Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Going Underground

What is it about tunnels and caves and mines that fascinates us so much? I for one, have loved going through tunnels and into caves since I was a little girl. And yet the thought of caving, going into tight, dark places terrifies me. I can’t sleep in a totally dark room. I have to have enough light so that I know I’m not trapped in a broom closet or a coffin. Though not precisely intentional, bandoned tunnels and scary dark spaces are a recurring theme in my writing. Perhaps it is because I can put my characters into the places that terrify me and enjoy that frisson of fear without actually putting myself at risk. One of the best things about reading fiction, after all, is that ability it gives us to live vicariously.

I’ve been in caves and mines in Colorado, Japan, Poland, the Lake District. I’ve even been in a few that I probably shouldn’t have been in, and that little touch of fear that raises my pulse rate and makes my stomach flutter is always there. Then there was the time I was stranded on a malfunctioning train in the Eurostar tunnel beneath the English Chanel … that experience inspired my first novel, The Initiation of Ms Holly. Yes, I’m sure sex in dark, forbidden places must figure into my unconscious on some level as well. It certainly seemed to resonate with readers. Truth is, that while I may keep myself out of places that are too scary, my characters, well, I give them the full frontal, sex in the haunted mine, down deep and dark scare-the-bajezus-out-of-me treatment.

It’s amazing to me just how often the dark and dangerous, tight and forbidden places underground figure into my own writing. That secret world where no one goes is full of magic and fraught with danger. And yes I have had enough psychology to realize I’m probably writing about my own unconscious every time I take a character into the scary underground. Can we just call it therapy? That being the case, Freud and Jung would have a field day with my Medusa’s Consortium stories, full of crypts in deconsecrated chapels, slate quarries, abandoned subway tunnels and storm tunnels. Dark places, vampires gotta have ‘em, demon’s love ‘em and nightmare’s are populated with them.  

Morlocks, Mole people, monsters – that place underneath is the place for more than a few of my nightmares. If it’s dark and deserted and underground, it’s a fiction writer’s wet dream. Remember the Horta from The Devil in the Dark episode of original Star Trekseries. If you’re too young to remember, check it out. While the effects may seem hokey in the age of green screens and CGI, and the plot a little corny, it was scary shit when I was a little girl, and definitely some serious psychological parallels in the telling. My favorite scary abandoned underground place has to be The Mines of Moria from Lord of the Rings. But you get the idea. Digging too deep -- DO NOT DO IT! 

Fun Fact: Fleetwith Pike in the Lake District is actually a hollow mountain. It’s true. The inside is riddled with slate mines from the extraction of the gorgeous green Honister slate. The whole Fleetwith and Honister Pass area figures prominently in my Lakeland Witches series because of those mines and quarries and the tales attached to them. I have done a bit of exploring there myself. Slate quaries, the Mines of Moria, even Indiana Jones. These are all tales of taking treasure from forbidden places, and the consequences thereof. While it’s usually a no-no in fiction, a cautionary tale of sorts, in my own fraught unconscious, the treasure is mine for the taking IF I’m brave enough to endure the dark to get to it. And that’s a damn bit if.

How many horror movies have subway tunnels in them? Abandon New York City tunnels and stations are a favorite. They figure prominently into the Medusa novels. Fun fact: Did you know the oldest subway tunnel in NYC is the Cobble Hill tunnel, which runs nearly the entire length of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue? It was built in 1844, but abandoned in 1861 – mostly due to some corrupt politics. Can you imagine such a thing? 

Buried Pleasures, book three of Medusa’s Consortium, was inspired by the storm tunnels under Las Vegas, which have become the default shelter for Sin City’s homeless, along with the hang-out for a good bit of the population of scorpions. Oh, and of course it’s been the hide-out for a dangerous criminal or two. It’s serious fodder for urban legends, and it figured strongly in my jet-lagged dreams the last time I was in Vegas.

The storm tunnels in Vegas were constructed as flood control in the seventies. Vegas is built on bedrock in the center of a huge basin surrounded by mountains. A flash flood would funnel all of that
water right into the Strip, the financial heart of the city. The original plan was for a thousand miles of tunnels beneath the city all draining into Lake Mead thirty miles away. The project was never finished, but there are roughly six hundred miles of channels and tunnels in the Las Vegas Valley, with several of the tunnels running right beneath the strip. While an estimated three to four hundred people live in these tunnels, they were built for flood prevention. In heavy rains the tunnels can fill up at a foot per minute with currents of up to twenty-five to thirty miles per hour. Home can be washed away any time.

Most of the horrors in these really fascinating underground places are fictional. While they inspire the imagination of writers the world over, they resonate with me because in my sleep, in my dreams, in my deepest neurotic self, the monsters in the dark are real. The only escape is to wake up. The worst fear of all is not being able to. Having said that, I carry those terrifying underground places and what lurks inside with me everywhere I go, in the underneath of my unconscious. They’re never more than a breath away from giving me goose bumps and disturbing the light-filled, heavily populated open spaces of my waking world. 


  1. I wonder how much of this fear, as with other universal fears, is racial memory? We're all born into the light, after a trip down a tunnel...presumably babies don't know if they will make it, and they fight to breathe when they do. I also think that's why people who recount "near-death" experiences usually tell of a long, dark tunnel, with a light at the end of it. Since all 4 of my kids were c-sections, I wonder if their long-buried memories involve floating peacefully until a bright light yanks them out of their comfort zone?

    One of the things I attribute to racial memories is the fear of walking away from a campfire at night. We're avid campers, but even after 40 years of going, I still get a tiny chill down my spine each time I have to leave the fire to walk to the outhouse. Perhaps it's because way back when, there were fierce animals lurking beyond the comforting light and warmth, and they'd pounce on you when you got too far from the protection of fire?

    I love your facts about hollow mountains and the abandoned subways. Thanks fro sharing!

  2. I've long been fascinated by tunnels and caves, too. For a while I was having dreams of whirling down tunnels rather like Alice in Wonderland going down the rabbit hole, and then exploring underground corridors that my tourist's map said would come out in a museum above ground. I don't know what that was about, or why i haven't dreamed like that for quite while, but I did toy with the idea of writing about tunnel fixation as a metaphor for sex and/or birth.

    The older of my two sons, born in the usual way, used to be fascinated by caves and tunnels, even going spelunking with a local group where you had to go underwater between caves (an adventure he only tried once.) The other, younger son, born by C-section (breech position, big head) was fixated on old trains and tracks, but not caves or tunnels in particular. For several years we used to plan our vacation road trips to include both caves and tourist rides on restored antique trains. Now my older son seems more interested in mountains than caves, and I don't think he's taken his 12-year-old daughter caving, but after all, she was a C-section baby, too. The younger one (by no means still young) denies that je was ever train-crazy.

  3. Oh, I meant also to mention the older TV series of Beauty and the Beast, with Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, where a whole hidden community lived in tunnels and caverns under New York City. I loved that show.

  4. I definitely dislike caves and tunnels. I remember being slightly freaked out the one time I took the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel, thinking about all the water over my head. (I should have distracted myself by remembering the scene in Miss Holly...!)

  5. Intriguing post. Lisabet, I had the same anxiety about water over my head when taking the subway between "uptown" New York and "downtown," which actually involves speeding through a tunnel underneath the island of Manhattan to one of the other boroughs. Clearly, if one can travel from an island (Manhattan, Great Britain) to somewhere else through a tunnel, one is under a body of water.
    I've always been interested in stories about hidden communities living in tunnels. The tunnels under the town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (about an hour from Regina, where I live) are a tourist attraction, and I've gone on guided tours.