Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) was influenced by Robert Graves (1895-1985), H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), and Carl Jung (1875-1961), and in turn influenced a number of other writers, including Harlan Ellison, and won numerous awards. I live in a city blighted with foreclosed, empty apartments, where shadows lie behind dusty window blinds. All that is left is a legacy of debt impacting neighbors; our view consists of their abandoned space. Perhaps that is a reason why the imagery in Leiber's autobiographical novella "Our Lady of Darkness" (1977) still haunts, years after reading this collection. Set in 1970s era San Francisco, Franz Western is an amateur astronomer struggling with grief over the death of his wife, an ambiguous relationship with a younger woman who lives in his building, and most compelling, a "paramental" creature that shadows his apartment and stalks his life. San Francisco is vividly depicted; the city essentially is another character. Successful fiction creates a believable, credible reality; Leiber excelled at making the implausible feel real, without outlandish flourishes. He is subtle in the tradition of the best gothic-horror fiction, when the ordinary is transformed into something close to familiar, yet "off." In Leiber's world, "paramentals" are elemental spirits that are created out of the stuff of cities, the dust, used newspapers, the dull remnants of civilization; they utilize this inanimate material to physically manifest themselves.
Franz fights to find balance, and resist succumbing to his loneliness and despair. Locations include Corona Heights and the Sutro TV Tower; familiar landmarks are subverted in Leiber's spooky celebration of San Francisco. I recall one especially memorable scene in the book, when Franz escapes his apartment; looking back though his binoculars, he can see the elemental shape moving inside, behind the blinds, watching him ... and waving.
Even to rational, sensible people, a touch of the ghostly, of mystery, can be oddly hopeful. To quote Shakespeare's Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Mystery is a good thing! In that light, I'll share a real story: One miserable, cold winter, when darkness turned on the year's cusp, we had to stay one chill, stormy night in an old hotel in Washington state. On a hill above the sea, its turrets dripped with icicles; once, it had been a private manor-house. Snow fell on the ocean's waves, and shadowed the icy streets, few people were traveling. After a calamitous family catastrophe, and subsequent long, sad journey, we were exhausted, but the hotel's noisy guests stomped and banged all night, and kept us awake till the wee hours. Eerily, after hearing slamming along the corridor and overhead in the tower attic, when we opened the door and looked out, no one was there. The next morning, bleary-eyed and glad to make our escape, we checked-out and complained about all the racket. The owner's face turned white. She said that we were the only guests that night. Years later, we were shocked to see a documentary discussing that memorable lodging's particular room, and its tragic, haunted history. Ah well, life really may be stranger than fiction, unless you're reading a classic tale by Fritz Leiber.
The companion novella, "The Conjure Wife" is a decent story, set in in the vicious world of academia, though it's not as evocative as "Our Lady of Darkness." I suggest the lesser known, but beautifully written The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem (1932), by Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934), vividly set in New York City's Harlem in the 1920s. This is our nation's first mystery novel by an African-American. Fisher was a physician who tragically died from a botched abdominal surgery, but his writing lives on.