I recently was asked to moderate a panel at Confluence (Pittsburgh’s SF/fantasy convention) dealing with “Deep Places: Caves, Dungeons, Holes in the Ground.” It was a good discussion, with fellow panelists Gail Z. Martin, Christopher Pisano, Ken Chiacchia, and Tamora Pierce. We all had a fine time presenting our takes on the subject, from actual real-world spelunking to subterranean tunnels under modern cities.
My own fascination with the subject of caves started long ago with a reading of Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth, which I read soon after seeing the film version made back in the 60s. There were radical differences between book and movie, but they both awoke a fascination with crystalline chambers inside the Earth, mushroom forests and living dinosaurs underground, a subterranean ocean that had to be crossed on a raft, and—in one of the most rousing climaxes you’ll find to a story—returning to the surface by riding up a volcano eruption.
And being on the panel made me wonder exactly what characteristics of caves we find so captivating (since, too bad, I don’t think we’ll find any living dinosaurs).
Here’s my list:
Absolute Darkness: On the surface of the Earth, darkness is never completely dark. We’ve all experienced dark nights and dark interiors, but the blackness in a cave is absolute. It’s so overwhelming (where you truly can’t see the hand in front of your face) it can give you vertigo, a sense of choking, and a commanding fear of moving in any direction. Nevada Barr, in Blind Descent (an excellent novel detailing the experience of being in a cave) gives a frightening description of it: “the darkness began to harden around her. It was not a mere absence of light, it was a substance, an element, a suffocating miasma that filled her ears, clogged her nostrils, bore down on her shoulders and chest. . . . she could feel the black leaking like raw concrete into her brain . . .”
Disorienting Perception. On the surface, you have a big sky naturally above you, a wide horizon encircling you, and a foundational ground beneath. Up and down are well defined, and clearly distinct. But not so in a cave. There the ceiling is often no different from the floor. They extend into each other through stalactites and stalagmites that often merge into towers and curtains. Both up and down are made of stone, and much of the cavity in between. And thus no defined reference points allow you to gauge distance. Objects are fractal: a ten-inch-wide nearby formation can look the same as a ten-foot structure further away. And the lack of distance-indicators can give you agoraphobia as strong as claustrophobia. Even lamps create as many shadows as illumination.
Imaginations Go Wild. Caves are not usually experienced through devices like telescopes, deep-sea immersibles, or hovering remote cameras (though they can be). More often you go there, get up-close-and-personal to bare rock, uncharted and labyrinthine acid-carved non-linear chambers. And thus you get a greater sense of your self. The only sounds you hear are your own, the only light is what you bring, and the undefined nature of what you encounter makes your imagination quickly overactive. The imagery we use to describe caves— “yawning pits,” “gaping mouths”—can make you feel you’re being swallowed, that the Earth is hungry, seductive, and beckoning. The darkness gets filled with your own projections and irrational fears. What lurks in those shadows ahead? What lurks behind? What lurks beneath, above, alongside? You meet, in darkness and undefined space, some of your own hidden terrors.
The Uncanny. Solid rock seems to behave in peculiar ways, creating unexpected formations. What appears to be lace is made of stone, snowflakes are composed of hard crystal, finely tinted translucent curtains are as solid as marble. The ceilings/walls/floors look melted, polished, decorated, poured, flowered, overgrown—and yet they are lifeless and motionless, unchanging in time. For example, Tolkien in Lord of the Rings has Gimli describing the abundant—yet beautiful—strangeness of the formations in the caves behind Helm’s Deep: “folded marbles, shell-like, translucent . . . fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-coloured floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces!” It’s all just rock, but the intricate surprises that the rock can manifest through age-long dissolving-and-deposits suggest plants, forests, cities, clouds, castles, animals, bones, and stars.
Deep Time. To go down into the Earth is to go back into the past. No wonder the earth is where we place time capsules and buried treasure—they’ll be preserved. And it’s no surprise that Verne placed his mastodons and dinosaurs into deep caves. Caves feel incredibly old, like some ancient attic. They change imperceptively, but only over long-stretching periods of time—centuries and eons. Ursula LeGuin described the underground sense of time in her marvelous The Tombs of Atuan (where a good part of the book occurs in the total darkness of a subterranean labyrinth): “The dust was thick, thick, and every grain of it might be a day that had passed here where there was no time or light: days, months, years, ages all gone to dust. . . . No light; no life; no least stir of spider in the dust or worm in the cold earth. Rock, and dark, and time not passing.”
I’m sure more characteristics can be added, but this list is a good start on just what makes caves fascinating. They’ve certainly held an attraction for me, especially in how they turn up so often in SF and fantasy stories. One of my favorite writers who developed my interest in science fiction was Andre Norton, and the middle section of many of her books took place “underground,” whether in caves, artificial tunnels, or labyrinthine ruins. And even now, in my own The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, there’s a chapter called “The Underground,” where the protagonist awakes in the bottom of a forest which is so tall and thick that he thinks he’s under the earth, and he encounters all the disorientation, active imagination, sense of age, and uncanny beauty that go along with the experience of a cave.
So maybe another characteristic of caverns should be “inspiration”—to write a story.