Gather, Darkness!: Hard times in Megatheopolis

Gather, Darkness! Hardcover – 1951 by Fritz Leiber (Author)Gather, Darkness! by Fritz Leiber science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsGather, Darkness! by Fritz Leiber

By April 1943, Chicago-born author Fritz Leiber had seen around 20 of his short stories released in the various pulp magazines of the day and was ready to embark as a full-fledged novelist. Thus, his first longer work, Conjure Wife, did indeed make its debut in the 4/43 issue of Unknown, the fantasy-oriented sister magazine of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction. In it, a college professor, Norman Saylor, discovers that his wife, Tansy, is nothing less than a practicing witch, leading to increasingly dire and supernatural consequences. Leiber’s second novel, released just a month later, was Gather, Darkness!, and it, too, featured the subject of witchcraft … but in a far-future setting and with a hard sci-fi backdrop, thus making it prime fodder for Astounding’s May ’43 issue. But this tale was a lot longer than Conjure Wife had been (that first novel would be revised and expanded years later), and so was serialized over the course of the May, June and July issues, that first issue copping the coveted cover art treatment by William Timmins. Gather, Darkness! would see its first publication in book form as a $2.75 hardcover from the small publisher Pelligrini & Cudahy, in 1950 … three years before Conjure Wife received a similar treatment. For this reason, perhaps, it has often been referred to as Leiber’s first novel, although, as has been seen, it was technically his second.

This reader has long been a fan of Conjure Wife, but for some reason, it has taken me all these years to catch up with Leiber’s sophomore novel. The blame is really all mine, as there has been no shortage of opportunities to find a copy of the book over the intervening decades. It has gone through at least 26 incarnations, and the one that I recently picked up was the 1979 Ballantine edition, with cover art by Darrell Sweet. So now, I can finally concur with Scottish critic David Pringle, who, in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, refers to Gather, Darkness! as “1940s magazine sf at its most sophisticated.”

Leiber’s novel takes place in what would have been the year 2305 but is now called year 139 of the Great God. Several hundred years earlier, as mankind began slipping into barbarism and self-destruction, a group of scientists had decided that the only way to stave off catastrophe would be to establish a new religion, but one based upon science. The populace proved eager to lap up this pseudo-religion, in which “miracles” were produced using mechanical means, and by the time our story opens, the so-called Church of the Great God has become firmly entrenched, its scientist priests power hungry and corrupt, and the populace little more than superstitious serfs. But lately, a rebellious group known as the New Witchcraft has begun to stir up trouble, employing their own scientific methods to make the priests of the Hierarchy look foolish. And things really begin to heat up when a young, junior priest, Armon Jarles — disgusted with the Hierarchy after having initially been a gung-ho inductee two years earlier — begins to rail against the Church on the steps of the Grand Cathedral, in the capital city of Megatheopolis.Gather, Darkness! by Fritz Leiber science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

Jarles is summarily kidnapped by the New Witchcraft and is offered admission into their ranks, but the befuddled priest is uncertain if he wishes to so commit himself that far … yet. And his befuddlement soon grows even worse, after being retaken by the Hierarchy and subjected to their personality-altering devices. Now once again an ardent supporter of his corrupt priestly brothers, Jarles goes on to plot the New Witchcraft’s destruction, while Leiber introduces us to a host of fascinating characters, among them Brother Goniface, born Knowles Satrick, the clever and scheming Archpriest of the Hierarchy, who has plotted and murdered to get to his current high estate (including the murder of his own half-sister, it seems), all the while nursing a childhood shame; the otherwise nameless Black Man, the jovial and prankish second-in-command of the New Witchcraft; Sharlson Naurya, another member of the revolutionary group, and a female witch who harbors a secret grudge against Goniface; Mother Jujy, an old crone who wanders the ancient tunnels of Megatheopolis and claims to be an actual, legitimate witch; and Dickon, the monkeylike “familiar” of the Black Man, created via the advanced microbiological process known as “chromosome-stripping,” who is in constant telepathic rapport with his larger, twin “brother.” And then there is the mysterious figure known only as Asmodeus, whose identity nobody seems to know, but who — as the founder of the New Witchcraft — is unremitting in the furtherance of the Hierarchy’s destruction…

As you might be able to tell, in this, his second novel, Leiber subverts readers’ expectations by making the usually heroic forces of science the villains of the piece, while giving us a supposed devil-worshipping order of witches that is fighting for an emancipation from tyranny. But to be perfectly honest, Gather, Darkness! is a book that is fairly replete with all manner of surprises (good luck trying to figure out the identity of that Asmodeus character!), not to mention constant invention, wonders and movement. Leiber lends credibility to his Hierarchy by incorporating any number of ingenious details. Thus, the priestly robes that can emit a protective force shield around their wearer, as well as an electronic halo above his head; the larger-than-life mechanical “angels” that fly and swoop and keep eyes on the populace; the so-called “wrath rods” that the Hierarchical members carry to punish or slay; the sympathetic and parasympathetic vibrations that the Hierarchy uses to alter the mood of unruly crowds; the “telesolidographic projections” (think of long-distance, 3-D holograms) that the New Witchcraft employs to frighten the commoners as well as the priesthood; and the manner in which a disfavored priest is summarily “excommunicated”: He is deprived of all his senses by mechanical emanations, and rendered conscious but “doomed for a year to the private hell of his own thoughts — a year that would be an eternity, for there would be in it no way to measure time…” And then there is the matter of those familiars, truly fascinating and sympathetic creations, each one a stripped-down mini-version of its original, and wholly devoted to its brother or sister.

Gather, Darkness! by Fritz Leiber science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAlso interesting to this reader were the unusual character names that we are presented with … unusual until one considers that perhaps, at some time during the previous 300 years or so, mankind could have transposed the positions of its surnames and Christian names and slightly altered them. And so, Armon Jarles might once have been something akin to Charles Harmon; Sharlson Naurya could have been Maura Carlson; Knowles Satrick may have been Patrick Knowles. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate ploy on the author’s part or not, but it somehow added a pleasing, convincing touch for this reader. In all, Leiber’s second novel is a true page-turner, and the several evenings that I spent with it were very pleasant ones for me, indeed.

Still, the tale does come with several problems. For one thing, despite its 216-page length (again, my Ballantine edition), the book feels as if it should have been even longer; that some background material could have been given more detail. Other than Goniface and, to a lesser degree, Jarles, characterizations in the book are sketchy, at best. The hinted-at relationship between Jarles and Naurya, which existed before the events in the novel begin, is never satisfactorily delineated, and the precise motivations of Asmodeus, when his/her secret identity is revealed, remain nebulous by the book’s end. Even Goniface himself is mystified regarding this last matter. But these are relatively minor matters, and Leiber’s story remains a compelling and memorable one.

Today, Gather, Darkness! has received some latter-day attention, more than 75 years after its initial release, by dint of its receiving a nomination for a Retro Hugo Award: Best Novel, 1943. But it is up against some fairly heavyweight competition. Also nominated for the coveted prize are Conjure Wife itself (How many times in Hugo history has an author competed against him- or herself? Not too many, I would wager!), as well as Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Earth’s Last Citadel (a novel that I enjoyed very much, from two of my favorite authors, but one that also failed to answer all of my questions). Also up for the award are three novels that I have long wanted to read but, to my great embarrassment, have failed to catch up with … yet. Those three novels are A . E. van Vogt’s The Weapon Makers (the sequel to his 1941 – ’42 serialized novel The Weapon Shops of Isher), C. S. LewisPerelandra (his sequel to 1938’s Out of the Silent Planet), and finally, The Glass Bead Game, by German author Hermann Hesse, for which he ultimately received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

So which novel will/should cop the award? Well, of the three that I’ve experienced, I’d select Gather, Darkness!, which is a more satisfying read than the Kuttner/Moore work, and more sci-fi oriented than Conjure Wife. I would not put my money on the van Vogt book, however, as that author’s cachet has seemingly dimmed in the modern era. Lewis’ PERELANDRA trilogy is surely beloved in many quarters, and as for the Hesse novel, I would imagine that it could be a difficult matter to vote against a Nobel Prize winner. (Has any novel ever won a Nobel Prize as well as a Hugo? I tend to think not, but how cool would it be if that did happen?) Anyway, as you can see, it’s a tough race to call, but my hunch is that either Perelandra or the Hesse novel will claim the honor when the Hugos are announced this coming August 15th. But whichever of the six Golden Age novels wins the day, I doubt very much that it offers as much imaginative flair and thoughtful fun as Fritz Leiber’s Gather, Darkness!. And really, in what other book are you going to find a monkeylike, telepathic clone being given life-sustaining blood from a haglike witch? Now that’s what I call a selling point…

Published in 1943. From a Grand Master of Science Fiction and Fantasy: In a post-apocalyptic future, a priest must fight the forces of evil in order to bring freedom to humanity. Three-hundred and sixty years after a nuclear holocaust ravaged mankind, the world is fraught with chaos and superstition. Endowed with scientific knowledge lost to the rest of humanity, Techno-priests of the Great God now rule. Jarles, originally of peasant descent, rises to become a priest of the Great God. He knows that the gospel is nothing but trickery propagated by non-believers. One day, he defies his priestly training and attempts to incite the peasants to rebel—but Jarles is not the only dissenter trying to bring down the priesthood—witchcraft is slowly gaining strength and support among the populace. Little does Jarles know his rebellion is about to throw him headlong into the middle of the greatest holy war the world has ever seen.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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7 comments

  1. Leiber is one of my favourites. Though admittedly that is a fairly long list.

    Sandy, I may have to start following your lead and reading along in your wake: I’m ‘into’ the same material, though I have managed to read a few you say you have not got to yet (forgive my small brag there.) Thank you for pointing out the works I may otherwise have passed by. There are so many!

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Becky, the list of books that I have NOT read (yet) must be around 10 times longer than the list of books that I have. No matter how much I read, there always seems to be more and more books to discover. And I wouldn’t have it any other way!

  2. Paul Connelly /

    That brings back memories! I loved that book as a teenager (had the paperback with the Richard Powers cover, which is gorgeous).The characters are not very deep (probably par for Astounding) but the whole concept is very clever and well executed.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      As you could tell, Paul, I couldn’t agree more….

  3. I love Fritz Leiber!!

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