In general I like fantasy of the low kind. Epic tales of dragons and sorcery don’t attract me as much as weirder or darker stories do: stories that tell us the world is not as it seems on the surface, and that if you look in just the right spot at just the right angle you might find another world entirely. Neil Gaiman, Tim Powers and others excel at this type of contemporary urban fantasy, in which the mundane world around us is just a veneer that hides a richer, darker fantastical realm in which vast powers move about us and where seemingly mundane everyday events are, as often as not, part of a greater battle between forces unseen. Those who do catch sight of these mechanisms are bound to be swept up in terrifying events beyond their comprehension and come out transformed—assuming that they and their minds survive the experience at all.
It makes sense that subways are a natural (or unnatural, if you wish) setting for these sorts of tales: dark, subterranean netherworlds, their true depths unknowable, with tunnels stretching into mysterious directions that no one we have met has ever seen in their entirety. Once below, on even the sunniest of summer days, one can’t help wondering while passing through them and catching fleeting glimpses of side tunnels, staircases, and distant lights of uncertain origin, what might lie beyond if we could just slow down and look. Whole civilizations could exist right under our feet, and subway stories may well be the successors to the earlier subgenre of “Lost Race” stories popular in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit system is younger and less, ahem… glamorous than the New York or London subway systems, but Lisa Goldstein’s Dark Cities Underground does a creditable job of weaving her own tale of old gods and subways here in our own backyard—albeit connecting it to every other subway system through mystical means. There is a lot here that will remind you of other stories: the use of the Osiris myth and the sacrifice and resurrection archetype are reminiscent of Powers, particularly of Last Call. And it’s hard not to think of Gaiman’s wonderful Neverwhere when reading about underground adventures, and of course others have gone the Alice/Peter Pan-as-real stories route before… but it’s still a satisfying local angle on this type of story.
Goldstein sets up her story by positing that our most famous and resonant works of children’s literature are not fiction at all, but distorted reflections of tales told by the children who experienced them to adults who respun them as fantasy. Journeys to the Hundred-Acre Wood, Narnia, Wonderland, and Never-Never Land were actual, and traumatic, visits to one realm.
It’s a wonderful idea, and if Goldstein doesn’t quite use it to its maximum potential (others have explored similar themes more successfully), she does spin a good yarn once she gets going. She doesn’t so much fail as overextend, trying for too much plot and too many connections, essentially throwing everything into the pot and not letting it blend quite well enough. But the story moves along pretty quickly and there’s plenty to keep the reader interested.
It’s impossible to ride the MUNI or BART trains after reading this book without thinking back to it. The work of subtle and inhuman powers would go a long way toward explaining many things about local public transit. Discussions of line expansions always make me wonder what new shape might be created upon their completion, and what dark power, other than the MTC itself, might benefit.
SF/SF Issue #45, May 2007