This is the last installment of a four part series about horror stories set in the cellar or basement—it’s time to come back upstairs! Initially, the discussion focused on the experiences of a single child, terrified of the darkness below, but later broadened to include the cellar as a metaphor for a secret (Bradbury) or oppressed (Matheson) adolescent rebellion. In contrast, H.P. Lovecraft’s well known The Rats in the Walls (1924) makes the basement the top of the stairs leading down to forgotten horrors, a kind of past life regression involving archaeology instead of hypnosis.
So far, the journey downstairs has been a personal or familial one, an exploration of the shadows beneath a single home. However, insofar as all cellars and basements serve as an annex to Hell, it would seem that the shadows down there commingle and interconnect at some level. Just a little further down, what lies beneath all our houses, our towns and cities? The subject of collective subterranean horrors is a familiar one in weird fiction and weird entertainment.
Just a few examples include the ferocious underground mutants in the 1984 film C.H.U.D., (“Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller”), the disgusting entity known as Fluke Man from the 1994 X-Files episode “The Host”, and the aptly named “Judas breed”, an enormous cockroach that replicates the form of its human prey in Mimic (1997). There are many more examples of this subgenre of horror, all of them probably commenting on some problematic aspect of our social lives together.
In stories like The Lurking Fear (1923), The Festival (1925), The Horror at Red Hook (1927) and Pickman’s Model (1927), H.P. Lovecraft explored the nether regions lying beneath the ordinary architecture of cities and towns, all connected by tunnels leading off towards various nightmares. (See also The Horrors of Immigration). His ghoul cycle of stories exemplifies this, including some episodes in his novel-length fantasy The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943). It is a tribute to his achievement that his work continues to inspire anthologies of Lovecraftian fiction even today, the popularity of which shows no sign of abating. But younger authors were already emulating him at the time of his death in 1937.
One of these was Robert Barbour Johnson, an artist, circus animal trainer, and writer who eventually settled in San Francisco. He was an associate of Clark Ashton Smith, as well as the Satanist Anton LaVey, and a member of the local chapter of the Fortean Society. He published only a handful of stories in Weird Tales, and is best known for Far Below, an homage to Lovecraft that contains some original touches of his own. The story occasionally appears in anthologies.
Lovecraft readers may recall this passage in Pickman’s Model:
Gad, how that man could paint! There was a study called ‘Subway Accident’, in which a flock of the vile things were clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boylston Street subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.
This seems to be the inspiration for one of the gruesome incidents in Johnson’s Far Below, which also directly references Lovecraft as an “authority” on the subject of ghouls. Also mentioned one of the author’s most intriguing entities, Nyarlathotep. Far Below is told almost completely in a monologue transcribed by the narrator. His friend, a well-paid employee of the “Special Subway Detail”, lectures him on the secret nature of his work and the history of his department. Which department is charged with monitoring and managing periodic eruptions of ghoul-like creatures from a subterranean fissure adjacent to the deepest subway line beneath New York City.
But the revelation that “cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers” are active beneath the streets of New York—reported in the first few paragraphs of the story—is not the primary horror in Far Below. The ghouls were evidently present even before the arrival of white men on Manhattan, and their history is intermingled with that of the great city, with disturbing incidents sprinkled throughout legend and folklore—“Even some of Washington Irving’s writings have a nasty twist to them, if you once realize it!”
Unlike the underground denizens in Lovecraft’s tales, Johnson’s monsters may elicit some sympathy from readers. The subterranean creatures are treated brutally by the city’s representatives over the centuries. After all, they were the island’s original inhabitants, and might have a reasonable claim to their underground domains. Are they a stand-in for the beleaguered Native Americans, or impoverished immigrants? Do they constitute a metaphor for the urban working class, or the poor? The view is further darkened by the fact that the city government has been aware of the problem for decades, and has expended considerable resources to keep the matter under control and under wraps.
Though the narrator grows increasingly anxious as his friend divulges more and more about the city and its special department, his friend seems oddly devoid of overwhelming anxiety or terror. The tone of his monologue is one of matter-of-fact disclosure, even confession. It is clear that his unique career has had an impact on his world view, daily habits and even physical state. But it is ‘all in a day’s work’. Compare this response to the reactions of Lovecraft’s narrators in Pickman’s Model and The Horror at Red Hook. They are horrified, while Johnson’s city worker is merely jaded and resigned.
This is Johnson’s contribution to the Lovecraftian image of devolved, cannibalistic humanoids—that their oppression can be seen as an aspect of human corruption, greed and will-to-power. Not only that: in Johnson’s hands, the management of the monster has been urbanized and turned into a mundane job, the original horror shifted from the ghoul to its human handlers, who are the real monsters. It is no surprise at the end of the story that the member of the Special Subway Detail can no longer leave his desk job, so “far below” the city streets.
One of the pleasures of reading weird fiction is to trace the development of ideas originated by Lovecraft and others across generations of writers and time periods. Johnson published Far Below not long after Lovecraft’s death, but was already articulating very contemporary nightmares about urban problems. One wonders whether Lovecraft could have transcended his racism and xenophobia sufficiently to appreciate Johnson’s insights, or written a similar kind of horror story.
As I write this, the city of Flint, Michigan—just an hour’s drive from here—is reeling from the poisoning of its water supply at the hands of an incompetent and evasive city (and state) government, who denied the existence of the hazard for over a year. Children may be the primary victims, suffering lifelong neurological damage from accumulating lead in their bloodstreams—an instance of what some are calling environmental racism. It is not hard to see a parallel to this real life horror in the actions of Johnson’s venal city government.
This concludes a brief survey of cellar and basement horrors, hardly exhaustive and minimally representative of the field. A book could easily be written about this subgenre of horror, perhaps connecting it with the sociological and psycho-architectural aspects of our urban and suburban lives. What really lies beneath our familiar and well-traveled floors, hallways, city streets? What is moving around down there, trying to find stairs to climb? We would like very much for our cellars, basements, subway tunnels—even lower levels—to be clean, dry and well illumined. Which of course they never can be to our satisfaction and peace of mind.