on 9 March 2000
The two stories in this book despite being over forty years apart are closely linked by a common theme.
CONJURE WIFE : Being of a scientific inclination Norman Saylor is unconvinced by his wife, Tansy, that her secret conjurings are in any way pertinent to their lives within a small-town college environment, and that his success to date, has been due to his academic endeavours. So Tansy being the good wife she is, and in a moment of self doubt, disposes of her hoard of graveyard dirt, pieces of hair, scraps of metal, and dried herbs, etc. At first nothing seems to change, as Norman had insisted it wouldn't, but as Tansy had hitherto believed, the Saylors become the target of the other wives' ambitions - especially Mrs Carr's.
To begin with, Norman's moral conduct is questioned by some his colleagues in an attempt to discredit him, then the family cat, Totem, is brutally killed. But Norman, the unbeliever, ignores the get-out-of-town advice, and has his life threatened by Tansy whose soul has been taken over by the other wives.
By this time Norman begins to consider the notion of witchcraft more seriously, and applies himself to a steep learning curve in order to outsmart the other wives and so get Tansy's soul back to where it belongs.
In hindsight it seems that Norman was being used as a way to get at Tansy so that he would convince her to shed herself of her protections and so become vulnerable to the other wives' combined attack. For it turns out that they knew, though Tansy didn't, that Tansy was the most powerful of them all.
OUR LADY OF DARKNESS: Franz Westen, a writer who converts 'Weird Underground' television episodes into novels, falls prey to a curse put upon another - Clark Ashton Smith - by the long dead founder of Megapolisomancy, Thibaut de Castries. This is a consequence of three chance happenings: the buying of a book in a second-hand shop inside which Thibaut de Castries has secreted the curse* between lightly gummed together pages; the taking up of residence at 607 Rhodes, a room in an apartment building that had been lived in by Thibaut de Castries and frequented by Clark Ashton Smith, and concealed within the walls of which is hidden another text -'The Fifty Cipher'; and the viewing of a brown robed figure on the peak of Corona heights - a hilltop directly in front of Franz Westen's living room window.
In today's terms this is horror in the style of The Blair Witch Project. A story permeated by a sense of menacing creepiness, instead of a graphic gorefest.
Our Lady of Darkness continues one of the, forty years earlier, themes of Conjure Wife; that women are possessed of the power of witchcraft to a greater or lesser degree, so creating the linkage for this pairing. As is usual for Fritz Leiber, the writing is tremendously slick; so much so, that I can't think of anyone in the horror field at present who could pull off what has been done here. It would take a writer capable of good literary prose such as Ian Banks, Nicholson Baker, or C.J. Cherryh to match it. And since that isn't likely to happen any time soon, I would recommend that anyone interested in what can be done with the horror genre, should get their hands on these stories before they go out of print.
And to the publishers, TOR: I prefer the previous design; the Wayne Barlowe cover. Its more sophisticated artwork compliments the stories better. Maybe it could be made available as a hardback like the 'Dealings of Daniel Kesserich'. It'd be worth the price, if not more so.
* 'A CURSE upon Master Clark Ashton Smith and all his heirs, who thought to pick my brain and slip away, false fleeting agent of my old enemies. Upon him the Long Death, the paramental agony! When he strays back as all men do. The fulcrum (0) and the Cipher (A) shall be here, at his beloved 607 Rhodes. I'll be at rest in my appointed spot (1) under the Bishop's seat, the heaviest ashes that he ever felt. Then when the weights are on at Sutro Mount (4) and Monkey Clay(5) [(4) + (1) = (5)] BE his Life squeezed Away. Committed to Cipher in my 50- book (A). Go out, my little book (B) into the world, and lie in wait in stalls and lurk on shelves for the unwary purchaser. Go out, my little book, and break some necks!' TdC
Beat that, Stephen - the master spellbinder; the Bard of Bangor - King!