Leiber takes a stab at modernizing the H.P.Lovecraft school of horror in this peculiar novel of mid-twentieth century San Francisco. The story revolves around one Franz Westen, recovering alcoholic and horror writer, whose fascination with the steep, solitary hill called Corona Heights leads him into the creepy world of Thibault de Castries, an eccentric mystic. Anarchist, founder of a secret order, and theorizer of the dreaded paramental entities, de Castries' power has touched the lives of many of San Francisco's most illustrious citizens. Can Franz somehow keep from being drawn into its tantalizing maw?
Leiber does an excellent job of migrating Lovecraft's growing disquiet to mid-twentieth century urban angst, theorizing the existence of dark forces that draw their power from the mass aggregations of metal, electricity and lost humanity that compose our great cities. Still, it's difficult to keep an air of suspense for any great length of time, and much of this book is just a slow buildup without very much tension. Leiber has too much good material here for a short story, but as it stands, the novel could have been cut by 50 pages or more without much loss. For example, the protagonist's friends Gunnar and Saul, who appear in so many scenes, don't do anything and really have no function, while the romantic interest, the intellectual Calpurnia, is usually absent despite the critical role she plays.
If you're a big fan of Lovecraft, give this review an extra star - you'll really enjoy Leiber's new take on some classic themes. Add another if you're really into San Francisco's geography and/or literary history, because this book has lots of both. So if you find that you fit the fairly narrow target audience this book seems to have been written for, you'll probably love this novel. This reviewer didn't.