) Age, when such disastrous blights are manifold and threaten to conjoin and enshroud the world with funebral yet multipotent city-stuff. We need a Black Pythagoras to spy out the evil lay of our monstrous cities and their foul shrieking songs, even as the White Pythagoras spied out the lay of the heavenly spheres and their crystalline symphonies, two and a half millennia ago."

De Castries even goes so far as to hint that practitioners could extend their own lives by predicting and manipulating the paramental forces present in cities, but only at a significant cost:

"Since we modern city-men already dwell in tombs, inured after a fashion to mortality, the possibility arises of the indefinite prolongation of this life-in-death. Yet, although quite practicable, it would be a most morbid and dejected existence, without vitality or even thought, but only paramentation, our chief companions paramental entities of azoic origin more vicious than spiders or weasels."

The key to Megapolisomancy apparently lies in the construction of the city itself, dependent upon such things as diagonal streets, fulcrums based on the placement of extremely tall buildings, and other geographical calculations, referred to by De Castries as Neo-Pythagorean metageometry, most of which De Castries did not include in Megapolisomancy, but rather in his mysterious Grand Cipher.

Little is known about the actual mathematics involved in megapolisomancy. It is known that part of the science involved calculating the placement of large buildings as weights which could then be used, in combination with placing certain sigils at other locations, as levers to move a fulcrum with which to focus paramental attention.

It may be significant that the number of sigils in the Grand Cipher equals the number of faces of all of the five Pythagorean or Platonic solids, but no direct link is explained. Given his call for a "Black Pythagoras," however, a connection seems likely.

Paramentals[edit]

Paramentals are the elemental spirits of inanimate forces. It is unclear whether they are drawn to cities because of the large quantities of "city-stuff" or created by them. When manifesting, they draw their physical substance from the materials nearby. The one example featured in the novel was a brown humanoid, with an eyeless triangular face and long chin that tapered to a snout.

Paramental entities are quite hostile to those unlucky enough to draw their attention, "about midway in nature between the atomic bomb and the archetypes of the collective unconscious."

According to Leiber, only three defenses exist versus paramentals:

  • Silver
  • Abstract designs
  • Stars, specifically pentagrams.

However, these defenses appear to be only marginally effective.

Fictional History of Thibaut De Castries[edit]

"The ancient Egyptians only buried people in their pyramids. We are living in ours."

—De Castries

Leiber provides little background about Thibaut De Castries. When De Castries arrived in San Francisco in 1900, he had already written Megapolisomancy. The most commonly accepted rumor about his life prior to 1900 was that he had escaped from the Franco-Prussian War as a teenager, fleeing Paris in a balloon with his dying father, his father's mistress (who allegedly later became his own), and a black panther that his father had tamed. A competing rumor was that his father was a member of the Carbonari and De Castries himself was a boy aide-de-camp to Giuseppe Garibaldi.

While living in San Francisco at 607 Rhodes, he became an associate of authors Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Dashiell Hammett and later Clark Ashton Smith, as well as poet George Sterling. For a while he amassed a minor cult following among the bohemians of the city, including London and Bierce, but his practices apparently were too esoteric to maintain interest for long, and his occult society, the Hermetic Order of the Onyx Dusk, collapsed. From the similarity between the names, it is obvious that Lieber had learned about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and modelled De Castries' society as a darker version of that occult order.

De Castries was often believed to have a mistress, rumored to be the same woman that fled with him from Paris. However, this woman was only observed from a distance, and may in fact have been a paramental companion, as De Castries often described her as his spy on cities.

As De Castries aged, he became increasingly paranoid, and according to Smith's diary, claimed to have used megapolisomancy to destroy his former acolytes. He also sought out as many copies as possible of Megapolisomancy and destroyed them. After his death, he was cremated and his ashes buried on Corona Heights in San Francisco.

Although some believed Thibault De Castries to be H. P. Lovecraft's associate Adolphe De Castro, De Castries died well before De Castro, and there is no evidence other than a nominal similarity in name to connect the two.

Reception[edit]

Richard A. Lupoff praised Our Lady of Darkness as "one of the scariest, most original, and most damnably convincing fantasy notions I've ever come across."[1]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Lupoff's Book Week", Algol 28, 1977, p.53.

External links[edit]

Perry Lake, "Stalking Our Lady of Darkness"

See also[edit]