The Weird – Far Below – Robert Barbour Johnson

Lately, I’ve been dipping into Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, as one does, and thinking about the relationship between modernity and the weird. If, as Jeff VanderMeer suggested recently, the weird is to the twenty-first century what fairytales were to earlier times, there is inevitably a point where the transition towards modernity begins to become visible. That is to say, I’m not looking for a single point where the change simply happens but for a fuzzier moment where we begin to see clearly that it is taking place. In The Weird, I felt it beginning to happen as I encountered a particular group of stories: Robert Barbour Johnson’s ‘Far Below’, Fritz Leiber’s ‘Smoke Ghost’, Donald A. Wollheim’s ‘Mimic’ and Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Crowd’. H.F. Arnold’s ‘The Night Wire’ was a precursor (and perhaps in its way so was James’s ‘Casting the Runes’) but this group of stories seems to be anchored in the here and now in a way that earlier stories weren’t. Or, more accurately, perhaps, that the narrative movement has shifted direction: the weird emerges more clearly into the contemporary rather than the story leaving the contemporary in search of the strange. Fantastical settings don’t disappear overnight but it is as though the weird and fantastic has newly worked its way into the fabric of the mundane.

The Weird – Far Below – Robert Barbour Johnson

©Jian Shuo Wang

And what is more mundane, more ordinary than the subway or the underground? It’s part of the fabric of everyday life and so long as it works most people don’t really pay attention to it. It is only when one stops to think about what one is doing that the process of travelling under the earth in a fast-moving metal tube becomes oddly uncanny. What we see of the underground stations as we pass through them is, we realise, by no means all there is to see. But in turn, what is it we don’t see. We speculate about what lurks beyond the glass, in the side tunnels, just out of view. We would be startled but maybe not that surprised if faces pressed themselves suddenly against the outside of the window. When we go down into the sanitised world of the subway we nonetheless tap into a more primal fear of natural caves, catacombs, darkness, of getting lost, of encountering things that just shouldn’t be there. We dress up the underground in bright colours, shiny tiles, tannoy announcements, noisy trains but however we disguise it, we commit ourselves to the earth and hope to emerge unscathed from our temporary grave. We trust that we will encounter nothing untoward because modernity necessarily acts as a barrier between us and whatever might lurk there. The electric light protects us.

Robert Barbour Johnson’s ‘Far Below’ attempts to challenge our childlike conviction in the power of modernity although admittedly not in a particularly innovative way – mole people emerging into the New York subway system at night to hunt for food can’t honestly be said to be screamingly original in 2012, and I wonder if it really was in 1939. Nor does he lightly carry the influence of Lovecraft, who is not only name-checked in the story but enjoys a brief role as a quasi-authority. Nonetheless, this story has some points of interest, the first of which, for me at least, is the way in which the subway itself is both mundane and yet strangely weird. It is as if Johnson can’t quite decide what sort of position it should occupy in the mythos of the contemporary

To take an example, here is the opening sequence, where the narrator, who is visiting Inspector Craig, head of the subway’s police force, is watching a subway train go by.

With a roar and a howl the thing was upon us, out of total darkness. Involuntarily I drew back as its headlights passed and every object in the little room rattled from the reverberations. Then the power-car was by, and there was only the ‘klackety-kklack, klackety-klack’ of wheels and lighted windows flickering past like bits of film on a badly connected projection machine. I caught glimpses of occupants briefly; bleak-eyed men sitting miserably on hard benches; a pair of lovers oblivious to the hour’s lateness and all else; an old bearded Jew in a black cap, sound asleep; two Harlem Negroes, grinning. (260)

Note how the train is both monster and conveyance, resolved in an instant into something familiar yet worryingly attenuated. The glimpses of the various types are snapshots of moments in ordinary lives yet there is also something oddly threatening about all of them except perhaps the lovers who take up that other quintessential filmic role, the threatened couple, to be separated by disaster and perhaps, just perhaps, reunited at the end. Rather as a modernist text might describe a character’s passage down a street as a series of infinitesimal encounters so the narrator constructs a series of moments of recognition as the passengers flit in and out of his view. Everything about this encounter is up-to-date, possibly even futuristic:

There was so much to be seen in the little room, such a strange diversity of apparatus – switches and coils and curious mechanisms, charts and graphs and piles of documents; and, dominating all, that great black board on which a luminous worm seemed to crawl, inching along past the dotted lines labeled ‘49th Street,’ ‘52nd Street,’ ‘60th …’ (260)

This is the device that tracks the whereabouts of all the trains on the system, something that we wouldn’t now think of as being remarkable. Indeed, it would be a given, a vital part of any safety system. Within the framework of the story, though, it’s a new and exciting development – any subway system would be proud to have it – but what is significant here is the reason why it’s been commissioned. This is not about improving basic safety, about avoiding rail crashes or dealing with breakdowns; instead, it exists only because of Them, a mysterious and unaccountable presence in the subway. A cutting-edge safety system has been developed specifically to deal with the fact that something inexplicable is lurking in ‘one little stretch of tunnel’ (261). On one level, this is a sensible and rational thing to do; if you like it mirrors the superficial layer of the subway itself, accessible and explicable. But when one learns how long this situation has been going on, since before what we now know as the First World War, one is obliged to reconsider the situation. That secondary layer of subway existence, the part the punter doesn’t normally see, comes into play. Rather as the mole people break into the railway labyrinth, so the reader has stumbled into a different world, one where a secret war is being fought under the streets of New York.

In some respects, Johnson’s story is not about the mole people at all but about the ways in which people respond to a perceived threat. In this instance, structure and order are challenged by something which cannot be accounted for within conventional terms of reference and the simple answer appears to be to obliterate it. Superficially, it is all about keeping the city and the subway safe; at the same time, one has the distinct impression that Inspector Craig, formerly Professor Craig of the National History Museum, is also struggling desperately to keep knowledge within a manageable structure.

Craig’s manic tendencies are made plain in his story when he describes how he analysed the corpse that the rail authorities initially brought to him. ‘I went for six days and nights without sleep or even rest, analyzing that dead corpse down to its last rag and bone’ (262). It is no wonder Craig is hospitalised as a result of this. Now, as the head of the ‘Special Subway Detail’, part of the NYPD Craig appears to operate so far beyond the law that he can speak easily of having one of his men go mad and having ‘to machine-gun him down like a dog finally’ (261), and justify the action through reports and permissions. It is however no longer clear who is being protected from whom, not when there is apparently a militia running loose in the subways. Craig almost wistfully observes that ‘I’ve opportunities for research here which most of my colleagues above ground would give their right arms for’ (263), but he nonetheless cannot bring himself to acknowledge that his life underground, dealing with a threat he doesn’t entirely understand and about which he cannot speak freely, is not a scientific triumph but a personal tragedy of huge proportions. He is become as much trapped as the creatures he hunts.

Despite Craig’s possessing so much knowledge about the creatures, the other thing that strikes me about the story is that no one seems to have attempted to engage with the mole people in a way that might be meaningful to them, or else recognised that the simplest thing might be to work around their presence. For Craig, they are ‘creatures of habit’, there is ‘something circumscribed about their minds’ (261). They appear to remain in the same area but the fear is always of what they might do, more so than of what they have already done, as a result of which the Special Subway Detail is constantly anticipating things that might never happen.

As the story unfolds, it’s clear that Craig himself is in the process of going mad, something he in part recognises, and that this madness is associated with the fact that he is, like the man machine-gunned down, turning into one of Them, suggesting a whole different mechanism for the creation of such creatures (and one which perhaps breaks free of the Lovecraftian obsession is miscegenation and bad blood, unless Johnson is instead proposing that the capacity lies within everyone if the thin veneer of civilisation is stripped away). Perhaps Craig’s fear is fuelled by his own transformation; for whatever reason, he seems unable to break free of a mindset that sees it as perfectly acceptable to block tunnels and flood them with poison gas in order to kill the creatures. ‘It was all useless, utterly useless. We just couldn’t get to grips with anything tangible’ (262). But still Craig can’t see any point in changing his modus operandi. Bigger guns, better power cars, more safety equipment; in a perverse way the subway system benefits from his innovations but this is entirely accidental.

And beyond all that, the story provides a kind of crude metaphor for the relationship between the colonised and the coloniser, particularly potent in a city like New York. Craig claims to have done a good deal of research on the history of Them, suggesting that they’ve pretty much always been Here. What is not clear, of course, is how, for example, the Native Americans dealt with them. Craig talks about the ‘ceremonial robes of aboriginal shamans plainly traced with whitish spidery Things’ (264) and about burial practices which guard against something but he does, inevitably, seem to assume that the relationship is antagonistic rather than negotiable. From the arrival of the white man, the relationship seems to have been purely adversarial:

[W] civilisation’s coming they were decimated, killed off, pogromed against, blasted with fire and steel by men whose utter ruthlessness sprang from soul-shuddering detestation, who slew and kept silent about their slaying, lest their fellowmen think them mad. (264)

In other words, Craig seems to recognise that They are refugees, driven to the furthest margins of existence, yet equally he seems to distance himself from the results of ‘civilisation’s coming’, excusing himself because They exude a ‘sort of cosmic horror’, hardly surprising given that he’d at that point herded several of them together in an underground zoo.

You just can’t breathe the same air with them, live together in the same sane world! And in the end we’d have to gun them and throw them back underground to their friends and neighbours. (265).

There is something oddly domestic and familiar about that ‘friends and neighbours’, perhaps the first acknowledgement that They are not so different from Us, as Craig half-admits. His explanation hinges on the notion that They found their way underground long before ‘civilisation’ found its way to Manhattan but one wonders then how the population is maintained, and even why it is that close proximity to They causes people like Craig himself to be transformed (however biologically implausible the transformation itself actually is). When Craig talks about ‘soul-shuddering detestation’ one begins to wonder what it is precisely that these men detest, or rather what it is that Craig claims they detest. Given his response when his men go into action ‘throwing slugs of lead […] into cringing white bodies and flattened white skulls … Shriek, Shriek, you beasts from Hell’ (266) the answer seems to lie much closer to home. Craig’s hatred, as explicit as that of any other representatives of civilisation who have encountered Them, is clearly his fear of what will become of him, sublimated into a ridiculously complex and ineffective justification of everything he cares about, i.e. knowledge and certainty, further refracted through the belief that he is performing a service to society by keeping Them at bay.

‘The one test’, Lovecraft says, ‘of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim’ (Lovecraft, 16). From that point of view, this story undoubtedly succeeds as a piece of weird fiction. However, seen from the Lovecraftian point of view, this story is a little … tired, shall we say, being generous? For me, however, the story’s interest lies in Craig’s struggle with the weird, fuelled by his own anxieties about human identity (it is no coincidence, I feel sure, that Craig claims to have been on Akeley’s first expedition in search of gorillas, carried out a time when the gorilla’s very existence was doubted, and there was great anxiety about just how closely it was related to humans) endeavouring to beat it back with the forces of modernity, through guns and warning devices, rather than reflecting on his own experience as he is transformed.

Underlying that is of course the question of how we deal with the contemporary weird. Do we deny it, or attempt to force it underground; do we absorb it or let it absorb us? I suspect Lovecraft would have been quite clear on the matter. As for me, I’m certain there are other ways forward.

H. P. Lovecraft Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover Publications, 1973)