Some of the best places to set and inspire fantasy are the places you don’t normally go, the places that inspire uneasiness. For many cities, one such place is the subway. Certainly we ride the subway every day, but we don’t really go in the subway, just the nice, well-lit stations and concourses. All we know of the real subway is the occasional passing of dim lights outside the windows of our train or trolley. Maybe, every once in a while, if there’s some work being done while we’re riding, or if we stand at the front of the car and can look out of the windshield, we might see a little bit of the subway, but that’s not normal.
Subway tunnels are a daily mystery. Only the very inquisitive, the brave, the stupid, and, every once in a while, the unlucky ever experience subway tunnels up close. The tunnels make us uneasy because, though we have a vague idea of what they’re like, they’re mysterious. That’s what makes them a perfect location for fantasy to happen, as it were. It’s the universal experience–we all take the subway at least once in a while–mixed with the unknown that first draws us in, and then affects us once it’s got us. That’s what writers try for, the common blended with the unexpected.
Lovecraft, I think, did it best with “Pickman’s Model,” showing readers the horror that the subway can inspire. Certainly I can’t just write that story again, but it sets a framework, a character trait. Maybe a character won’t take the subway because of memories associated with taking a particular line. Maybe it was something seen or imagined, a flash of an unearthly face seen out the window of a trolley as it went under the river between 30th Street and 22nd. I wouldn’t try to hang a story off of that, or if I did, I would use that fear in a different way.
Like anything else, the subway, whether it’s SEPTA, the Metro, the Underground, or any other mass transit system, shouldn’t be overused. What readers want is something new, something different. If you just give readers stories about the subway, they’ll get tired. Likewise, if you just use subway tunnels at a set because they make readers uneasy by themselves, you’re bound to fail. Reputation alone won’t take you or readers anywhere in your stories; no, you have to be the one leading the way.