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Our Lady of Darkness
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Our Lady of Darkness

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Author: Fritz Leiber
Publisher: Tor, 1991
Berkley/Putnam, 1977
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Dark Fantasy
Contemporary Fantasy
Monsters
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Synopsis

Middle-aged San Francisco horror writer Franz Westen is rediscovering ordinary life following a long alcoholic binge. The one day, peering at his apartment window from a top a nearby hill, he sees a pale, brown thing lean out his window... and wave.

This encounter sends Westen on a quest through ancient books and modern streets, for the dark forces and paramental entities that thrive amidst the towering skyscrapers... and, meanwhile, the entities are also looking for him.


Excerpt

I

Norman Saylor was not the sort of man to go prying into his wife's dressing room. That was partly the reason why he did it. He was sure that nothing could touch the security of the relationship between him and Tansy.

He knew, of course, what had happened to Bluebeard's inquisitive wife. In fact, at one time he had gone rather deeply into the psychoanalytic undertones of that strange tale of dangling ladies. But it never occurred to him that any comparable surprise might await a husband, and a modern husband at that. A half-dozen handsome beaux hanging on hooks behind that door which gleamed so creamily? The idea would have given him a chuckle in spite of his scholarly delvings into feminine psychology and those brilliant studies in the parallelisms of primitive superstition and modern neurosis that had already won him a certain professional fame.

He didn't look like a distinguished ethnologist-he was rather too young for one thing-and he certainly didn't look like a professor of sociology at Hempnell College. He quite lacked the pursed lips, frightened eyes, and tyrannical jaw of the typical faculty member of that small, proud college.

Nor did he feel at all like a good Hempnell, for which he was particularly grateful today.

Spring sunshine was streaming restfully, and the balmy air sluicing gently, through the window at his elbow. He put in the last staccato burst of typing on his long-deferred paper, "The Social Background of the Modern Voodoo Cult," and pushed himself and his chair away from his desk with a sigh of satisfaction, suddenly conscious of having reached one of those peaks in the endless cycle of happiness and unhappiness when conscience sleeps at last and everything shows its pleasant side. Such a moment as would mark for a neurotic or adolescent the beginning of a swift tumble into abysses of gloom, but which Norman had long ago learned to ride out successfully, introducing new activities at just the right time to cushion the inevitable descent.

But that didn't mean he shouldn't enjoy to the full the moment while it lasted, extract the last drop of dreamy pleasure. He wandered out of his study, flipped open a bright-backed novel, immediately deserted it to let his gaze drift past two Chinese devil-masks on the wall, ambled out past the bedroom door, smiled at the cabinet where the liquor, Hempnell-wise, was "kept in the background"-but without wanting a drink-and retraced his course as far as the bedroom.

The house was very quiet. There was something comforting this afternoon about its unpretentious size, its over-partitioned stuffiness, even its approaching senility. It seemed to wear bravely its middleclass intellectual trappings of books and prints and record-albums. Today's washable paint covered last century's ornate moldings. Overtones of intellectual freedom and love of living apologized for heavy notes of professorial dignity.

Outside the bedroom window the neighbor's boy was hauling a coaster wagon piled with newspapers. Across the street an old man was spading around some bushes, stepping gingerly over the new grass. A laundry truck rattled past, going toward the college. Norman momentarily knit his brows. Then in the opposite direction, two girl students came sauntering in the trousers and flapping shirt tails forbidden in the classrooms. Norman smiled. He was in a mood to cherish warmly the funny, cold little culture that the street represented, the narrow unamiable culture with its taboos against mentioning reality, its elaborate suppression of sex, its insistence on a stoical ability to withstand a monotonous routine of business or drudgery-and in the midst, performing the necessary rituals to keep dead ideas alive, like a college of witch-doctors in their stern stone tents, powerful, property-owning Hempnell.

It was odd, he thought, that he and Tansy had been able to stick it out so long and, in the end, so successfully. You couldn't honestly have called either of them the small-college type. Tansy especially, he was sure, had at first found everything nerve-racking: the keen-honed faculty rivalries, the lip-service to all species of respectability, the bland requirement (which would have sent a simple mechanic into spasms) that faculty wives work for the college out of pure loyalty, the elaborate social responsibilities, and the endless chaperoning of resentfully fawning students (for Hempnell was one of those colleges which offer anxious parents an alternative to the unshepherded freedom of what Norman recalled a local politician having described as "those hotbeds of communism and free love"-the big metropolitan universities).

By all expectations Tansy and he should either have escaped to one of the hotbeds, or started a process of uneasy drifting-a squabble about academic freedom here, a question of salary there-or else tried to become writers or something equally reclusive. But somehow, drawing on an unknown inward source, Tansy had found the strength to fight Hempnell on its own terms, to conform without losing stature, to take more than her share of the social burdens and thereby draw around Norman, as it were, a magic circle, within which he had been able to carry on his real work, the researches and papers that would ultimately make them independent of Hempnell and what Hempnell thought. And not only ultimately, but soon, for now with Redding's retirement he was assured of the sociology chairmanship, and then it would only be a matter of months until one of the big universities came through with the right offer.

For a moment Norman lost himself in sudden, sharp admiration of his wife, as if he were seeing Tansy's sterling qualities for the first time. Damn it, she had done so much for him, and so unobtrusively. Even to acting as a tireless and efficient secretary on all his researches without once making him feel guilty in his gratefulness. And he had been such unpromising material to start with: a lazy, spottily brilliant young instructor, dangerously contemptuous of academic life, taking a sophomoric pleasure in shocking his staid colleagues, with a suicidal tendency to make major issues out of minor disputes with deans and presidents. Why, there had been a dozen times during the early years when he had teetered on the brink of the academic downgrade, when there had loomed some irreparable break with authority, yet he had always managed to wriggle out, and almost always, he could see, looking back, with Tansy's clever, roundabout aid. Ever since he had married her, his life had been luck, luck, luck!

How the devil had she managed it?-she, who had been as lazy and wantonly rebellious as himself, a moody, irresponsible girl, daughter of an ineffectual country minister, her childhood lonely and undisciplined, solaced by wild imaginings, with little or nothing of the routinized, middle-class stuffiness that helped so much at Hempnell.

Nevertheless she had managed it, so that now-what a paradox!-he was looked upon as "a good, solid Hempnell man," "a credit to the college," "doing big things," close friend to Dean Gunnison (who wasn't such a terrible sort himself when you got to know him) and a man on whom platitudinous President Pollard "depended," a tower of strength compared to his nervous, rabbit-brained department colleague Hervey Sawtelle. From being one of the iconoclasts, he had become one of the plaster images, and yet (and this was the really wonderful thing) without once compromising his serious ideals, without once knuckling under to reactionary rulings.

Now, in his reflective, sun-brightened mood, it seemed to Norman that there was something incredible about his success at Hempnell, something magical and frightening, as if he and Tansy were a young warrior and squaw who had blundered into a realm of ancestral ghosts and had managed to convince those grim phantoms that they too were properly buried tribal elders, fit to share the supernatural rulership; always managing to keep secret their true flesh-and-blood nature despite a thousand threatened disclosures, because Tansy happened to know the right protective charms. Of course, when you came down to it, it was just that they were both mature and realistic. Everybody had to get over that age-old hump, learn to control the childish ego or else have his life wrecked by it. Stil…

The sunlight brightened a trifle, became a shade more golden, as if some cosmic electrician had advanced the switch another notch. At the same moment one of the two shirttailed girls, disappearing around the corner of the house next door, laughed happily. Norman turned back from the window and as he did, Totem the cat rose from her sun-warmed spot on the silk comforter and indulged in a titanic yawn-and-stretch that looked as if it surely would dislocate every bone in her handsome body. Grateful for the example, Norman copied her, in moderation. Oh, it was a wonderful day all right, one of those days when reality becomes a succession of such bright and sharp images that you are afraid that any moment you will poke a hole in the gorgeous screen and glimpse the illimitable, unknown blackness it films; when everything seems so friendly and right that you tremble lest a sudden searing flash of insight reveal to you the massed horror and hate and brutality and ignorance on which life rests.

As Norman finished his yawn, he became aware that his blissful mood had still a few moments to run.

At the same instant his gaze happened to swing to the door of Tansy's dressing room.

He was conscious of wanting to do one more thing before he buckled down to work or recreation, something completely idle and aimless, a shade out of character, perhaps even a little childish and reprehensible, so he could be amusedly ashamed afterwards.

Of course, if Tansy had been there…but since she wasn't, her dressing room might serve as a proxy of her amiable self.

The door stood enticingly ajar, revealing the edge of a fragile chair with a discarded slip trailing down from it and a feathery-toed mule peeking from under. Beyond the chair was a jar-strewn section of ivory table-top, pleasantly dusky-for it was a windowless small cubicle, hardly more than a large closet.

He had never in his life spied on Tansy or seriously thought of doing so, any more than, so far as he knew, she had on him. It was one of those things they had taken for granted as a fundamental of marriage.

But this thing he was tempted toward couldn't be called spying. It was more like a gesture of illicit love, in any case a trifling transgression.

Besides, no human being has the right to consider himself perfect, or even completely adult, to bottle up all naughty urges.

Moreover, he had carried away from the sunny window a certain preoccupation with the riddle of Tansy, the secret of her ability to withstand and best the strangling atmosphere of catclawed Hempnell. Hardly a riddle, of course, and certainly not one to which you could hope to find the answer in her boudoir. Still…

He hesitated.

Totem, her white paws curled neatly under her black waistcoat, watched him.

He walked into Tansy's dressing room.

Totem sprang down from the bed and padded after him.

He switched on the rose-shaded lamp and surveyed the rack of dresses, the shelves of shoes. There was a slight disorder, very sane and lovable. A faint perfume conjured up agreeable memories.

He studied the photographs on the wall around the mirror. One of Tansy and himself in partial Indian costume, from three summers back when he had been studying the Yumas. They both looked solemn, as if trying very seriously to be good Indians. Another, rather faded, showed them in 1928 bathing suits, standing on an old pier smiling squintily with the sun in their eyes. That took him back east to Bayport, the summer before they were married. A third showed an uproarious Negro baptism in midriver. That was when he had held the Hazelton Fellowship and been gathering materials for his Social Patterns of the Southern Negro and later "Feminine Element in Superstition." Tansy had been invaluable to him that busy half-year when he had hammered out the groundwork of a reputation. She had accompanied him in the field, writing down the vivid, rambling recollections of ancient, bright-eyed men and women who remembered the slave days because they themselves had been slaves. He recalled how slight and boyish and intense she'd seemed, even a little gauche, that summer when they'd just left Gorham College before coming to Hempnell. She'd certainly gained remarkably in poise since then.

The fourth picture showed an old Negro conjure doctor with wrinkled face and proud high forehead under a battered slouch hat. He stood with shoulders back and eyes quietly flaring, as if surveying the whole dirty-pink culture and rejecting it because he had a deeper and stronger knowledge of his own. Ostrich plumes and scarified cheeks couldn't have made him look any more impressive. Norman remembered the fellow well-he had been one of their more valuable and also more difficult informants, requiring several visits before the notebook had been satisfied.

He looked down at the dressing table and the ample array of cosmetics. Tansy had been the first of the Hempnell faculty wives to use lipstick and lacquer her nails. There had been veiled criticism and some talk of "the example we set our students," but she had stuck it out until Hulda Gunnison had appeared at the Faculty Frolic with a careless but unmistakable crimson smear on her mouth. Then all had been well.

Flanked by cold cream jars was a small photograph of himself, with a little pile of small change, all dimes and quarters, in front of it.

He roused himself. This wasn't the vaguely illegitimate spying he had intended. He pulled out a drawer at random, hastily scanned the pile of rolled-up stockings that filled it, shut it, took hold of the ivory knob of the next.

And paused.

This was rather silly, it occurred to him. Simultaneously he realized that he had just squeezed the last drop from the peak of his mood. As when he had turned from the window, but more ominously, the moment seemed to freeze, as if all reality, every bit of it he lived to this moment, were something revealed by a lightning flash that would the next instant blink out, leaving inky darkness. That rather common buzzing-in-the-ears, everything-too-real sensation.

From the doorway Totem looked up at him.

But sillier still to analyze a trifling whim, as if it could mean anything one way or the other.

To show it didn't, he'd look in one more drawer.

It jammed, so he gave it a sharp tug before it jerked free.

A large cardboard box toward the back caught his eye. He edged up the cover and took out one of the tiny glass-stoppered bottles that filled it. What sort of a cosmetic would this be? Too dark for face powder. More like a geologist's soil specimen. An ingredient for a mud pack? Hardly. Tansy had an herb garden. Could that be involved?

The dry, dark-brown granules shifted smoothly, like sand in an hourglass, as he rotated the glass cylinder. The label appeared, in Tansy's clear script. "Julia Trock, Roseland." He couldn't recall any Julia Trock. And why should the name Roseland seem distasteful? His hand knocked aside the cardboard cover as he reached for a second bottle, identical with the first, except that the contents had a somewhat reddish tinge and the label read, "Phillip Lassiter, Hill." A third, contents same color as the first: "J. P. Thorndyke, Roseland." Then a handful, quickly snatched up: "Emelyn Scatterday, Roseland." "Mortimer Pope, Hill." "The Rev. Bufort Ames, Roseland." They were, respectively, brown, reddish, and brown.

The silence in the house grew thunderous; even the sunlight in the bedroom seemed to sizzle and fry, as his mind rose to a sudden pitch of concentration on the puzzle. "Roseland and Hill, Roseland and Hill, Oh we went to Roseland and Hill,"-like a nursery rhyme somehow turned nasty, making the glass cylinders repugnant to his fingers, "-but we never came back."

Abruptly the answer came.

The two local cemeteries.

Graveyard dirt.

Soil specimens all right. Graveyard dirt from particular graves. A chief ingredient of Negro conjure magic.

With a soft thud Totem landed on the table and began to sniff inquisitively at the bottles, springing away as Norman plunged his hand into the drawer. He felt smaller boxes behind the big one, yanked suddenly at the whole drawer, so it fell to the floor. In one of the boxes were bent, rusty, worn bits of iron-horseshoe nails. In the other were calling-card envelopes, filled with snippings of hair, each labeled like the bottles. But he knew most of those names-"Hervey Sawtelle…Gracine Pollard…Hulda Gunnison…" And in one labeled "Evelyn Sawtelle" - red-lacquered nail clippings.

In the third drawer he drew blank. But the fourth yielded a varied harvest. Packets of small dried leaves and powdered vegetable matter-so that was what came from Tansy's herb garden along with kitchen seasonings? Vervain, vinmoin, devil's stuff, the labels said. Bits of lodestone with iron filings clinging to them. Goose quills which spilled quicksilver when he shook them. Small squares of flannel, the sort that Negro conjure doctors use for their "tricken bags" or "hands." A box of old silver coins and silver filings-strong protective magic; giving significance to the silver coins in front of his photograph.

But Tansy was so sane, so healthily contemptuous of palmistry, astrology, numerology and all other superstitious fads. A hardheaded New Englander. So well versed, from her work with him, in the psychological background of superstition and primitive magic. So well versed-

He found himself thumbing through a dog-eared copy of his own Parallelisms in Superstition and Neurosis. It looked like the one he had lost around the house-was it eight years ago? Beside a formula for conjuration was a marginal notation in Tansy's script: "Doesn't work. Substitute copper filings for brass. Try in dark of moon instead of full."

Copyright © 1977 by Fritz Leiber


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Our Lady of Darkness

- Magickal_Childe
  (1/31/2010)

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