"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, June 12, 2020

A CHUDiad? Horror's history of New York City in Clive Barker's "The Midnight Meat Train" and Robert Barbour Johnson's "Far Below"

Clive Barker's story "The Midnight Meat Train" (Books of Blood Volume 1, 1984) presents an urban folk horror history of New York City as an anthill resting upon savagery and cannibalism.

We follow Mahogany on his last day of life, choosing subway riders to be murdered and fed to the "city fathers" living below the city. We also follow office drone Kaufman, an alienated outsider who hates the city's immiserating power over inhabitants like himself.

Mahogany and Kaufman cross paths after midnight at the last stop of the subway train both ride. Kaufman tries to hide after discovering the rich display of Mahogany's butchery, but is finally forced to confront the butcher, turning the tables on the older man.

Beyond the midnight meat train's last stop, he meets the city's subterranean fathers.

     .... "We are the City fathers," the thing said. "And mothers, and daughters and sons. The builders, the law-makers. We made this city."
         "New York?" said Kaufman. The Palace of Delights? "Before you were born, before anyone living was born." As it spoke the creature's fingernails were running up under the skin of the split body, and were peeling the thin elastic layer off the luscious brawn. Behind Kaufman, the other creatures had begun to unhook the bodies from the straps, their hands laid in that same delighting manner on the smooth breasts and flanks of flesh. These too had begun skinning the meat.
         "You will bring us more," the father said. "More meat for us. The other one was weak."
         Kaufman stared in disbelief.
         "Me?" he said. "Feed you? What do you think I am?"
         "You must do it for us, and for those older than us. For those born before the city was thought of, when America was a timberland and desert."
         The fragile hand gestured out of the train.
         Kaufman's gaze followed the pointing finger into the gloom. There was something else outside the train which he'd failed to see before; much bigger than anything human.
         The pack of creatures parted to let Kaufman through so that he could inspect more closely whatever it was that stood outside, but his feet would not move.
         "Go on," said the father.
         Kaufman thought of the city he'd loved. Were these really its ancients, its philosophers, its creators? He had to believe it. Perhaps there were people on the surface -bureaucrats, politicians, authorities of every kind - who knew this horrible secret and whose lives were dedicated to preserving these abominations, feeding them, as savages feed lambs to their gods. There was a horrible familiarity about this ritual. It rang a bell - not in Kaufman's conscious mind, but in his deeper, older self.
         His feet, no longer obeying his mind, but his instinct to worship, moved. He walked through the corridor of bodies and stepped out of the train.
         The light of the torches scarcely began to illuminate the limitless darkness outside. The air seemed solid, it was so thick with the smell of ancient earth. But Kaufman smelt nothing. His head bowed, it was all he could do to prevent himself from fainting again.
         It was there; the precursor of man. The original American, whose homeland this was before Passamaquoddy or Cheyenne. Its eyes, if it had eyes, were on him.
         His body shook. His teeth chattered.
         He could hear the noise of its anatomy: ticking, crackling, sobbing.
         It shifted a little in the dark.
         The sound of its movement was awesome. Like a mountain sitting up....

Kaufman, in killing Mahogany, becomes transformed, and is prepared to assume his new and singular social role. In the end, he consciously embraces the process.

     ....     The driver pulled him to his knees, talking to him as though he were a three-year-old.
         "You got a job to do, my man: they're very pleased with you."
         The driver had licked his fingers, and was rubbing Kaufman's swollen lips, trying to part them. "Lots to learn before tomorrow night…"
         Lots to learn. Lots to learn.
         He led Kaufman out of the train. They were in no station he had ever seen before. It was white-tiled and absolutely pristine; a station-keeper's Nirvana. No graffiti disfigured the walls. There were no token-booths, but then there were no gates and no passengers either. This was a line that provided only one service: The Meat Train. A morning shift of cleaners were already busy hosing the blood off the seats and the floor of the train. Somebody was stripping the Butcher's body, in preparation for dispatch to New Jersey. All around Kaufman people were at work.
         A rain of dawn light was pouring through a grating in the roof of the station. Motes of dust hung in the beams, turning over and over. Kaufman watched them, entranced. He hadn't seen such a beautiful thing since he was a child. Lovely dust. Over and over, and over and over.
         The driver had managed to separate Kaufman's lips. His mouth was too wounded for him to move it, but at least he could breathe easily. And the pain was already beginning to subside.
         The driver smiled at him, then turned to the rest of the workers in the station.
         "I'd like to introduce Mahogany's replacement. Our new butcher," he announced.
         The workers looked at Kaufman. There was a certain deference in their faces, which he found appealing. Kaufman looked up at the sunlight, now falling all around him. He jerked his head, signifying that he wanted to go up, into the open air. The driver nodded, and led him up a steep flight of steps and through an alley-way and so out on to the sidewalk.
         It was a beautiful day. The bright sky over New York was streaked with filaments of pale pink cloud, and the air smelt of morning.
         The Streets and Avenues were practically empty. At a distance an occasional cab crossed an intersection, its engine a whisper; a runner sweated past on the other side of the street.
         Very soon these same deserted sidewalks would be thronged with people. The city would go about its business in ignorance: never knowing what it was built upon, or what it owed its life to. Without hesitation, Kaufman fell to his knees and kissed the dirty concrete with his bloody lips, silently swearing his eternal loyalty to its continuance....

The reader meets Gordon Craig, former primatologist and now commander of the NYPD's special subway detail, after he has become accustomed to his subterranean work and its personal impact. 

Robert Barbour Johnson's story "Far Below" (Weird Tales, 1939) is essentially an unnamed narrator's interview with Craig in his high-tech underground command center, from which the commander and his squad wage war on cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers who prey upon subway riders.

Though these enemies are not as conscious and articulate as those Kaufman meets, Craig has established their historic role and place.

     "....I flatter myself that it's been rather a socially useful career at that; perhaps more so than stuffing animals for dusty museum cases, or writing monstrous textbooks that no one ever bothers to read. For I've a science of my own down here, you know: the science of keeping millions of dollars' worth of subway tunnels swept clean of horror, and of safeguarding the lives of half the population of the world's largest city.
     "And then, too, I've opportunities for research here which most of my colleagues above ground would give their right arms for, the opportunity to study an absolutely unknown form of life; a grotesquerie so monstrous that even after all these years of contact with it I sometimes doubt my own senses even now, although the horror is authentic enough, if you come right down to it. It's been attested in every country in the world, and by every people. Why, even the Bible has references to the 'ghouls that burrow in the earth', and even today in modern Persia they hunt down with dogs and guns, like beasts, strange tomb-dwelling creatures neither quite human nor quite beast; and in Syria and Palestine and parts of Russia …
     "But as for this particular place—well, you'd be surprised how many records we've found, how many actual evidences of the Things we've uncovered from Manhattan Island's earliest history, even before the white men settled here. Ask the curator of the Aborigines Museum out on Riverside Drive about the burial customs of Island Indians a thousand years ago—customs perfectly inexplicable unless you take into consideration what they were guarding against. And ask him to show you that skull, half human and half canine, that came out of an Indian mound as far away as Albany, and those ceremonial robes of aboriginal shamans plainly traced with drawings of whitish spidery Things burrowing through conventionalized tunnels; and doing other things, too, that show the Indian artists must have known Them and Their habits. Oh yes, it's all down there in black and white, once we had the sense to read it!
     "And even after white men came—what about the early writings of the old Dutch settlers, what about Jan Van der Rhees and Woulter Van Twiller? Even some of Washington Irving's writings have a nasty twist to them, if you once realize it! And there are some mighty queer passages in 'The History of the City of New York'—mention of guard patrols kept for no rational purpose in early streets at night, particularly in the region of cemeteries; of forays and excursions in the lightless dark, and flintlocks popping, and graves hastily dug and filed in before dawn woke the city to life …
     "And then the modern writers—Lord! There's a whole library of them on the subject. One of them, a great student of the subject, had almost as much data on Them from his reading as I'd gleaned from my years of study down here. 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! But even with the worst played down, there's still enough horror and nightmare in it to blast a man's soul, if he lets himself think on what goes on down there, below the blessed sanity of the earth's mercifully concealing crust. Far below...

"The Midnight Meat Train" and "Far Below" give us very different underdwellers feeding on human flesh beneath NYC. But both tales insist this has been going on since the city was founded.  

Both Kaufman and Craig are changed by their encounters. Kaufman is ultimately overjoyed by his new role. Craig has come to perhaps stoically accept his own uncanny transformation.

Both stories explore what lies beneath NYC. Both offer an explanation using equal parts the dramatic and the historical view. Both achieve their own modest aesthetic sublimity in the telling.

12 June 2020

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