Our Lady of Darkness

Our Lady of Darkness
Fritz Leiber | Berkley Books | 1977 | 183 pages

After a hike to the barren, hilly summit of Corona Heights, Franz Weston, writer of weird tales and a recovering alcoholic, turns his binoculars back towards his downtown San Francisco apartment building. Finding what he believes to be his own window through the glasses, Franz sees a strange figure lean out—and wave.

Referencing a copy of Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities, an antiquarian book purchased secondhand sometime earlier during an alcoholic bender, Franz becomes convinced that he has witnessed an occurrence of a paranormal being. The book’s author, Thibaut de Castries, an obscure turn-of-the-century practitioner of the occult, theorized that the massive concrete, steel, and electrical congregation of modern cities generates a network of supernatural energy. This energy manifestation, he posits in his pseudo-scientific tome, can be manipulated with careful deliberation in a methodology described as “Neo-Pythagorean Metageometry,” and may potentially result in the generation of paranormal entities.

Franz’s growing obsession with the work of de Castries, along with the investigation into his otherworldly vision, tantalizes the prospect of a great hidden world just beyond the reach of understanding. Even his apartment building at 811 Geary Street, with its blacked-out airshaft windows and broom closets without door handles, has a role in creating an atmosphere of an inexplicable truth on the cusp of being revealed.

Franz nodded impatiently, restraining his impulse to say, “Get on with it!”

However, the pacing suffers with a few instances of expository info-dump and from an off-putting writing style. Franz’s friend Byers, who reveals a deeper-than-expected knowledge of Megapolisomancy, recounts de Castries’ history over the course of several monotonous chapters. Along with the endless prattle about Metageometries, the desire to skim passages grows stronger than the drive to uncover the mysteries swirling around Corona Heights, the Geary Street apartment, and the newly constructed skyscrapers that serve as the modern equivalent of Neolithic standing stones.

Repeated references to other fantastic works and authors—H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Clark Ashton Smith, and even Fritz Leiber himself—are meant to suggest the depth of influence and universality lurking beneath the surface of Megapolisomancy theory, but simply serve as a constant distraction. Lieber’s use of parenthetical injections (like this one) in his text (every few paragraphs) perhaps evokes the three-dot styling (sometimes every few sentences) of Herb Caen’s San Francisco Chronicle columns (also referenced), but (really) disrupt the flow of his prose (something akin to constant footnotes).

“He had been listening with a mixture of fascination, irritation, and wry amusement, with at least half of his attention clearly elsewhere.”

Those familiar with San Francisco geography will probably be rewarded more than others, since painstakingly detailed accounts of places and character movements naturally accompany a meditation on the paranormal energies of place. From such well-known icons as the Transamerica Pyramid, Sutro Tower, and Lotta Crabtree’s fountain on Market Street, to more neighborhood-oriented landmarks like the Randall Museum, readers are well prepared to join Franz as he unfolds a city map and plots the cursed ley lines exploited by Thibaut de Castries.

The existence of a Neo-Pythagorean, paranormal curse line even explains the N-Judah not running.

Advertisements

The Vampires of Finistère (Guardians #4)

vampiresoffinistere

The Vampires of Finistère
Peter Saxon | Berkley Medallion Books | 1970 | 190 pages

The Guardians, an organization dedicated to combating the Powers of Darkness, take up the search for a young tourist who disappeared after stumbling upon a strange ritual in the wilds of Brittany, in this fourth outing in the supernatural series.

Nicholas Brooke and his fiancée, Margot Prys, were enjoying an idyllic holiday of swimming, sunbathing, and touring the sights of Brittany before a fateful walk took them away from the main road toward an unknown section of coastline. Following a bobbing series of lights through the woods to a small village, Nick and Margot discovered a carnival-like procession through the cobbled streets that ended in a strange ritual. Skelton figures ushered the arrival of a Green Wolf, who commanded a debauched ceremony that the young tourists felt strangely compelled to join. Waking the next morning, Nick found Margot to be missing, and no amount of pleading could convince the local authorities to investigate.

Advised that no conventional agency could assist him in finding Margot, Nick takes his case to the Guardians. Upon hearing the young man’s story, Steven Kane, former anthropology professor and de facto leader of the group, recognizes the tale of the Green Wolf as an ancient fertility ritual. Kane narrows down the search area to the isolated village of Trégonnec, with its sheltered harbor protected from the outside world by the treacherous waters surrounding the nearby Ile-des-Morts. The deserted island is now only home to ancient ruins and Druid tombs, but is said to mark the location of the mythological drowned city of Ker-Ys, the reputed home of sirens and sea vampires.

Heeding the notice of fellow Guardian (and clairvoyant), Anne Ashby to “Beware of a woman who isn’t what she seems,” Kane infiltrates the village under the guise of an academic stranded by his poor yacht-handling skills. With the exception of Yves Lenoir, the black-bearded captain of the fishing boat that helped Kane with his “distressed” yacht, the members of the village are immediately distrustful of Kane’s arrival. Henri Verne, the fox-faced mayor (and barber), Jean-Battiste, the inn owner who reluctantly provides Kane a bed, and Pére Bonard, the nervous parish priest, show a range of reactions from contemptuous indifference to outright hostility. Maître Hubert de Caradec, the village landowner and master of the castle, shows Kane a respect in accordance to his intellectual stature, but seems to be hiding a secret somewhere within his guarded rampart walls.

The Vampires of Finistère loosely shares a template with The Wicker Man, or perhaps more precisely, Ritual, its 1967 source novel by David Pinner. Steven Kane acts as the lone investigator for the Guardians, an outsider uncovering the pagan rituals at the heart of a community cut off from the advances of the outside world. The main suspense derives from Kane’s justifiable paranoia regarding whom to trust in the village, and his sense of isolation inherent in the premise.

The other Guardian members are mostly sidelined, but Anne Ashby does seem to insert her telepathic skills at one point. She comes to Kane’s rescue with a potentially scientific-boundary shattering telepathic link with a school of dolphins—-or perhaps they were just being friendly. Private investigator Lionel Marks and occult-minded priest Father John Dyball move in at the conclusion to provide support for the inevitable battle for control of the village.

Kane’s investigation ultimately leads to the expected source, but along the way mythology and folklore cross with the appearance of otherworldly creatures, some supernatural and others the product of Dr. Moreau-like experimentation.  Plus, the presence of a feral girl living in the streets may hold a valuable clue to the nature of the rituals. Kane spends much of the time asking questions and plodding around the village, wondering when his enemies will move against him. When the deadly action finally comes, it takes an unexpected form, and kicks the narrative into a satisfying rush towards the conclusion.

The “Vampires” of the title could arguably be corrected to the singular “Vampire,” since the lore surrounding one the characters becomes a bit muddied [Vampire? Werewolf? Vampire-werewolf?]. However, the remaining title character’s alluringly androgynous charms should more than compensate for the somewhat misleading appellation.

The Tomb

thetomb

The Tomb
F. Paul Wilson | Berkley Books | 1984 | 404 pages

First in a series of books featuring Repairman Jack, an identity-less investigator who “fixes” unusual problems, The Tomb could be a superhero adventure, complete with origin story, if only its hero possessed any of the requisite skills—aside from those cultivated by performing a few sweaty workouts between meals of Lite Beer and Cocoa Puffs.

Hired by Kusum Bahkti, a one-armed Indian delegate to the United Nations, Jack searches for an assailant who robbed and beat Kusum’s grandmother on the street, leaving her near death. Kusum insists that Jack must find the family heirloom necklace that was stolen, and return it to his grandmother before she dies. Donning the garb of an old lady, Jack hits the streets of New York in drag in an attempt to ensnare the culprit.

Meanwhile, Jack agrees to help his estranged girlfriend, Gia, search for her missing aunt. Grace Westphalen, an English society matron, who seemingly disappeared without a trace from the second story of her fashionable East Side townhouse. Searching her living quarters for clues, Jack discovers nothing out of the ordinary, except for a vial of odd smelling ointment, unlabeled and out of place among her belongings. An analysis of the contents reveals the presence of durba grass, an alkaloid native to India.

Of course, the two narratives ultimately converge, with a horde of demons from Indian mythology threatening the descendants of a murderous tomb robber. Even at 400-plus pages, the story speeds along through evocative New York City neighborhoods, back to nineteenth-century India, and finishing with an action-packed finale on the waters of New York Harbor. Jack even has time for a tennis match with his father in New Jersey, who perhaps unwittingly validates Jack’s unconventional workout regime by noting, “You move fast. Damn fast. Faster than any appliance repairman I’ve ever known.”

Although some of the supporting characters tend toward one-note caricatures (Abe Grossman—gross man—a corpulent sporting goods store owner and illegal arms merchant, simply loves Entemann’s cakes), Jack is an appealing enough everyman, however armed and dangerous. He not only works through the case, but also grapples with his life choice to be a “repairman”, and attempts to rebuild his troubled relationship with Gia—with a brief timeout for wild, tantric sex with an immortal Indian demon watcher.

Dark Ways to Death (Guardians #2)

darkways

Dark Ways to Death (Guardians #2)
Peter Saxon | Berkley Books | 1968 | 143 pages

The Guardians, a group dedicated to combating the forces of supernatural evil in the modern world, return to battle a Voodoo cult in the subterranean world below London.

Steven Kane – a former Professor of Anthropology, expert in the field of Black Magic and de facto leader of the group.
Gideon Cross – the enigmatic founder of the Guardians and master of astral projection.
Anne Ashby – a raven-haired psychic beauty with an aversion to fire, who may have a connection to a namesake who was burned at the stake for witchcraft in the seventeenth century.
Father John Dyball – a former Catholic priest and specialist in Black Magic.
Lionel Marks – a private investigator handling the group’s problems on a purely physical plane.

Sir Bartley Squires, a successful shipping magnate, seeks out the counsel of Steven Kane for the assistance of the Guardians in saving his daughter Caroline from an occult threat. Members of a Voodoo cult have targeted Caroline’s West Indian boyfriend, Jack Johnson, as a human sacrifice for Dambalawedo, an ancient spirit taking the form of a feathered serpent. Two other members of the Guardians, Father John Dyball and Lionel Marks, have been independently alerted to the workings of the cult, following the trail back to its leader, Dr. Obadiah Duval.

Duval operates a chemist’s shop as a front for his Dambalawedo cult in London, and has thrown down a challenge to Steven Kane and his team; he has kidnapped Anne Ashby’s black cat—and possible familiar—Bubastis, to use as a sacrifice in an upcoming ritual, and as a lure to draw out and destroy the Guardians. Their destruction will clear the path Duval has set for invoking his Old God, unleashing its great evil into the world. Venturing into Duval’s shop alone, Anne indeed falls victim to his plot, escaping only with the help of Gideon Cross—and his psychic powers traveling across the astral plane to save her.

Although many lives are in peril, the Guardians spend much of their energies focusing on the return of Bubastis—probably a sore point for the potential human victims, even considering Bubastis’ special nature as a specimen of direct lineage from the cats of Ancient Egypt. The introduction of a group of slumming socialites, seeking cheap thrills at Duval’s ceremony, makes for an irritating distraction from the characters in real jeopardy. The Guardians completely fail to operate as a team in this outing, with each member fumbling around on their own—without any real coordinated plan, except to gather for a protective magic circle—towards their inevitable showdown with Duval in the abandoned subway tunnels beneath London.

A creepily effective high point of the final battles comes as Dambalawedo re-animates the corpse of his fallen follower, who becomes a zombie-puppet in the control of his master. However, the conclusion cheapens whatever tension has built up, since the power to confront the Serpent God arises from an unexpected source, with little groundwork for its establishment. This newfound power reads more simply as a hastily written device to wrap up the story, rather than an enigmatic character shading to be developed in future installments of the series.

Dreaming Witness

dreaming_witness

Dreaming Witness
Jean Davison | Berkley Books | 1978 | 218 pages

Chris Maguire has received psychic impressions since she was a child, frequently hearing the voices of strangers speaking in her head. Unable to turn-off the snatches of conversations or disturbing images that flood into her mind, she has long struggled with the anxiety caused by these unwanted telepathic intrusions. Postponing her impending marriage and honeymoon with her fiancé Brad, Chris volunteers to be a test subject for a psychic research study, hoping to discover a way to exert control over her “gift” and lead a normal life.

Professor Martin Lambert, Director of the Wellington Institute, engages Chris in a series of tests in his ESP dream lab. Waking her after periods of deep REM sleep, lab assistants question Chris on the details of her dreams to ascertain whether she has received the prearranged psychic signals that have been telepathically sent to her while sleeping. During the course of a routine test, Chris instead experiences the horrific vision of a murder—the brutal stabbing death of a young woman.

To her horror, the next day’s newspaper details a local murder with striking similarities to the one Chris witnessed during her ESP test session. Initially unwilling to contact the police, she ultimately has no choice when a transcript of her dream session—containing all the accurate specifics of the murder—is leaked to the press. The Chief of Police convinces Chris to ride along with Lieutenant Stephen Maravich, the detective assigned to the case, hoping that she receives another psychic impression that she will recognize as being from the killer.

Dreaming Witness exists in the sweet spot for the acceptance of psychic phenomenon, a time when pop culture (surrounding television shows such as Leonard Nimoy’s In Search of…) seemed to make ESP and telepathy almost a “scientific” certainty. Although Lieutenant Maravich has some initial reservations about her motivations, few other characters hesitate in accepting her extrasensory skills as genuine. However, other than occasionally nudging the investigation, Chris’ telepathic readings are hardly vital to the proceedings. In fact, by thoroughly checking the suspects’ alibis, the police should have found the critical piece of evidence without her extrasensory help.

Ultimately Dreaming Witness reads as a by-the-numbers entry in the I-saw-a-murder-in-a-psychic-vision genre, with its tepid central mystery failing to deliver much suspense. Although her cottage is broken into as a warning, Chris never seems to be in much personal jeopardy, with little sense of a tightening pressure to solve the case. The killer is eventually revealed after a series of interrogations, but his identity could easily be interchangeable with that of any other suspect without much impact. The final twist comes as expected, leaving Chris free to pursue Lieutenant Maravich as her new romantic interest—another happy ending for a psychic-meets-detective love story.