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 autobiographical.  

 

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 him!

 

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 building.

 

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... right?).

 

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 Rhodes.”

 

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 entities.”

“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?”

Mike Humbert's Idiosyncratic Guide to San Francisco main menu

 

The Dashiell Hammett Website

 

The mikehumbert.com homepage

 

Comments or questions? E-mail me!

 

Text and photographs © 2003-2012 by Mike Humbert.