a dark subway tunnel

Weird #26: “Far Below'” by Robert Barbour Johnson (1939)

a dark subway tunnel

If I could point to a quintessential weird tale–a short story that has all the Lovecraftian features that have come to be associated with weird fiction–I would point to Robert Barbour Johnson’s “Far Below.” Not only is Johnson the first author in The Weird to mention Lovecraft by name as a fictionalized character in his story, but he seems to have deeply read his essay “On Supernatural Horror in Literature.” In Johnson, the Lovecraftian weird tale has solidified into its most stable form.

The opening line is an absolute classic: “With a roar and a howl the thing was upon us, out of total darkness” (260). The “thing” itself is nothing more unusual than a New York City subway car, but the way it is described estranges it, so that it comes to resemble a bizarre worm crawling though the darkness below the city streets.

But there is a monstrous threat below the city. As Inspector Gordon Craig of the NYPD informs the nameless narrator, “They” have been known to break into the tunnels. The threat remains vaguely defined: a race of pale white creatures who inhabit the darkness and appear similar to a human or a gorilla, yet not dissimilar to “some sort of giant, carrion-feeding, subterranean mole” (262).

“Far Below” actually precedes The Mole People, a 1956 film that popularized the concept of mole people living beneath the earth. However, the first example of mole people is probably the Moorlocks from H. G. Wells’s Time Machine in 1895, in which they were depicted as devolved forms of proletarian humans operating machinery far below the earth’s crust.

This story scores almost every tick in the weird fiction checklist, or, if you prefer, every square in the weird fiction bingo card. These mole people are a cosmic horror, a vaguely defined outside threat that the majority of human beings carry on their lives blissfully ignorant about. The NYPD are like the Night’s Watch from Game of Thrones fighting back the dark horrors of the night, though instead of a wall, they patrol the subway tunnels. And if they do find one of the creatures, they shred them to pieces with suppressed Maxim guns so no questions are asked about the hidden war beneath the streets.

Unfortunately, it also checks off the “racism” item on the weird tale checklist. The editors make it clear that some aspects of the story would appear dated today. The reasons for this is probably best encapsulated by the fact that the mole people are used to explain Indigenous burial practices that settler scientists cannot explain. (This particular details also checks off the pseudoarchaeology square on the bingo card.) The mole people are also used to explain the cheap price at which the original inhabitants of Manhattan sold the land to the Dutch settlers. Furthermore, there are certain reference to phrenology, or determining human intelligence by the shape of the skull or brain. These features show how the mole people inhabit settler fears of counter-invasion and counter-colonization, as well as White people’s fears of miscegenation.

Johnson is clearly a disciple of Lovecraft’s. As if the content of his story was not enough of a clue, he also has Gordon Craig directly say that he consulted Lovecraft’s writings himself when researching the history of these underground monsters:

Oh, yes; I learned a lot from Lovecraft–and he got a lot from me, too! That’s where the–well, what you might call the authenticity came from in some of his yarns that attracted the most attention! Oh, of course he had to soft-pedal the strongest parts of it–just as you’re going to have to do if you ever mention this in your own writings!


This passage is quite clever because of the way it plays with fictionality: the reader’s relationship to other texts and the reader’s relationship to the world outside the text.

Firstly, it posits that the story told by the character of Gordon Craig has been influenced by Lovecraft himself–but a version of Lovecraft that exists in Johnson’s fictional universe. This raises questions about the ontology of this version of Lovecraft. Is this Lovecraft the real Lovecraft known to scholars, who wrote made-up stories for Weird Tales? Or is it a Lovecraft who may be a slightly different version of himself, appropriate to Johnson’s world?

Johnson seems to want the reader to think that his fictional Lovecraft had “real” encounters with the weird things he wrote about. Since he blurs the line between the real and fictional Lovecraft, he implies that the real Lovecraft who lived outside the text also had these encounters: in short, that his mole people and the weird events of Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” also happened in the reader’s world.

What’s more, Johnson subtly usurps Lovecraft’s own originality by saying he owes the authenticity of his own descriptions to the first-hand experiences of Johnson’s fictional character, Gordon Craig! This positions Johnson’s story as closer to the “truth,” while Lovecraft’s fiction is actually a second-hand report.

These rhetorical moves and blurring of lines between fiction and fact create not only the illusion of a shared reality outside the text that both Lovecraft and Johnson have written about in their fiction, but the illusion of the reader’s immersion in their shared universe.

The fact that Johnson’s narrator is never named strengthens the illusion that the narrator might be a fictionalized version of Johnson himself, who “really” travelled with Gordon Craig in the New York subway and recorded his story like a journalist would. Since encounters with real cosmic horror cannot be tolerated by most readers’ minds, perhaps Johnson wishes to make the reader think that he has chosen to tell his story through fiction only because of the shielding alternative it gives. If he had used journalism, perhaps readers would have thought him mad, or gone mad themselves.

Johnson may have intended the appearance of fiction to be seen as one the ways in which his narrator has softened the truth, just as Lovecraft supposedly softened it through fiction. By suggesting that not all of the truth was told, Johnson lets his readers posit that there is a “worse” reality behind his story, a reality the reader could discover for themselves if only they searched for it “out there.”

Each of these strategies of Johnson’s assists in creating the intertextual illusion that the the mole people might actually exist outside the story, in the grimy subway tunnels of Manhattan, where the reader is currently reading Weird Tales magazine as the dark tunnels zip by the plexiglass windows.

There’s a detailed discussion of Johnson’s story and his other inspirations on the Tor.com blog.

Next week, I will be examining Fitz Leiber’s story “Smoke Ghost” (1941).

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

20140730_163408Every once in a while, I pick up a book that inspires me into creativity and haunts my dreams. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville is one such book, a celebration of the alien, the urban, and the grotesque.

New Crobuzon is a corrupt city with an underground network of criminals–only a part of whom reside in Parliament and control the ruthless militia. Furthermore, its hundreds-of-years-old decaying architecture sprawls amid the bones of a vast, ancient beast. It is home to humans, xenians, and Remade, a class of condemned criminals whose body parts are replaced by animals limbs as a kind of cruel, creative punishment. The human architecture has been replaced in certain districts by the xenian architecture of khepri, vodyanoi frog-men, and the cactacae, each of whom form their own societies within the complex city landscape.

We are introduced to the life of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an unconventional scientist within this vast, minutely detailed world, a universe where various branches of science–mechanical, biological, computational, and thaumaturgic–all thrive. Miéville’s science fantasy world is one where miracle-making, amputation, and difference engines can coexist without contradiction, a hodgepodge patchwork of different systems, just like New Crobuzon itself is a motley ecosystem of various coexisting species.

Ancient Egyptian Khepri
Ancient Egyptian Khepri

Isaac’s lover is Lin, a khepri. It is a scandalous kind of love for a human to be enamoured with a xenian. She is half-human, half-insect, her body apparently human-looking–below her head-scarab, that is. The males of her race are oversized beetles without sentient brains, only good for reproduction, and so she has bitterly left her home to become an independent artist.  She and Isaac keep their relationship secret, although it is an open secret among their friends in artistic community.

Isaac and Lin’s lives get complicated, however, when Isaac encounters a garuda, a half-man, half-bird xenian, named Yagharek, who has lost his wings. Yagharek hires Isaac to find a way to get him into the air again. Isaac, being the pioneering scientist he is, agrees to the challenge. Meanwhile, a shady employer hires Lin to produce a sculpture unlike any she has ever created, a very portrait of the grotesque.

As Isaac searches for a way to make Yagharek fly again, he peruses all the technologies and scientific systems at his disposal. It’s his specialty to combine disparate ideas to create new technology. His unified field theory proposes that there is a  center where all the sciences converge, like how all the skyrails and trains in New Crobuzon converge on Perdido Street Station, the giant tower of sprawling architecture that forms the city’s central hub.

While Isaac gathers data to build wings for Yag, it swiftly becomes apparent, however, that in trying to analyze and document the physiognomies of all manner of flying creatures, he may have wandered out of his depth. A terrible danger arises out of his unsavoury deals with the criminal underworld, and it will lead to a nightmare from which the entire city will not be able to awaken.

A Thai garuda
A Thai garuda

I came to learn about this book while researching my Honours thesis. In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendelsohn calls Perdido Street Station an immersive fantasy, because the protagonist, Isaac, takes all the strangeness in the setting for granted. The scientific principles that formulate how the world functions makes that world “arguable.” The reader is therefore “immersed” in the perspective of  a New Crobuzon native. As a scientist, Isaac can combine technologies in ways never conceived of before, and even set their forces in paradoxical contradiction to each other. The word “grotesque” means “attaching to an object qualities that do not belong to it,” for example, a wingless garuda, or a human with his head turned around 180 degrees. Isaac’s science–crisis theory–is itself a kind of grotesque of science, fusing magic and technology.

As if these ideas–strange concepts of science and art, religion and magic, the urban and biological–were not enough, China Miéville paints such a vivid, believable, and detailed picture of New Crobuzon that it was impossible for me not to imagine some scenes as paintings. His style is poetic, especially during Yagharek’s first-person scenes at the end of each part of the novel, where he appears as a lost soul at war with his own deformation, wandering the dirty city streets, longing for the feeling of wind in his feathers.

The epigraph to Perdido Street Station is from Philip K. Dick’s We can Build You: “I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that.” New Crobuzon is itself a character. Just as the war against the vampiric creatures that will be unleashed tests Isaac’s relationship to his city, Yagharek loses touch with the sky, which is his home. Readers grow to be highly sympathetic towards old Yag, forgetting sometimes that he lost his wings because he committed a crime.

I have only just scratched the surface in describing the complex, sprawling, political, and fascinating world Miéville creates. I forgot to mention the Ambassador to Hell, for example, and, my favourite extra-dimensional entity, the Weaver, a giant crooning spider whose metaphoric structure of speech left me imagining him in a fedora snapping to Beat poetry. You’ll have to read Perdido Street Station to taste the rest of this whacky world. I’ll say it certainly made me hungry for more. Maybe I will read Iron Council next…

China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station
China Miéville, author of Perdido Street Station

Photo Credits:

Garuda: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thai_Garuda_emblem.png

China Miéville: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:China_Mi%C3%A9ville.jpg

Khepri: http://www.zin.ru/animalia/coleoptera/rus/chimera.htm

The Alchemist’s Quest

alchemyTo create the animated stone, take the juice of a Saturnine herb to extract mercury and evaporate it to get the purest earth. Join this with its like in equal weight and dissolve both with a crude metallic humor. Putrify for forty days. You may also calcine the earth with fire alone, join it with sublimatic arsenic, and it will be the greatest arcanum for human bodies.

If visions of a middle aged man in a dark robe fumbling in his laboratory to create the elixir of life appear to you when reading this alchemical recipe, then you already have a sense of the alchemist’s quest.

Immortality and infinite wealth were the boons such alchemists pursued, thinking it possible to turn base metals into gold. Although modern-day atom-smashing, particle-accelerating science has proven this technically possible on a tiny scale, early chemists such as Nicholas Flamel, Gerhard Dorn, Cornelius Agrippa, and Thomas Vaughan dreamed of attaining the impossible.

Yet for all their obvious mistakes, alchemists were pioneers. Their techniques of manipulating matter through sublimation, coagulation, putrefaction, and distillation eventually benefited early scientific chemistry. Furthermore, the philosophy of turning lead into gold–that humanity had the power to increase the quality of the world around them through their knowledge of the natural order–has remained a central motive behind many scientists.

Today I will take you into the world of the alchemists, and you can judge for yourself whether they were hacks, or spiritual idealists devoted to an old magic system.

First let me show you inside the laboratory, the best place as any to learn about the alchemist trade. The main piece of equipment was the athanor, a cylindrical furnace stove where the alchemists lit fires in order to refine lead. Inside the hollow chamber within that athanor are a series of pots placed within each other, linked to the outside via narrow tubes where substances may be poured in for experiments.  The athanor represents the womb where the Philosopher’s Stone was made. It is also the name I selected to brand my editing service.

athanor2Gerhard Dorn described four steps to the process of attaining the Stone. To attain the quintessence of matter, it was necessary to putrefy the body, decomposing all matter to a uniform blackness, purify it, then attempt to coagulate or condense the resulting spirit into a gold body. If you have any idea what that means, then I applaud you: alchemists concealed their secrets behind a web of symbolism and occult language, rather like the notation doctors use when they write subscriptions.

In order to attain the Stone of Harry Potter fame, the alchemist went through four processes using the athanor. These are called nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, and rubedo: blackness, whiteness, yellowness, and then redness, each earthly colour endowed with its own symbolism. Not only did these processes for alchemical transformation correspond to actual techniques used in a laboratory, but Carl Jung found archetypical resonances charting the progress of self-individuation within this symbolism. Whereas nigredo represents “the dark night of the soul,” albedo represents the male and female aspects of the self, citrinitas represents wisdom, and rubedo wholeness.

Once these steps had been accomplished, the alchemist made “gold.” But saying this was the only goal of the alchemist’s quest would be limiting. “Gold” was merely a symbol for attaining “God,” specifically, attaining God’s creative matter, the power of the Word, or logos, itself. In the beginning was the Word, reads John’s Gospel, and many alchemists had as their goal the discovery of this primal creative substance. It was also called prima materia.

Within all matter, this piece of God’s own substance supposedly resided, and the alchemist’s job was to penetrate the form of matter in order to reach this seed. Indeed, some alchemists believed all matter to be alive in a way reminiscent of plants. Iron, gold, copper, and other metals supposedly “grew” underground. And attaining the “sperm” of the prima materia was a way to impregnate the “womb” of matter, giving birth to new substances. A menstruum was a solvent used to reduce a substance to prima materia and was considered the mother from which all metals were derived.

Since attaining the Stone required alchemists to search into the heart of matter itself (not dissimilar to our current search for the God particle), it is no wonder that the alchemists used VITRIOL as their motto. This sulphate of iron or copper makes a powerful sulfuric acid and forms the first letters of a Latin phrase: Visita Interlarem Terrae Rectifando Ivenies Operae Lapidem. “Go down into the bowels of the Earth; by distillation, you will find the stone for the Work.”

Mandala outlining alchemical principles and the VITRIOL motto
Mandala outlining alchemical principles and the VITRIOL motto

Often venturing this deep into the mysteries required the alchemist to go “underground” in more than one sense. The quest for the Work proved too expensive to pursue for many. Many alchemists fell into debt. They were often lonely, ostracized from a society that did not understand their beliefs. Though they thought they had greater insight into the beliefs central to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the representatives of orthodoxy would beg to disagree, claiming them to be heretics. This required alchemists to be secretive, to pass as much as possible under the noses of those who wished them evil.

Usually alchemists kept their athanor outside for ventilation, ordering clay materials from the local potter to construct their all-important furnace.  They would also require an assistant–or accomplice–to keep the bellows going, like at a smithy. They had to face dangers from the authorities and may have had to pay them to turn a blind eye to their experiments. Furthermore, there was always the risk of lead and mercury poisoning, which may have caused some of the delirium experienced by these early scientists.


Given the risky nature of the work–especially in terms of finances–it is not surprising that many “alchemists” were less interested in unearthing the blessed Word, but in swindling kings and dukes of their money. These charlatans would place a rock in a pan of mercury, which they stirred with a hollow stirring rod stoppered with clay at one end. After stirring the mercury and claiming the everyday rock to be the “Stone,” the mercury would evaporate and the clay melt, letting the gold powder stuffed in the stirring rod pour into the pan. From the observer’s perspective, this would seem magical. Once their sleight of hand trickery was discovered, such alchemists had to ditch town and flee the king’s men.

Treatise by Gerhard Dorn
Treatise by Gerhard Dorn

This is not, however, to imply that all who practiced alchemy were charlatans. There were those like Gerhard Dorn who believed alchemy was best used to cure the sick, rather than for self-enrichment. Whether their cures worked is another issue. While it is doubtful alchemical cures were anything like modern medicine, a well-versed alchemist who was aware of the sympathetic bonds between planets and metals may have also know of the bonds between planets and herbs. Since planets and stars were said to direct the fate of humanity due to the phenomenon of stellar influence, perceived bonds between planets like Venus and Mars to metals like copper and iron supposedly contained great power. Medicinal herbs, whether due to their inherent chemical properties or their magical affinity to the planets, in all likelihood really did heal certain diseases and afflictions.

It may be possible that, even in their blindness, alchemists found certain effects that they observed to work reliably, though they ascribed them to sympathetic magic rather than the physical properties of the plants and metals themselves. However, one thing is certain, and that is that modern science would not have been the same without the efforts of alchemists. At the turn between the Renaissance and Early Modern period, alchemists participated in one of the great transmutations of European history: the transition from a traditional, magical worldview into the stabilized, rationalized, scientific mindset that defines the worldview of our own age.

Agrippa's Famous On the Vanity of Arts and Sciences. Was alchemy itself a vain endeavour?
Agrippa’s Famous On the Vanity of Arts and Sciences. Was alchemy itself a vain endeavour?

Cornelius Agrippa
Cornelius Agrippa

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon

An Echo in the Bone“Jamie Fraser is an eighteenth-century Highlander, an ex-Jacobite traitor, and a reluctant rebel in the American Revolution. His wife, Claire Randall Fraser, is a surgeon—from the twentieth century. What she knows of the future compels him to fight. What she doesn’t know may kill them both.”


Thus reads the back cover copy of An Echo in the Bone, a sequel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. As the explanation would suggest, it is a time-travelling historical epic, with a bit of fantasy, romance, and family saga thrown in. I call it mainstream historical fantasy. “Mainstream” because it doesn’t fit neatly in a genre category, is a bestseller, and yet isn’t quite literary fiction. And “historical fantasy” because of its subject matter.

A compelling combination, no matter what genre it is, and even if I did enter the series in media res.

Yes, I admit it. I recieved Echo for Christmas, but it was a book in the middle of the series and I had not read the first one. And now I’m reviewing it. Which demands a question to be asked of me right off the top: why do so, if I have imperfect knowledge of the series as a whole? What gives me the right?

It may indeed speak of arrogance, on my part. However, reading the series in media res placed me at an interesting perspective. I read to see if the series could grab me, a fresh reader, in the middle—a dangerous part of any book series. So often, the middle novels of a series lag into repetition. While I have no other novel of Gabaldon’s to which to compare Echo and check for repetitions, I can still observe the inherent quality of her book, as it stands.

Actually, reading her novel in media res was an interesting experience. Experts will tell authors to begin their stories in the middle of the action, so the reader can catch up on backstory on the run. While I was disoriented at the opening of the novel, within a few chapters, I gained an idea of who the main characters were and I managed to reconstruct past histories. This improved as I poured through her 1,000+ pages.

It was time enough to get up to speed, I think. You read that many pages and you’re immersed in a series, no matter what anyone says.


Fan art of Jamie Fraser. In Echo, he might have been getting on in years, but I suppose the younger face was more attractive.
Fan art of Jamie Fraser. In Echo, he might have been getting on in years, but I suppose the artist thought the younger face was more attractive.

In Echo, Claire and Jamie are surviving a cold winter on Fraser’s Ridge after their home, which contained almost all of Claire’s medical equipment, was burned to the ground in the previous novel. Recovering their gold from the wreckage, Ian Murray incurs the vengeance of a bitter man after he kills his wife. Eventually, Jamie, who once was a printer by trade, sets out on a goal to find a ship to bring him back to Scotland to recover his old printing press.

Their adventures will force them to become pirates, follow and flee the Continental and British armies, and meet illustrious historical figures such as Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin (one disturbing image of whom I am still trying to wash from my brain).

Meanwhile, a second storyline involving William Ransom, a lieutennant in the British army and his father Lord John Grey unravels. Willie, returning from an intelligencing operation, is sent on a mission northward to Quebec and recieves his first taste of battle. Meanwhile, John Grey’s brother becomes fatally ill after being wounded. Only one woman—Claire Fraser—can save him.

A third storyline follows Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna and her husband Roger. Having just arrived in twentieth-century Scotland from the eighteenth century, Brianna and Roger follow up on Claire and Jamie’s adventures via a set of letters sent through time. Leaving her letters at Lollybroch, a safe farmhouse that has been in the family for generations, Claire is able to keep her daughter informed of their adventures, reassuring her that she is still alive and well. The irony, of course, is that presumably, Claire has been dead two hundred years by the time Brianna reads the letters. Brianna and Roger read them one at a time, which forms a neat segway into Claire’s scenes, which are told in the first person point of view (the other timelines are in third person).

While Brianna gets a job at a hydroelectric company, Roger attempts to overcome an injury done to his singing voice—his throat was damaged by a hangman’s rope in another century—by teaching a choir. He also begins to teach Gaelic in school, as his son Jem readjusts to twentieth century life in which there are cars and speaking Gaelic is considered passé.

The three storylines operate on three different timelines: the 1980s, the 1770s, and Lord Grey and William’s adventures generally occur a few months or weeks earlier than Jamie and Claire’s. The interweaving of the storylines is intricate. As I kept wondering how the characters were connected (being out of the loop), I was consistently astounded—even flabbergasted—when I learned the intricate relations between the characters. There were so many hidden secrets in the past that I could hardly keep up, although that might not be true for one who is more familiar with the series.

StonesWhat enables this interweaving is the fantasy aspect of Gabaldon’s mainstream historical fantasy novel. Instead of a “time-machine” Outlander uses the fantasy trope of mysterious stone circles that send you through time and space. These power centers are connected by ley lines. This and other pseudo-scientific phenomena produce portals that are especially volatile when the sun is an a certain position, such as on Halloween or May Day, which also happen to be Celtic pagan festivals. The portals may go off without warning, but I gathered that if you brought a gem to one of the

stones, you could travel back intentionally, though there is always risk attached. Once, long ago, the price of crossing was blood, a detail that the book leaves you off with during its cliffhanger ending.


Ley line map linking sacred sites in Scotland.
Ley line map linking sacred sites in Scotland.

When I finished the novel, I was connected with these characters. They were each well-written, each point of view having a distinctive voice, from Claire’s spunky attitude and fiercely practical relation of field doctor medical procedures, to Jamie and Ian’s Scots drawl, to Lord Grey’s formal, gentlemanly diction. Gabaldon created plenty of mystery and unpredictability, a perfect combination to keep me hooked. Furthermore, the sheer mountain of research that must have gone into these novels is astounding: not just the historical details, but the medical details as well. It made me wonder whether Gabaldon was a nurse once.

All of this combines to make a compelling middle novel. But one must not forget that it is in the middle.

Certain adventures in Echo begin at the start of the book, are forgotten over the middle, and come to a conclusion at the end, lending a sense of completion. However, other adventures begin in the middle only to be concluded (presumably) in the next book.

The effect of this is that not all your questions are answered at the end of the novel and, while you read, characters presumably introduced from previous books keep popping up. If you love Gabaldon’s minor characters, you can probabaly bet on them making second and even third appearances in later books.

I suppose this is how Gabaldon draws her readers into buying the next book in her series. Ironically, her strategy now makes me want to buy her earlier books.


Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series
Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series


Photo Credits:

An Echo in the Bone cover: http://thelitbitch.com/2011/04/04/an-echo-in-the-bone-outlander-series-reading-challenge/

Diana Gabaldon: http://naturalartificial.blogspot.ca/2009/02/writing-about-places-youve-never-been.html

Jamie Fraser: http://captivated2.deviantart.com/art/Jamie-Fraser-204672719

Ley Lines: http://www.sacredconnections.co.uk/holyland/fortingallyew.htm

Scottish stones: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/lifelists/The-Serenity-of-the-Outer-Hebrides.html