World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Far Below”

Far Below”, Robert Barbour Johnson, 1939.

One of the most popular stories ever published in Weird Tales

My suspicion is that this story lies fairly far upstream in the tributary that became the X Files and the Hellboy and MIB series: secret government guardians protecting us from a weird menace.

Here the scope of operation is one subway line beneath New York City. The agency is the Special Subway Detail.

Skillfully told almost entirely in dialogue between a man visiting his friend at work — where his friend leads the Special Subway Detail, the organization he started 25 years ago, the menace and its past and future are revealed. There is a nice section with adumbrations of the menace’s history. H. P. Lovecraft even gets a mention as a character. So does Washington Irving, and I’m not sure, in that case, exactly what Johnson is alluding to.

The story’s only real fault is that bits of Lovecraftian prose, phrases and adjectives, seem a bit out of character for the diction of the main speaker.

The World War One content is brief. At the beginning of the story, the leader of the Special Subway Detail talks about how the menace came to the city’s attention:

“To his time — man, Walker hadn’t served his first term as mayor when this thing started! It goes back to World War days — and even before that. The wreck of the train, I recall, passed as a German spy plot to keep us from going in with the Allies. The newspapers howled bloody murder about alleged ‘confessions’ and evidence they claimed they had. We let ’em howl, or course. Why not? America was as good as in the war anyhow, by then. And if we’d told the people of New York City what really wrecked that subway train — well, the horrors of Chateau-Thierry and Verdun and all the rest of them put together wouldn’t have equaled the shambles that rioting mobs would have made of this place!”

The references to Chateau-Thierry and Verdun are pretty standard uses of the Great War (hence the “and all the rest of them”) as ready metaphor.

The “German spy plot” makes reference to the German sabotage efforts against American industry and horse raising which were supplying the Allies. America may have been technically neutral, but the British blockade made that neutrality a dead letter.

I talked about this sabotage effort in my review of Howard Blum’s Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell In America.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: No.
  • Belligerent Area: No.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

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