In my last post, I talked about SEPTA, but I only focused on the subway tunnels, when there is more underground than just subway tunnels. If you’ve lived in or around Philly, then you’ve probably walked around Suburban station at least a few times.
For those of you who haven’t been to Suburban, or, more properly, Penn Center, it’s an underground shopping area underneath part of center city. I’ve spent quite a while down there, and because of my own somewhat-faulty memory and some construction and renovation projects, I’ve gotten a bit lost a few times, which has taken me to some of the less-seen areas of Suburban. If you, too, have gotten a bit turned around in Suburban, then you should remember that distinctly uneasy feeling that you got before getting back to more familiar territory, a feeling like you’re somewhere you oughtn’t to be.
This is the sort of feeling that I try to go for in my fiction when describing an unfamiliar area, and the sort of feeling that you should strive for, too, if you’re writing about anything paranormal. If the weird and paranormal are not, well, normal in the world you’re creating, then you should get that feeling across to your readers. If the abnormal feels normal, then you’re doing it wrong.
The underground is perfect for giving both your characters and your readers that feeling of uneasiness because it’s much harder to orient yourself underground. Except in the cases where you’ve got signs telling you where you are relative to the above-ground world, the cardinal directions are meaningless. Even landmarks can become meaningless, if the underground location is large enough. The Starbucks isn’t a locational marker when there are three.
There are definitely places where it’s hard to get lost under the streets of Philadelphia, especially once you go east past city hall, but even there it’s hard to feel truly at ease. The tunnels between city hall and Market East Station are dingy, sometimes-creepy. They echo weirdly, and it’s hard to tell if there’s someone behind you, and, if so, how far away they are, giving you at least a touch of paranoia until you can get into a more public area.
There is also the element of vagrants and beggars, many of whom are dressed in successive ratty layers of clothing. In an urban fantasy setting, who knows what those layers could be hiding? Even in the real world, beggars often make people uneasy, and seeing beggars is one of those universal experiences which makes it easier for me, as a writer, to draw readers farther into my world, so that when things start getting weird, they’re more likely to take it in stride, rather than rejecting the fantasy.