Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) was best known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. His
works include Green Millennium, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, and many others. But
his horror stories, such as Conjure Wife and a smattering of Cthulhu Mythos stories
(including the beautiful “To Arkham and the Stars”) are equally impressive.
Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness is one of the best horror novels to come out of the
1970s. Curiously enough, many aspects of this work of fiction are fact-based, even
During the mid-1970s, Leiber lived at 811 Geary, apartment 507. In Our Lady, the
protagonist (which Leiber modeled upon himself) lives at the same address, one flight
up in apartment 607. (This is a popular device with San Francisco writers, apparently. Fifty
years earlier, Dashiell Hammett set The Maltese Falcon in his own apartment building,
at the corner of Post & Hyde.)
Our Lady’s central character is Franz, who (like the real-life Fritz) is a writer
of horror stories living in downtown San Francisco. A recovering alcoholic, he has
a newly-revived interest in “reality,” after having spent the previous three years
in a drunken blur.
An avid collector of occult books, Franz begins to examine two old books he vaguely
remembers buying during his days of intoxication. One is the rantings of a self-styled
sorcerer named Thibaut de Castries, who proclaimed in the 1890s that the modern cities
which tower over people with millions of tons of electrically-charged copper and
steel add up to an unnatural influence on human minds. As a result, strange “paramental
entities” come forth. Franz learns that de Castries had gained some degree of control
over one of these entities (at least, enough to summon it).
The other book was the 1920s diary of horror writer Clark Ashton Smith, who tried
to befriend the elderly de Castries – with terrifying results.
Intrigued, Franz begins his own research into the matter. He soon discovers, to
his horror, that the old diary’s cryptic “607 Rhodes” reference actually means the
very room in which Franz lives today: apartment 607 of what was once called the Rhodes
Hotel. Then he realizes that by reading these books, he has reactivated a long-dormant
curse, which unleashes from Corona Heights an unspeakable thing that begins to follow
But this is just fiction, right?
During a 2003 roadtrip to The City, Mike Humbert and I had briefly visited the apartment
building where Leiber lived when he wrote Our Lady of Darkness. The address, just
as in the novel, was 811 Geary, in the Tenderloin, not far from Union Square. We
were taking Don Herron’s Dashiell Hammett Tour at the time. Don was telling the
tour group about how Leiber was one of the first to do serious research on Hammett
and The Maltese Falcon, when the building’s owner, Mr. Alex Patel, invited the tour
to come inside and look around the lobby. An unexpected treat— but not quite enough
to satisfy us.
Naturally, we wanted to see more. So in 2005, we set out to return to 811 Geary
with cameras and notebooks to investigate further. We discovered that during the
intervening time, the Tenderloin Housing Authority had leased the building as low-cost
housing. It took some navigation through the bureaucracy, but we finally contacted
Mr. Herman Taft, who was amazingly helpful in setting up a more extensive look at
The nearly 100-year-old building is in remarkable shape, clean and with new carpet. The
residents and staff we happened to meet seemed friendly and eager to hear more about
the building’s literary history.
Since it was currently occupied, we were not able to actually get inside apartment
607 to see if any paramental entities remained, but we did see many aspects of the
building that were described –quite accurately– in the novel.
During our first visit, Mr. Patel’s son told us that sometime in the 1990s a large
snake was found wandering on the sixth floor. Admittedly, there are no snakes in
the novel, but it is yet another strange occurrence connected with the “Rhodes Hotel.” And
even stranger sights can be found at the other primary location mentioned in Our
Lady of Darkness: Corona Heights.
Corona Heights is certainly a dramatic departure from the normal terrain of San Francisco. While
tightly packed houses and apartments buildings surround it, it stands above most
of them, alone, barren and alien. It derives its name from the “crown” of rocks
which rise from the summit, which stand like the menhirs and dolmens erected by the
prehistoric worshippers of strange gods long-forgotten. Another stone resembles
an altar, perfect for human sacrifices.
In the novel, the hill is designed to evoke memories of fictional Sentinel Hill from
H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal short story, “The Dunwich Horror”, where a similar mound
is also crowned with groupings of stones, while strange, unknown monstrosities are
thought to dwell within its earthen embrace (Of course, that hill was purely fictional...
Leiber's novel describes strange graffiti on the top of Corona Heights. I wondered
if it would still be there. It turns out civil servants have been busy painting
over such esoteric symbols and markings with a combination of red and brown paint
fitting the natural color of the hill. But the unnatural graffiti keeps returning,
stranger than ever.
Graffiti on the rocks today shows curious symbols in silver paint marker, numerous
images of a crawling reptile monster with tentacles, and what appears to be a star
chart. The stylized name "McFly" also appears, by the same hand. Another person
was inspired to spray “GREEN EYES” nearby. All this graffiti appears on the north
side of the highest rocks, so that it might be viewed through binoculars from “607
Following are the pictures that Mike and I took while stalking Our Lady of Darkness,
along with appropriate quotes from Leiber’s novel:
“The map called it just Corona Heights… "
"...its jagged spine and the weird crags crowning its top (which even the gulls avoided);
and breaking out here and there from its raw, barren sides, which although sometimes
touched by fog, had not known the pelting of rain for months.”
“He set himself to mounting the ridge by the hard gravelly path near its crest. This
soon became rather tiresome. He had to pause more than once for breath and set his
feet carefully to keep his feet from slipping.”
“Several of the rock surfaces –at least on this side– had been scrawled on at past
times with dark and pale and various colored paints … There were symbols here and
there that could be taken as astrom- and/or –logical.”
“After holding back a bit (to spy out the best route, he told himself), he moved
by three ledges, each of which required a leg-stretching step, to the very top…”
“Then he went down a couple of ledges and settled himself in a natural rock seat…”
“The TV tower –San Francisco’s Eiffel, you could call it– was broad-shouldered, slender-waisted
and long-legged, like a beautiful and stylish woman – or demigoddess.”
Thibaut de Castries’s book condemned modern cities as “gargantuan tombs of monstrous
vertical coffins of living humans, a breeding ground for the worst of paramental
“Really, a city’s roofs were a whole dark alien world of their own, unsuspected by
the myriad dwellers below, with their own inhabitants, no doubt, their own ghosts
and paramental entities.”
“From his window there thrust itself a pale brown thing that wildly waved its long,
uplifted arms at him. While low between them, he could see a face stretched toward
him, a mask as narrow as a ferret’s, a pale brown, utterly blank triangle, two points
above that might mean eyes or ears, and one ending below in a tapered chin … a questing
mouth that looked as if it were sucking for marrow.”
--from Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness (1977)
STALKING OUR LADY OF DARKNESS
by Perry Lake
810 Geary Street:
“A 7-story brick building with a steel frame on the south side of Geary Street, 25
feet west of Hyde Street … for use as a hotel.”
Leiber took the liberty of adding an extra story to the real-life six-story building
in which he lived.
Franz’s Peruvian landlady cautions him that he
“should always close the transom, too, when you go out … Is thin people can get through
transoms, you better believe…”
These days, the transoms above the doors have been paneled over, perhaps for that
very reason. Shown here is room 607, Franz’s apartment. The real-life Fritz lived
one floor down in 507.
The color scheme has changed since the 1970s, but many recognizable features remain:
“In the hall, Franz passed the black knobless door of the old disused broom closet
and the smaller padlocked one of an old laundry chute or dumbwaiter (no one remembered
which) and the big gilded one of the elevator with the strange black window beside
it, as he descended the red-carpeted stairs, which between each floor went in right-angling
flights of six and three and six steps around the oblong stair well…”
“Inside the lobby, there were a couple of rough-looking male types…”
“After a bit, they all decided they were hungry and should eat together at the German
Cook’s around the corner…”
These days, the restaurant around the corner serves Vietnamese food.
“A second-hand bookstore on Turk Street…”
McDonald's Bookshop at 48 Turk
“You know Lotta’s Fountain there on Market?”
In the novel, Thibaut de Castries enlists Jack London, George Sterleng and others
to engage in an occult ceremony at the fountain, which, on a lark, they agree to. Imagine
their shock when at the exact same moment, a nearby building collapses for no apparent
reason! Later, de Castries claims his powers are responsible for the 1906 earthquake.
“In the street outside the Veteran’s Building, Franz resumed his sidewise and backward
peerings, now somewhat randomized, yet he was conscious not so much of fear as wariness…”
Our Lady of Darkness again mixes fact
with fiction by telling us that Thibaut de Castries
“had only one other literary acquaintance at that time—or friend of any sort, for
that matter. Dashiell Hammett, who was living in San Francisco, in an apartment
at Post and Hyde, and writing The Maltese Falcon.”
Hammett was a good enough friend (in the novel, at least) to bury the deceased de
Castrie’s ashes at the top of Corona Heights.
Any wonder there seems to be a sinister presence up there?
“Why shouldn’t a modern city have its special ghosts, like castles and graveyards
and big old manor houses once had?”