Underneath Providence

Disquiet is inherent to the urban exploration experience. Numerous retellings of expeditions include catalogues of the explorers’ unsettling feelings, often regardless of any sinister history a location may or may not have. In issue 14 of Infiltration, Ninjalicious described fear as “an addictive acquired taste,” and says that “while it’s always exciting to get a chance to peek at off-limits areas, it’s less of a thrill when there’s no danger of getting caught or killed.” Urban exploration embraces the unease of fear and (less often) the pulse-pounding aspects of terror. Ninj says, “Aristotle defined fear as ‘a painful or troubled feeling.’ To me, this indicates that Aristotle never jumped off a bridge to dodge a subway train.”

This issue also describes urban exploration as a pursuit that is not high-octane, but is “an antisocial hobby motivated by a geeky fascination with architecture and engineering.” Yet, architecture has long had a relationship to horror. A recent article in Slate used the new phenom McMansion Hell to explore the unsettling feelings created by a poorly-crafted house. As it says, “nearly all of the sins of McMansions often boil down to the same thing: violations of order, harmony, and symmetry.” Similar violations abound in many of fiction’s famous haunted houses:  “these strange buildings defy common sense and time-honed principles, creating in us a sense of unease that’s hard to name…In the absence of a good vocabulary to describe that sense of unease, we often fall back on the language of hauntings.” Infiltration didn’t spend much time investigating domestic environments, but years after the housing boom, there are enough abandoned mansions across the suburban landscape to perhaps be an enticement for urban explorers.

Just as Ninj dedicated an issue of Infiltration to fear, so shall this column have a Halloween issue. The zine in question this time is not a zine directly concerning itself with horror, but it is one that has a connection to a landscape associated with the world of horror. Underneath Providence is an art project zine created by Alex Lukas, and printed by his outfit, Cantab Publishing. This is a chronicle and exploration of Providence’s East Side Railroad Tunnel. This tunnel, under the city’s College Hill, operated from 1908 until 1981, and was sealed off after a college party turned into a riot in 1993.

What connection does this bear to horror? The neighborhood above the tunnel, the upscale and colonial-era home of Brown University, was the home of epochal American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who had a strong grip on the relationship between architecture and horror.

First, the zine is made up of two issues. They are entitled “Findings Thus Far” and “Findings Thus Far Volume 2.” The former, colored in shades of yellow, is a history of the tunnel, interspersed with pictures and narrative from the author’s explorations. The tunnel is created, opened, and closed in quick succession, and takes on a literally underground life after its closure as a site for college parties and canvas for graffiti artists. This changes with the May Day riot of 1993, where the tunnel goes from “forgotten to infamous literally overnight.” At this point, the tunnel is sealed off. The riot included reports, doubtlessly startling to parents of the 1980s, that the reason for the college student gathering had been a satanic ritual. Even Mayor Buddy Cianci lamented that “You think they’d teach them a little more than to go to a pagan ritual and light a fire in a tunnel.” Even if this aspect of the story was media hysteria, Providence maintains its reputation for sinister happenings.

By the time of the zine’s publication in 2008, the tunnel has returned to its prominence as a youth hangout spot. Lukas quotes graffiti writer Lead as saying that “RISD kids met ‘hood kids at the tunnel. It was a common ground for people who otherwise would have met on a bad vibe.” Lukas goes on to express the common urbexer lament against development, saying that “after years of abandonment the overgrown right of way at the Western Portal, one of the last undeveloped parcels of land in a renaissance town, was turned into a parking lot. After all, million-dollar condos need million-dollar parking, right?”

Lukas clearly has an emotional connection to the tunnel, having discovered it when he was sixteen. He describes returning whenever he can as a “pilgrimage.” Volume 2, published in 2012, is a black-and-white collection of photographs of the tunnel as it stood at the present time, with fold-outs at the covers showing news clippings of events in tunnel history, as well as a diagram of the “Longitudinal View of the East Side Railroad Tunnel.”

The zines are very well made, beautiful works of art. As items from a small-press, they would have fit well with the sensibilities of H.P. Lovecraft, who had many of his works first published by small or independent publishing house. He was himself involved in an amateur press association for much of his life. Lovecraft, who maintained a lifelong obsession with his home city of Providence, was the horror/weird fiction writer who introduced the genre to the philosophies of the modern, scientific era; replacing vampires and haunted houses with unknowable, insanity-inducing cosmic horror.

Lovecraft had many elements of urban exploration in his work. A lifelong antiquarian, he was an admirer of colonial-era architecture, meticulously setting many of his stories in such a context. I don’t think anyone would know about gambrel roofs if not for his fondness for them. Having lived in the early-20th century, many examples of such architecture, one-to-two centuries old at the time, had fallen into decay. Lovecraft made a habit of investigating abandoned buildings (seriously injuring himself in one as a student), and investigating historical discoveries such as newly-unearthed tunnels underneath the city. Many of his stories encompass abandoned or near-abandoned structures, such as decrepit farmhouses, decaying towns, burnt-out manors, secret tunnels, tombs, and entire abandoned alien cities, with architecture and geometry unrecognizable to humankind. Writers and scholars have explored at-length how Lovecraft’s worldviews influenced his horror fiction (including myself), and how that work influenced the general horror milieu. Providence has a strong connection to both horror fiction and urban exploration, providing many examples of the American landscape of Halloween.

Public Service Announcement 1: Please do not vote for Donald Trump.

 Public Service Announcement 2: I intend to continue this column, but work is limited by two factors: the first is that I have recently started graduate school, so updates may be somewhat irregular. The second is that I am running low on ‘zines to review. If any readers have access to ‘zines regarding urban exploration, especially some of the major ‘zines from the last decade like 5100 or any of the Cave Clan publications, and they would like to see columns about them, please contact us at spark.and.fizz@gmail.com. We are happy to purchase or borrow.