Walking through Washington Square, it is easy to imagine an invisible web arcing over the ancient burial ground that still lies beneath its eastern end, with filaments anchored around the square and throughout Greenwich Village.
The arc is formed by a web of literary landmarks that are often overlooked, in some cases that exist only in fiction, and in others, that no longer exist at all. But it is appropriate that they are so ephemeral and invisible as these are the literary sites of the faintly disreputable kind: the literature of The Weird.
From H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe to Robert W. Chambers and Aleister Crowley, numerous authors of Weird, fantastic, and occult-tinged fiction have lived, worked, and set their stories in and around Washington Square and Greenwich Village.
Their lives and fiction intertwine in the area’s maze-like geography in ways that are sometimes knotted together in intricate, almost mystically connected ways, much like the way the streets of the village twist and turn in upon themselves to create a gorgeous, complex, tangle of stories.
The very man who defined “Weird Tales,” in his 1923 classic of the same name, H.P. Lovecraft, often walked the cobbled streets of the Village on lengthy late night rambles, and set two of his tales there.
In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” published in 1927, Lovecraft described the literary Weird as “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces.”
To avoid the bustling masses of people immigrating to New York City at unprecedented rates, Lovecraft was said to be fond of nighttime strolls, where he could let himself be swept toward the past on the tide of his own nostalgic imagination.
By escaping into the Village’s narrow, twisting pre-grid streets, the author envisioned another New York, remote and situated in the past, filled with crumbling mansions and mad squires such as related in He, a 1926 short story set in Greenwich Village.
He begins in the back alleys behind the houses on Perry Street, in a “series of detached courtyards.” The specific address said to be associated with He is 93 Perry Street, located between Bleecker and Hudson Streets. Of the neighborhood, Lovecraft writes:
“The archaic lanes and houses and unexpected bits of square and court had indeed delighted me…I used to wander alone among their cryptical windings and brood upon the curious arcana which generations must have deposited there. This kept my soul alive, and gave me a few of those dreams and visions for which the poet far within me cried out.”
To this day, those who visit the northmost boundaries of the Village, at 14th Street, can visit Lovecraft’s friend George Kirk’s former home, where the author set his short story about an insane physician searching for eternal laife: “Cool Air,” published in 1926 and set at 317 West 14th Street, now the Chelsea Pines Inn.
“Cool Air” shares many similarities with another Weird Tale about a medical man with an interest in prolonging life: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” published in 1845, which Poe wrote while living at 85 Amity Street, now West Third. Poe was a huge influence on Lovecraft, who called him his “God of Fiction.”
In Poe we have another strand in the web-of-weird that loops and weaves throughout the Village; his specter suffuses a number of sites throughout the neighborhood. During his first failed attempt to live in New York City, from 1837-1838, Poe resided at 113 ½ Carmine Street, a street now better-known for the Grey Dog Coffee House, than the macabre. Then Poe moved to the intersection of Waverly Place and Sixth Avenue, the exact address of which has been lost to time.
These initial forays into living in New York were badly timed. Poe arrived just as the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1837 sent its shockwaves rippling through the American economy. Failing to find any sustainable writing or editing work, he left the city for Philadelphia. When he returned to New York in the spring of 1844, he lived in a series of boarding houses in Lower Manhattan and a farmhouse on the Upper West Side — where he notably wrote “The Raven” — before moving back to Amity Street in Greenwich Village.
Though Poe had already written a few minor classics such as “Valdemar” while residing on Amity Street, the publication of “The Raven” in 1845 catapulted him to the apex of his success at the time he lived there. After housing the Poe family, 85 Amity Street was, for a period, an Italian restaurant. Then, in the early 2000s, New York University demolished the site to build Furman Hall, complete with a replica of its former building.
Poe was very much involved in Village literary life, and was a fixture at poet, Anne Lynch Botta‘s literary salons at 116 Waverly Place, where he publicly recited early drafts of “The Raven” for the first time in public.
Not too far from where the great granddaddy of American Weird Fiction recited “The Raven” we find another strand of our web. The northern border of Washington Square has connections to two of this country’s great authors of haunting and ghostly tales, though that is not primarily what they are known for.
Edith Wharton, who lived at 7 Washington Square when she was twenty years old, takes her place firmly among the canonical authors of American Fantastic Fiction — a category that includes horror, fantasy, and science fiction as well as the Weird Tale. Of her short ghost stories, the best known is probably “Afterward,” a ghost story about a business relationship gone wrong. But another cult-classic is “Kerfol,” a captivating tale about a murderous pack of ghostly dogs.
Then, there’s Wharton’s friend Henry James, who spent his childhood adjacent to Washington Square, at 21 Washington Place, just around the block from his grandmother who lived at 18 Washington Square.
The ghost story canon would be incomplete without James’ The Turn of the Screw, though he penned several other worthy short ghost stories, including “The Way It Came,” “The Real Right Thing,” “Sir Edmund Orme,” “The Ghostly Rental,” and the unforgettable short story, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” a tale about the supernatural misfortune that befalls the daughter of a recently widowed woman.
Of the more obscure authors, even if more fantastic, who penned tales of the weird in Washington Square, is Robert W. Chambers whose mind has spun many a timeless and terrifying story.
In Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations,” a short story published in his 1895 collection The King In Yellow, Washington Square, specifically the “south side of Washington Square, between Wooster and South Fifth Avenue, is the site of the fictitious Government Lethal Chamber, a government-built neoclassical edifice whose purpose is to provide a safe and sterile venue for those who seek a “painless death [for those] who can no longer bear the sorrows of life.”
From the story:
“In the following winter began that agitation for the repeal of the laws prohibiting suicide, which bore its final fruit in the month of April 1920, when the first Government Lethal Chamber was opened on Washington Square.”
The story is set in a “futuristic” 1920, where a militarized, quasi- fascistic government cleanly removes suicidal people from society. Some of the other changes in the story’s imagined, cleaned up New York — besides the very active militia — include tearing down the elevated subways, substituting working piers for waterfront parks, and tearing down old buildings such as ethnic “restaurants for foreigners” to make way for new, shiny, impersonal architecture.
Another Washington Square author of ghostly predilections is detective writer Aleister Crowley who lived at 1 University Place in 1918. (The current building at that address was constructed in 1929, but he lived in an artist’s studio that was formerly on that site.) Crowley was one of the preeminent occultists of the 20th Century as well as a prolific multi-genre writer, having dashed off a series of detective stories between 1916 and 1919 when he was strapped for cash.
The stories feature a mystic detective named Simon Iff, described as a “magician-philosopher-psychoanalyst,” who was likely an older version of Crowley’s own larger-than-life persona. The tales aren’t paranormal in nature but do rely heavily on Iff’s own magical qualities. Almost like a counterpoint to Sherlock Holmes, Iff relies only partly on his logic and much more on his prescient abilities to tap into the great psychic universal unconscious — which he believed was all-knowing — to solve a wide range of mysteries.
Crowley wrote numerous other short stories in various genres, including fantasy; his tale “Atlantis” is published in this Wordsworth edition along with fifty-three additional stories that run the gamut from noir to memoir. Like the Simon Iff stories, most of these were penned quickly, and strictly for the money. Though Crowley’s written works number in the hundreds when you take into account his poetry, fiction and nonfiction, his writing and art — oh yes, he painted, too — pales in comparison to the life he lived.
He summited mountains, created religions, courted controversy, practiced “magik” and met loads of amazing people, not always with harmonious results. When Crowley was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he clashed with fellow member William Butler Yeats and had a tenuous friendship with Arthur Edward Waite, co-designer of the famed Rider-Waite tarot deck.
Which is where the strands of the web begin to get tangled in the most delightful ways: biblical scholar Robert M. Price asserts that Arthur Edward Waite was the real-life model for occultist Ephraim Waite in H.P. Lovecraft’s eerie short story “The Thing on the Doorstep.” Though it’s also plausible that the “notorious cult-leader, lately expelled from England, who had established headquarters in New York” may actually have been modeled on Crowley himself.
It is when you begin to make these leaps and associations that the web tightens around the Village and Washington Square, as the strands spin themselves in ever more intricate formations.
Andrea Janes is the author of BOROUGHS OF THE DEAD: New York City Ghost Stories, and the founder of Boroughs of the Dead: Macabre New York City Walking Tours. The book is a work of fiction, but in the course of her research, she discovered the city was a wealth of ghostly, gory stories, and decided she wanted to share them with the world. Boroughs of the Dead offers a “Weird Tales of the West Village” walking tour year-round, and an “Edgar Allan Poe’s Greenwich Village” tour in October and January.