Adventures in Writing | Subterranean Primer

Matthew Tansek
Feb 23 · 7 min read

Does the underground call to you? Are you intrigued with dark subterranean spaces? Well, you should be! They can be incredibly provocative and interesting settings for a story, at times lending their unique qualities as much to a scene as a character would. In this article you are going to learn all about the underground as we take a look at what it can bring to the table, what kinds of underground locations there are to play with, and a bit about the real world underground as it is separate from the imaginative places we may have read about or seen on screen. To be clear this article will be dealing with actual subterranean spaces, not a resistance movement sometimes referred to as the underground, nor are we talking about a biblical hell. Although admittedly as in all things there is a bit of a grey area here.

Oh, and recommended reading to get you going.

Let us delve!

The underground, a place rife with ominous dripping water, blackness thicker than night, and obscure passages that can be found in both the remote wilderness as well as the urban metropolis. No matter which way you cut it subterranean spaces are emotional places.

Just put your imaginative shoes into those of an explorer going down into the depths of an uncharted passageway. Think about what kinds of things you might find down there, and how long those things might have gone untouched in the protected cool recesses of the place. Caves can be like the surface of the moon, they can preserve things in a way you don’t find in the “regular” natural world. Things like human remains become mummified, wooden objects can be spared the disintegrating power of rot, and even metallic objects can persist in a steady state so long as they are away from water. The underground can act as the ultimate time capsule!

With forgotten spaces far away from the light comes the unknown. H.P. Lovecraft has a great quote about the unknown:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
― H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

It’s a great opportunity for a writer to insert things that have not yet been classified and studied by the world at large. Be they mole people, be they eyeless dinosaurs, be they sentient protoplasm. Putting them underground makes them seem more plausible, and the plausibility of the unknown is terrifying.

So let’s touch on the feeling of being forgotten or lost that the underground conjures up. Perhaps your mind conjures up images of underground places untouched since they were last used as WWII bunkers, still replete with all of the trappings of that time. Or perhaps your mind imagines coming across the remains of previous spelunkers, who wandered until their lights and rations ran out. Was that sound in the distance just the earth moving, or something more? Either way, the feeling that the underground is so removed from the rest of the world is a strong one. The big three emotions are going to be timelessness, isolation, and adventure. Let’s touch on those:

Timelessness: This is that time capsule effect, but it can also be a sense of being out of time all together. The underground has a way of collecting bits and pieces of things that tumble down to it over the course of a large span of time, so play with that. Coins from colonial america can be mixed with civil war paraphernalia, with a few Motorola Razr flip phones on top. The ultimate grab bag of relics.

Isolation: The normal rules of society don’t have to apply to the spaces beneath your character’s feet. The police don’t patrol them, the animals we already know don’t come down here, and even all plat life stops at the door. A space removed that plays by different rules can be either liberating for those that suffer constraints from the standard society, or disturbing for those that don’t.

Adventure: With isolation comes the opportunity for your characters to be explorers into this strange dark world. Are they the first people in a hundred years to come down here? A thousand? ever? Digging into uncharted territory can be thrilling for your characters, and thrilling for your readers too.

While the underground universally calls up these feelings, beyond that you are going to want to consider what type of underground space you are talking about. As I have suggested there are two branching tunnels here, the natural underground and the urban underground. Both have their own unique characteristics, so lets trod through some of them now.

Natural Underground

The natural underground is both more spectacular and more different than you might imagine it to be if all you know was its depictions from popular media. They are extremely delicate ecosystems, often times each one being as unique as a fingerprint. In nature, caves can be extremely wet or extremely dry and have very different rock formations and life forms that exist in them depending on the presence of water. The air underground is unbelievably steady too, often being consistent year round at 55° F. Fauna that has evolved to live in deep cave environments, for the most part, are extremely specialized, eking out an existence on the meager amounts of energy that filters down to them. These types of cave creatures often live so close to the bone that things like eyes are a luxury. Camouflage is also a non-starter in a light-less environment, often resulting in the inhabitants taking on a very pale colorless look. So if you are considering populating your underground spaces these characteristics are worth bearing in mind.

Get inspired with this Wikipedia article on Troglofauna or Stygofauna

One thing that is interesting and helpful to know is the fact that most of the cliche and spectacular formations that we see in cave systems, such as the stalactite and the stalagmite (spiky formations that develop top down or bottom up respectively) or gargantuan crystals form because of the activity of water. Now a cave that was once wet may not be any more, or vise-versa, but it’s a good thing to know if you’ve inserted an underground river whether or not these kinds of things would be in the landscape.

Dry caves, on the other hand, are the real master places for preservation. Primitive cave art can seem like it was painted just yesterday, remains can mummify and remain remarkably untouched, and footprints can stand in the dust for just about as long as they are allowed to. Dry caves need not be found below dry surface environments either, as layers of protective materials such as clay can act as a shield from any rainfall or top town moisture.

Tropes of the natural underground:

  • Hitherto unknown flora and fauna
  • Virgin exotic/alien terrain

Urban Underground

Conversely, we have the urban underground. Places rife with the decadent themes of a fallen society. These places may have once served a purpose but have since fallen out of mind, or their utility is taken so for granted that they are not thought about anymore. Old subway terminals, utility tunnels and bomb shelters all fall into this category. There is a reason that the underbelly of civilization is linked to the places beneath our feet. Removed from law and order and left to fester these spaces are often the realms of the homeless, the degenerate, and the vermin of a civilization.

As the set designer for your creative endeavor you may find using urban underground spaces a bit more of a challenge because of the necessary question of purpose. Unlike a naturally forming cave urban underground spaces were created with a purpose in mind even if that purpose is no longer necessary. Did the sultan have an escape tunnel built in case of an attempted coup? Did the abandoned research facility have an annex in the mountain for radiation shielding? Did the gallery have a sub basement to hide away all of its really valuable paintings? In almost any situation there was an endeavor to create the space first, which you will need to account for, then once you do you just need to dial it into the state you want when your characters interact with it. i.e. add the cobwebs.

Tropes of the urban underground:

  • Fallen glory
  • Criminal activity
  • Outsiders

Recommended Reading

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just the first few that sprung to mind. If you have suggestions for additional titles please share!

  • Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
  • Far Below by Robert Barbour
  • Rats in the Walls by H.P. Lovecraft
  • Dark Universe by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Descent by Jeff Long

Originally published at https://www.matthewtansek.com on February 23, 2019
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Matthew Tansek

Matthew Tansek

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Speculative fiction and horror writer, tabletop gamer, and librarian, in no particular order. My creative works can be found at matthewtansek.com

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