There’s just something off about subway tunnels—those dark channels deep beneath the city that seem to vanish off into the infinite distance, marked by stations that are lonely oases of dim light. Even a bright and clean subway stop can take on an odd, haunted air at times, felt even when filled with the busy noise of commuters and performers. Naturally, they’ve proven a a perfect setting for writers of dark fiction, and have been used to great effect to create horrifying images (take this scene from Jacob’s Ladder).
Here are six tales of terror that travel the dark pathways beneath us, and burrow into our imaginations. (They might also make you think twice about taking public transit.)
Awakened, by James S. Murray and Darren Wearmouth
The Z train is a new state-of-the-art subway line that promises to bridge the New York transit system with New Jersey’s, creating one unified line. It’s a marvel of engineering and city planning—up until the train’s maiden voyage ends with an empty train car full of blood. With methane gas reaching explosive levels in the Z train tunnels and whispers that the incident was a terrorist attack, it falls to the mayor of New York City, the president, and a team of technicians to figure out what really happened on the train, and keep it from happening again. But it turns out terrorism is too simple an answer: there’s something twisted and hungry lurking in the dark beneath the Z train, something that’s been waiting a very long time for its day in the sun. James Murray and Darren Wearmouth’s co-written novel takes off quickly, blending disaster novel tropes with gruesome horror at a pace as fast as the high-tech train line at its center.
“The Midnight Meat Train”, by Clive Barker
The first story in Barker’s groundbreaking series of horror anthologies The Books of Blood begins with Leon, who falls asleep on the subway only to wake up in the same car as a terrifying serial murderer known as “The Butcher,” who is finishing up with the night’s last few victims. Naturally, the Butcher can’t abide witnesses, and a desperate fight between the brutal murderer and his potential next victim ensues. Barker opens by describing the Butcher’s methods, and slowly builds tension as Leon takes his doomed subway ride, the violence and weirdness reaching their zenith in the dark, dingy confines of a New York subway train. The completely unexpected conclusion will make this one stick in your memory for far longer than the length of your next commute.
Dark Cities Underground, by Lisa Goldstein
Jeremy Jones told his mother about his nightmares. She turned them into a bestselling series of children’s books about his adventures in the land of Neverwas, turning his terror into a thriving career. Jeremy spends the rest of his life trying to forget both the bad dreams and his mother’s success. When Ruby, a journalist writing a book on Jeremy and his mother, tries to interview him, it brings old memories to the surface, memories that suggest what happened to him may have been more than just a nightmare. Ruby and Jeremy are pulled into a world of secret histories, Egyptian gods, supernatural creatures, an ages-old cult that manipulated city planning so that subways trace occult symbols and accumulate magical energy. Fans of Tim Powers and Neil Gaiman will appreciate the similarities between their books and Goldstein’s—weird occult mythologies, secret societies, and ordinary peoples’ problems tied into titanic magical struggles—but the weird horror tone, underworld mythos, and deep messages of family are this author’s own.
The Light at the End, by Craig Spector and John Skipp
Billed as “the original splatterpunk novel,” Spector and Skipp’s twisted tale of ancient evil on the New York subway works hard for its title, beginning with the gruesome death of literally every named character it has yet introduced at the hands of a vile 800-year-old vampire. The beast then turns Rudy, the sole witness to the massacre, into a vampire—but Rudy is sloppy, childish, and hellbent on using his new powers for petty revenge. He cuts a bloody swath through his former friends and enemies alike, forcing a group of slackers, artists, and working-class New Yorkers to stop him before it’s too late. Spector and Skipp do a wonderful job detailing the dingy and dangerous atmosphere of 1986 New York, and Rudy makes a wonderfully twisted villain who is easy to dislike. It’s all accentuated by hard, punchy, and propulsive prose—no wonder it went on to inspire a brief movement in horror of similar works, and at least one villain on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Survive the Night, by Danielle Vega
Vega, the author of terrifying YA tetralogy The Merciless, turns her unnervingly imaginative eye towards New York’s maze-like subterranean tunnels in this standalone novel. Home from a stint in rehab, Casey gets dragged by her friends to Survive The Night, a rave taking place in an unused subway tunnel. What begins as a vaguely sinister party turns terrifying when Casey stumbles across her friend Julie dead in the tunnels, and seeks help only to find the party completely abandoned. As she and her surviving friends desperately try to find an exit back to the surface, someone or something begins stalking them through the maze of subways and sewers beneath the city. Vega’s present-tense narration creates an immediate tone and relentless pacing that will all but force you to read it in one sitting.
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
Arguably the most successful TV novelization of all time, Neil Gaiman’s first novel doesn’t directly feature the subways and subway tunnels of the London Underground, but their influence is felt all the same, from the way the people and places of London Below take their names and inspiration from real-world stations such as Blackfriars and Angel Station in Islington, to such memorable settings as the Earl’s Court, a tricked-out tube train owned by a mad, one-eyed noble that houses part of his estate. It’s a beautiful, vibrant, strange world, with just enough connections to our own to seem like something glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, but weird enough to unnerve. As fantastical as Neverwhere is, with a bizarre world with its own rules, customs, and mythology, what truly makes it fantastic are the characters.
What other books make for bad reading on a train commute?