Monday, 13 October 2014

A Master of Horror Outspooked . . . Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness

It was a Friday of a famous landslide election victory, I remember, and the clamour of doltish triumphalism in our street continued to oppress me until the arrival of an airmail letter franked San Francisco June 1983 proved a welcome diversion to lighten my sombre mood.

The letter was brief. After thanking me for my aerogramme of the previous month, my correspondent concluded:
As I have written elsewhere, there is no solace in the professed wisdom maturity confers when we are powerless to challenge the paranatural forces that taunt our moribund sonorities, never mind that they issue as Divine Incantations from the poeta laureatus of Friscan Bohemia. And yes. Your photostat of the Sterling Corrigenda momentarily induced, I candidly admit, a mild attack of the jitters when I saw the amendment your revisionist specter had ‘ordaineth’. But are They not all-wise, all-knowing?                                                                  Yours respectfully                                                                                                     Fritz Leiber

The Dark Arts of Megapolisomancy.

To the letter was appended a postscript:
P.S. It’s the stalest of clichés but ‘There are some things the human mind is not meant to know.’ 
That I had received a letter from the West Coast doyen of Modern Horror fiction, Fritz Leiber, was remarkable in itself, as I had no doubt that his fan mail was copious and a burdensome duty more honoured in the breach than in the observance, but to have succeeded in unnerving the fictive conjurer of the dark arts of Megapolisomancy was to be regarded, I congratulated myself, as a palpable hit.

My own letter, some four weeks earlier, had indeed been fan mail of a sort for I had praised his celebrated metafiction, Our Lady of Darkness (1977), for the chilling verisimilitude of its evocation of the San Francisco of the Seventies, and declared how my admiration was unreserved for his skilful inter-braiding of the lives of notable Californian Gothic Romantics, particularly that triumvirate of West Coast Bohemianism, the heirs of Poe . . .  Ambrose BierceClark Ashton Smith, and George Sterling, whose life had ended in a particularly ‘nasty death’ (as Leiber writes in Our Lady), a self-administered vial of cyanide, which the poet had carried in his pocket for the exigent occasion of the quietus he cooly foretold. 

Of the San Franciscan poet George Sterling I had more to relate, for in my letter I had been eager to share the strange intelligence that I, too, possessed a mystic book, not unlike the one Leiber describes in the pages of his Our Lady, and one I believed, moreover, to be ruled equally by the tyrannous elemental entities that pursued so malevolently the self-referential protagonist of Fritz’s novel, a writer named Franz who resides in the author’s own crumbling apartment overlooking Corona Heights, the vortex of the paramental forces emanating from San Francisco’s city-organism to be awakened by adepts of Megapolisomancy, the science of megapolitan prognostication codified by the occultist Thibaut de Castries.

And the name of my own mystic book?

And by whose cyanide-directed hand is the dedication written? And, further, what can be learned from the identity of the dedicatee?

                   Dear Clark
A few more rhymes from your fellow {Bohemian poet and friend
George Sterling
San Francisco 
April 12th 1911

That George Sterling, celebrated in California as one of America’s greatest poets, was an intimate friend of the younger poet Clark Ashton Smith is well documented, and I hazard a guess that this copy of The House of Orchids and Other Poems (San Francisco: A. M. Robertson, 1911) was his first gift to his young protégé. They first met in 1911. (At five shillings, it must have been bought long before my bookseller converted his stock to the British decimalisation of currency in 1971.) It is significant that, a year after their first meeting, Sterling assisted Clark in the publishing of the nineteen-year-old poet’s The Star-Treader and Other Poems under the imprint of his own San Franciscan publisher (A.M. Robertson, November 1912), with one reviewer hailing Smith as ‘the Keats of the Pacific’. 

How extraordinary to think I now hold in my hands a book possessed by (in both senses of the phrase) Clark Ashton Smith, a fabulist who was in his turn mentor to Fritz Leiber and venerated by him, together with his other hero, H. P. Lovecraft, as the greater of the pantheon of Weird Tales Magazine luminaries

Forbidden Knowledge

On Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos as he conceived it I need not dwell, as believers in this malignant primal entity and its shape-shifting emissaries will not need reminding that Clark Ashton Smith, a key member of the Lovecraft Circle, also wrote his own Cthulhu Mythos tales, inspired by Lovecraft, in which he, too, is preoccupied with the lurking malevolence of a cosmogony of avenging entities in perpetual conflict with anti-Dionysian humankind whose overweaning destructive machinations they are hellbent on defeating to see us humbled as slaves to Their will . . . our minds denied the mystic knowledge that is in Their gift alone.   

So to understand my uncontainable eagerness to share the contents of this literary relic with the author of Our Lady of Darkness I must remind you of a key passage of Leiber’s from Chapter Three of Our Lady, which describes a private journal of arcane jottings supposedly written by Clark Ashton Smith.
As you can see, it’s not a regular book at all but a journal of blank rice-paper pages, as thin as onionskin but more opaque, bound in ribbed silk that was tea rose, I’d say, before it faded. The entries, in violet ink with a fine-point fountain pen, I'd guess, hardly go a quarter of the way through. The rest of the pages are blank. 
Later in Chapter Twenty-One, Clark’s mysterious journal unexpectedly yields up its secrets . . .
[He] examined each page minutely with fingers and eyes before he turned it.                                                                                                                          He said conversationally, ‘Clark did think of San Francisco as a modern Rome, you know, both cities with their seven hills. From Auburn he’d seen George Sterling and the rest living as if all life were a Roman holiday . . .                                                                                                                        ‘Hello, what's this?’                                                                                                   His fingernails were gently teasing at the edge of a page.                                 ‘It's clear you're not a bibliophile, dear Franz . . . There!’                                With the ghostliest of cracklings the page came apart into two, revealing writing hidden between.                                                                               He reported, ‘It's black as new – India ink, for certain – but done very lightly so as not to groove the paper in the slightest. Then a few tiny drops of gum arabic, not enough to wrinkle, and hey presto! – it's hidden quite neatly . . .’
And the content of the secret writings exposed? A malediction from a magus . . . for Franz (alias Fritz Leiber) was ‘. . . looking at last at de Castries’s own handwriting, so neatly drawn and yet so crabbed for all that.’ He silently reads the following:
A CURSE upon Master Clark Ashton Smith and all his heirs . . . false fleeting agent of my old enemies. Upon him the Long Death, the paramental agony! 

A Cosmic Wind?

The chill shiver that ran through me when I first read that passage was only surpassed by my shudder of apprehension at the occurrence of an exceedingly strange turn of events when, as I explained in my first letter to Fritz Leiber . . .
. . . in the late evening of Thursday 28th April an unexpected breeze sprang up and before I could close my study window a strong draught swept my copy of The House of Orchids from the shelf above my desk, where it landed, spread open at the page preceding the antepenultimate verses of Sterling’s re-imagining of a prophetic Forty-Third Chapter of Job, yet with his verses now marred by unexplained Corrigenda, as the enclosed photostat discloses.

. . . Know that I am the Lord,
Who ordaineth His truth as a darkness, and
the dust as stars that conceive ;
Who teaches fear with an arrow, and bitter
enterprise to thy young men of war ;

An astonishing feature of this discovery, as I made clear to Fritz Leiber in my letter penned the following day, was the fact that the foreboding phenomenological Darkness to which his Our Lady of Darkness had alluded should appear so mysteriously on page 137 to muzzle the vatic utterances of George Sterling, the Spiritual Guide who had hailed the ‘accursed’ Clark Ashton Smith as his successor. 

Let me be clear, Clark’s presentation copy of The House of Orchids I had read many, many times, and I’d had many, many opportunities to examine its pages. Other than the end papers inside the front cover scrawled with Sterling’s inscription to ‘fellow Bohemian’ Clark, the remaining pages to my certain recollection were entirely unmarked . . . by not a blot nor a spot was any page disfigured. I’d swear to it.

‘And even more alarming, this morning, I went on, in my letter the next day to Leiber, was . . . 
. . . to learn from news reports that yesterday, on the very day these ominous interlinear annotations appeared, heralded by a cosmic wind (?), in San Francisco Bay the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise ran aground on a sandbar, as you’re undoubtedly aware, and remained stranded for five hours only half a mile from the pier. Can we assume, then, that the ‘arrows’ of Sterling’s redacted text refer to the vessel’s huge armoury of anti-missile weapons and the ‘young men of war’ to the thousands of American servicemen onboard?

How to Alter the Future.

Only lately (my having just moved house and, in consequence, my having unearthed a mountain of forgotten correspondence) has my/Clark’s copy of The House of Orchids resurfaced. 

It has set me thinking. Hard.

Surely, my reasoning tells me, the fact of this near-miss US naval disaster is more than consonant with the crazed Thibaut de Castries’s megapolisomantic theory of the occult science of mega-cities, particularly the principle that due to the cumulative power of ever-accreting megapolises, a megapolisomancer can manipulate a city’s paramental forces to predict and alter the future. A theory, moreover, that finds its origin in the dark energies believed by Leiber to be amassing at the locus of emanation that is the monster-like antenna tower rising from the Heights above the Bay Area of San Francisco. 

This being so, my reasoning continues, those five hours of the grounding of USS Enterprise off San Francisco in April 1983 are of the profoundest significance. And we must ask ourselves by what degree of potency the Dark Arts can be measured when the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier – and the world’s largest – is very likely to have super-augmented the powerhouse of elemental megapolitan energies incarnated in the city of San Francisco on that fateful April day. 

With the propulsive power of eight Westinghouse onboard nuclear reactors fuelled by enriched uranium, pulsing out 280,000 shaft horsepower, the USS Enterprise as a facilitator of megapolisomantic auguries is a proposition, I believe, not without validity.

However, I cannot escape the knowledge that, according to my correspondent Fritz Leiber, the intention of Thibaut de Castries while in the throes his psychosis was to deploy megapolisomancy for the annihilation of his former acolyte. (Except Clark actually died peacefully in his sleep on August 1961, aged 68.) 

All the same, I do pray most fervently that the Curse of de Castries shall not by association fall on me.

George Sterling                        Fritz Leiber                        Clark Ashton Smith
             (1869 - 1926)                        (1910 - 1992)                            (1893 - 1961)

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011) 
and A Bad Case (2015)

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