They’re alive, they’re awake
While the rest of the world is asleep
Below the mine shaft roads, it will all unfold
There’s a world going on underground
I’m a hardrock miner an’ I ain’t afeard of ghosts
But my neck hair bristles like a prospector’s quills
An’ I knock my knuckles on the drift-set posts
When the Tommyknockers hammer on the caps an’ sills
An’ raise hallelujah with my pick and drills.
– Traditional mining song, 19th century
They’re fairies, mutants, or the survivors of a long-lost civilization. They dwell in the shadows, sewers, or caves not found on any spelunker’s map. Whatever they really are, these devolved monsters fear and hate modern humans, and if you’re not careful, they’ll steal you away for dinner — or maybe make you one of them.
Myths and legends about demons, goblins, and other things dwelling deep within the Earth have a long history, from the Norse myths about dark elves, and the knockers and goblins of 19th century miner lore, to near-contemporary accounts of lizard people living beneath the streets of Los Angeles. You can find plenty of novels about creepy cannibals, alien races, and other monstrous folk living beneath the Earth — Scott Sigler’s Nocturnal and Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers both come to mind — but there’s a lot of fun short stories, too.
Here are five short works about hidden and subterranean horrors in the modern world that you might enjoy.
edited by Kirby McCauley
“Children of the Kingdom”
by T. E. D. Klein
T. E. D. Klein hasn’t written a lot of stuff, but what he has produced is top notch. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find in print. Thankfully, one of his best short stories, “Children of the Kingdom” is still available in the ebook edition of the classic 1980 horror anthology Dark Forces. “Children of the Kingdom” weaves the story of a lost kingdom into account of an overnight blackout in New York City. It’s really spooky stuff, and right on the nose of what I was hoping to include in this short overview.
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse
edited by John Joseph Adams
“Dark Were the Tunnels”
by George. R. R. Martin
A lot of stories involving subterranean creepers depict them as the devolved remains of an ancient human — or pre-human — society. George R. R. Martin’s “Dark Were the Tunnels” turns that on its head. In this tale, spacefarers return to Earth to try to learn what happened to humanity after a nuclear war.
The White People and Other Weird Stories
by Arthur Machen
“Out of the Earth”
Arthur Machen was a master of the weird tale long before there was such a thing. This story is presented as the second-hand account of a series of child abductions and murders in rural England. The superstitious local folks blame the fairy folk, but the narrator knows better, right?
The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
by Robert E. Howard
“The Little People”
Conan author Robert E. Howard’s “The Little People” actually begins with an in-story shout-out to Arthur Machen before jumping into the action. When a weird fiction-loving woman goes missing out in the English countryside, it is up to her brother to rescue her from a strange people who live under the old mounds.
The Horror in the Museum
by H. P Lovecraft and others
by H. P. Lovecraft
This short story is long enough to border on a novella, but nonetheless, I think it belongs on this list. An investigation of a supposedly haunted Indian mound reveals the entrance to the realm of K’n-Yan: a vast, underground kingdom populated by a sadistic, demon-worshiping ancient race waiting for the right moment to bring their evil to the surface world once more.
by Manly Wade Wellman
I love the weird tales of Manly Wade Wellman, a pulp fiction master who drew inspiration from the folk tales of his native Appalachia, but his fiction is punishingly hard to find. One of Wellman’s recurring bad guys were the shonokin: an ancient species living in the shadows who would one day return to claim the planet from the negligent human race. The shonokin appear in several of Wellman’s stories, as well as in the novel After Dark. “Shonokin Town”, originally printed in the July 1946 issue of Weird Tales and since reprinted in several anthologies and collections, sees psychic investigator John Thune paying a visit to one of their hidden enclaves. I recommend all of Wellman’s stuff — particularly the stories of wandering guitarist John the Balladeer — but you’re going to have to look to the used markets.