Photo Art by Michael Dooley
Houses in American suburbs tend to lack secret passages. If there's anything in the basement, it's a man cave or the laundry room, not a hinged bookcase leading to a cell where an unhinged aunt howls at the walls; not a trapdoor through which you can duck into a tunnel and escape down to a hidden cove where your boat awaits, crewed and provisioned. I loved the Narnia books as much as the next geeky, bookish kid and prayed Aslan would open a gateway in one of our closets, but I was also practical enough to know the difference between architecture and optimism. I could try hoping the Wood between the Worlds into existence all I wanted, but when my parents announced plans to build a new house, I saw an actual opening. This new house would be enormous: three stories on top of a full, finished basement: effectively four floors of potential compartments and bolt-holes. Although I didn't get my wish, the alcoves under the staircases were oubliettish enough to relax in. I put a beanbag chair and a lamp in one of them, and read. Even better, the chimney was mostly ornamental, and much bigger than the flue pipe it was meant to protect. In theory, you could access it from the attic and climb all the way down to ground level. Think of an elevator shaft but with less risk of death. Disappointingly, there was no exit door (or flap, or panel) downstairs, and while I argued for one, my parents refused. My escapes into Narnia therefore stayed on the page.
Because I'd believe anything, no matter how stupid, other kids at school would have fun with me. I had a few pals, but mostly I served as entertainment in the same way dartboards do. One time I spent the night at my friend B.'s house. His mom had just remarried. The new step-dad had more money than the last one. They bought a big place in one of our hometown's better neighborhoods. When I asked if it had secret passages, B. said of course. There were two. We were in the dining room. He turned in his chair and pointed at one of the wainscoting panels behind him. It was a doorway, he said. You could push it in and slide it, and there was a tunnel on the other side. The other one was in his parents' bedroom. In case the Russians invaded or someone broke in, they could escape into a little armory via the concealed doorway, grab a gun or a knife or a baseball bat, and slip out of the house unseen.
"But isn't that wall too thin to have a tunnel?" I asked. "And why isn't there a secret passage in your bedroom, too?"
He shrugged. I was skeptical but sort of believed him anyway, and got up and pushed on the panel. It felt like a perfectly normal rectangular section of wall. I pushed harder. Nothing happened. I tried to slide it. Still nothing. Somehow this didn't send B. into fits of laughter. Perhaps the passage was trans-dimensional, I concluded. Or you had to utter a spell. It would make more sense than him making the whole thing up just to mess with me. The supernatural stuff probably didn't exist in the real world, but it might. I was more concerned about being right and hedging my bets than I was about being sane. Besides, maybe his parents felt he didn't need a secret escape hatch in his bedroom. In the event of an invasion or a break-in, they could duck into their gun closet, grab a rifle or two, come back, and shoot the intruders before they could do him any harm. My own parents had enough guns in the house to liberate a small country, which meant his must as well. Yes, that had to be it.
In the early '80s, my grandmother lived in a trailer down in New Bern, an hour south of our home in Greenville. The man who owned the land had his own trailer next door, plus a third he rented out to a local used-car salesman. Also on the property was an immense metal warehouse, a cavernous front half plus a much lower annex around back. After my mother lost her job at a real-estate agency, my parents decided to open a secondhand store in the warehouse. They took over about a quarter of the floor space in the front section and had this fenced off rather than building actual walls. In that climate, ventilation mattered more than charm. They then bought an assortment of display furniture—tables, cabinets, shelves, racks—from a store in Greenville that had just gone bust. The business model was simple enough: we'd go to yard sales and flea markets and auctions around eastern North Carolina, buy shit we thought we could mark up and resell, and hope the original owners wouldn't show up and scowl at us. It more or less worked.
The day my parents bought that batch of furniture, I was reading The Last Battle. In it, there are portals and sublime transportations, but Robert Arthur Jr.'s Three Investigators gave me my next escapist idea, not Narnia. The titular teen sleuths operated out of a house trailer concealed beneath hillocks of junk in a scrapyard. Jupiter Jones, the main character, lived on the premises with his uncle and aunt—who had handily forgotten this plot device lurked on the edge of their property. Over time, the three boys cleared passageways through the junk heaps. They rigged up electricity and a phone line. Now and then I got skeptical: for one thing, wouldn't it stink? But a junkyard wouldn't reek like a garbage dump. Mildew, bit of rust, maybe acrid whiffs of rubber as old tires dried out in the sun. Inside, teenage armpits and boy farts. And it didn't matter, did it? There were tunnels. Secret passages. Trapdoors. I wanted to live in that world. Any world, actually, provided it wasn't the one I kept waking up in.
My mother had the sensible idea to line up the clothes racks along the far wall of the shop. That way, the customers would be visible at all times. If we set up a standard clothing section with racks grouped together, we wouldn't be able to see people's hands. Ergo, shoplifting. Better to keep everything out in the open. But once we'd stocked the shop with our Goodwill finds and other people's discarded knicknacks, I spotted our happy accident: a corridor behind the racks, leading from the dressing rooms to the cash register. Being taller, the adults couldn't scuttle through the passage from one end of the store to the other, behind that single row of used jeans and blouses and the pantsuits my grandmother no longer wanted, but my sister and I could, and did.
There had to be rules, of course: no barging in on customers in the dressing rooms. That would be bad for business. And don't hide back there and scare shoppers. We want them to buy stuff and come back, not run screaming. We agreed. Time passed. As you'd expect, the novelty wore off. My sister cared more about making money than racing up and down our secret passage that wasn't that much of a secret (you could see our legs if you knew where to look), and I just wanted to lie in the hammock outside and read. By the time my parents grew tired of the commute and the seven-day work week, I'd outgrown the space anyway. They sold our remaining merchandise to another local shop, got rid of the display furniture, and shuttered the business.
My high school—the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics—was founded on the grounds of a former teaching hospital in Durham. The patient wings and nurses' dorms now serve as rooms for the students. Tunnels connect the original administration buildings and at least one of the dorms, the building where the laundry room used to be. Custodial staff no longer wheel carts of plague-ridden hospital sheets to the boiler room, but the tunnels remain. We weren't forbidden to use them, but most people didn't. You had to know where they were, they were kind of out of the way, and crossing the campus outdoors was often quicker. Besides, normal folks preferred sunlight and fresh air and landscaping.
Since the campus tunnels were about the same length as my attention span, I needed something else to satisfy my attraction to the illicit. Under a back stairwell in the science wing, there was a makeout alcove nicknamed the Orchasm. No comment on whether I ever made use of it. There was also a whole new dormitory under construction. We were forbidden to go anywhere near it, so of course I sneaked in after dark and looked around so often, I became known as a tour guide. I only came close to getting caught once, when I stepped on what I thought was solid ground and sank to my crotch in loose mud. With one foot still on dry earth, I managed to extract my sunken leg, but I lost both a shoe and all further interest in those excursions. That wasn't what got me kicked out a few months later, but it was a big, wet step in that direction.
As hometowns go, Greenville had certain pluses, but most buildings were neither big enough nor old enough for tunnels to be present. The Civil War had largely passed Greenville by, most of the fighting taking place in other parts of the county. The water table was too high as well. Dig too deep, and the sea would seep in. The hospital complex, a cluster of buildings that all kept being expanded and renovated, was a blinding white maze of corridors and doorways but ultimately didn't count. There might have been a hidden cupboard or two at the main library, and the basement stacks in the big library on campus became more labyrinthine the farther back you went, but that was pretty much all the underground sneakage the city had to offer.
Prior to making this attempt at an escape, my day-to-day reality in Greenville had long involved keeping a mental map of downtown alleys, arcades, and back entrances to shops I could duck into if I ran into the gang of boys who liked to make me the afternoon's entertainment. Beating up the town faggot and forcing him to kneel down and kiss your bicycle tires is cheaper than a movie, even at the second-run cinema on 5th Street just beyond the pedestrian mall, and it's more interactive. The blood's not a special effect. School wasn't much better. Although I didn't sustain actual injuries, or at least not the kind that required stitches, I got my sense of direction by memorizing doorways and corridors.
Depending on where Greenville's corn-pone death squad caught up with me, I'd either race back to the university campus—handily downtown—and hide in one of the dorms if I could get in without being seen, or sometimes I could make it as far as the student union building, where my mother worked. More than once, security had to strong-arm my assailants out. Alternatively, there were two maze-like bookstores with back doors the thuglets seemed not to know about. Literacy has its advantages. I'd duck down an alley, double back, lose them somehow, and wait inside for them to leave. It might not have been an actual secret passage, but the intention was there: the necessity, the urgency, the technique.
Like most geeky, bookish involuntary high school dropouts, I went through a Robert Heinlein phase. In my case, this happened not long after I found myself reluctantly back in Greenville. Heinlein's novel Friday contains one of my favorite secret passages in literature. Set in a not-too-distant future in which North America has become a Balkanzied checkerboard of squabbling statelets, the book is a typical Heinlein dystopian sex-romp-slash-thought-experiment. The titular character's host at one point in the story has built an escape room of sorts into her home. It's accessed via the swimming pool. There's a James Bond quality to it: you'd use inset handrails to pull yourself down a tunnel only visible from the bottom of the pool and from a certain angle, and once you reached the end—you'd have to be shown where it is—you could stand up gasping but safe in the well-provisioned bomb shelter at the other end. There is, of course, a secondary exit. This being a Heinlein story, naturally the tunnel out is lined with lime pits for expedient, odor-free body disposal. Getting kicked out of high school because of an accident put me in a Heinlein frame of mind: arbitrariness, misanthropy, calculation. If your home planet was populated enough to have cities of a million or more, it was time to leave. The question was how.
I read Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere about a year before a pedestrian got flattened in front of me in a Washington, DC, intersection. Set in a subterranean version of London, the novel follows the misadventures of a self-effacing Brit named Richard Mayhew after he collides with a bloody refugee from this enchanted underground. Her name is Door and she, like the rest of her just- murdered family, can summon portals at will. Like Heinlein, Gaiman likes a philosophical sex romp. But Neverwhere, at heart, is a voyage through the dark marvels of this anti-London; Friday is more about the dystopia and the fucking.
Neverwhere's Door would have been able to open a portal in a Greenville alley wall, or a DC one. She wouldn't have needed to duck into a bookstore. As for the novel itself, it exists in a unique Gaiman space between humor and wit. It's darkly funny. Owing to the main character's first name, there are Dick jokes. There are also disembowelments. I had moved to DC not because I craved violence but because it's what young gay men from places like Greenville, North Carolina do once we're old enough and have a degree or two and a job offer: we leave. DC is one of the closest major cities. There's a metro. Although someday a book might be written about a magical underworld in which NoMa is inhabited by orphans, Crystal City sparkles, and Foggy Bottom is the realm's misty nadir, most stories about the city concern aboveground intrigue and corruption.
So, the dead pedestrian. A woman in the upscale shopping district Chevy Chase stepped off the curb on a side street. There wasn't a crosswalk. A driver in a Ford Taurus didn't see her, didn't notice, or perhaps he did. Perhaps he aimed, and stepped on the gas. By the time I saw them, just seconds after impact, she was under the car: a moving, dying object wrapped in blue fabric. The tires crushed her chest. I could see it cave in. Just like I can still taste that bike tire, I still have sense memories of the bystanders' faces and screams, of the tang of the puke in the back of my throat.
Passageways became a more literal concern after that. In the city center, most metro stations had more than one entrance. If I could duck into a tunnel and cross the street underground instead of waiting for the light and risking death in the crosswalk, I would. Even if it took longer to get where I wanted to go, I'd survive. The habit stayed with me in San Francisco, Seoul, Hong Kong, and anywhere else I could portal my way to relative safety via plane tickets and work visas.
I spent 12 years in Hong Kong. It was the most expensive city on earth before the government lowered property prices, turning the place into a violent dystopian hellhole and either incarcerating or driving away a big chunk of the population. Although I had a comfortable income toward the end of my time there, buying a home would have been impossible on my salary. So I rented, and then moved when the landlord put the rent up or sold the place for 18 times what they'd paid for it. About half the time I spent there, I lived in Kowlooon, the peninsula opposite Hong Kong Island's iconic skyline. The waterfront corridor between Tsim Sha Tsui and Hung Hom was my favorite part of the city, at least as a place to live. TST itself could be a bit much—crowds of unruly, rapacious tourists, plus the annoying touts who'd single out non-Asians and try to hawk "copy watch, copy watch" and "tailor shop for you, sir" and "cocaine hashish marijuana, cocaine hashish marijuana"—but it was convenient. I lived first on the less frenetic eastern edge of the district, then returned after interludes elsewhere and found a great flat in Hung Hom.
A network of tunnels spans the district east to west from Hung Hom Station, where I lived, all the way to the mammoth, sprawling Harbour City shopping mall complex. The tunnels are divided into color-coded zones. I imagine some long-retired civil servant came up with the scheme more in hopes of winning a bonus that year than actually offering useful wayfinding. The signage is still there, adding to the confusion rather than reducing it. You just have to live there. You have to get lost a few times. From my flat, I could go downstairs, pass through a oddly empty mall-and-office complex, cross to the station via a covered walkway, hop on the MTR, get off one station later at East TST, and walk in toutless, air-conditioned comfort for any errands I needed to run. For much of the year, the heat is as oppressive as the legal system, so going underground is safer and more pleasant.
The protests that broke out in 2019 and carried on until the pandemic largely quashed them one year later divided the city into two color-coded camps. Unlike the signage in the TST tunnels, every Hongkonger remembers these: yellow, meaning pro-democracy; blue, meaning pro-Beijing. The conflict erupted because China refused to honor its handover treaty with Britain, which stipulated introducing democratic elections for Hong Kong's Chief Executive. It wasn't an independence movement, nor was it an outbreak of mass thuggery stirred up by the CIA and the MI6. People just wanted Beijing to honor its word and leave Hong Kong alone. China reneged. All hell then broke loose. Team Yellow were the millions of black-clad protestors marching in the streets that sweltering, miserable summer. I was one of them. Team Blue were the pro-police, pro-establishment types whose mindset seemed to be about submission. Keep your head down. Obey. Shut your mouth, go to work, make your money, do as you're told, don't ask questions, and don't rock the boat. But above all, submit.
In China Mieville's The City & the City, the interpellated city-states Beszel and Ul-Qoma occupy the same geographic (in the novel, "grosstopic") space. Some districts are more clearly a part of one country or the other: this neighborhood lies in Beszel; that one, down the block, is in Ul-Qoma. Some places are "cross-hatched," meaning they're grey areas not entirely in one or the other, or the divisions are too complex for simple daily navigation. Best avoided. Visitors are put through a training course before being set free to roam. Natives can tell via subtleties of architecture, of color, of speech, of dress. The whole charade persists via an entity called Breach. Breach is the boundary; Breach is the error and the terror of violating it. Breach is also a shadowy organization with enforcement powers. They're always watching. Thus, you're taught to unsee. Thus, for example, a couple making out in an Ul-Qoman park grosstopically near a Beszel border could carry on, out in the open and perfectly private. The only passage between the two states lies in the aptly named Copula Hall, the junction point between the two overlapping polities. Access is strictly controlled.
The protests and the politics behind them turned Hong Kong into a cross-hatchery of antipodes: part blue, part yellow, some overlapping, some no-go zones for one or the other. Certain districts were known to be heavily blue; others, sunflower yellow. In a blue-tinged area patrolled by Triad gangs in league with the government and the cops and Beijing, you ran the risk of getting shanked for things like wearing black or being white. There were a couple of actual eviscerations, intestines falling out of bellies, but most of the murders were the more prosaic kind: young people tossed off tall buildings or into the sea. Pro-democrats developed map apps to help compatriots identify supportive businesses. The pro-Beijing camp used the same apps to find targets to fire-bomb. But the differences were largely unmappable.
There were passageways, of course: The pedestrian tunnels and walkways and the MTR concourses, all of which turned into weaponized escape routes at times. More than once I had to run from cops in riot gear to keep from being arrested, beaten, curb-stomped by officers of the law. I kissed a bike tire as a kid and am not kneeling on another pavement as an adult, not for anyone. There were also networks of supporters who smuggled people out of the city. Boatlifts to Taiwan. The hideouts in the city where young protestors who'd been turned away by their blue families hunkered down and prayed not to get caught. The last flights out before the cops started dragging people out of departure lounges. And more conventional escape routes like job applications and work visas and pet-export vets and shipping companies. Cardboard boxes. Paperwork. Resolve.
Houses in English suburbs tend to lack secret passages, and no one here cares. It's Britain, after all. There's a castle or a manor house on every other block. Priest holes and scullery tunnels and understairs bolt-holes are not of much interest. Here in Cornwall, there are pirate coves and haunted jails and smugglers' caves; there are even fogous, strange and ancient stone-lined passageways that burrow into the earth and go nowhere. Nobody knows who built them and what they're for, and it might not matter: their existence is a whisper that I've found a spiritual home.
Actually buying a home here, though: that's a concern. There's a shortage, and Cornwall is a holiday destination. Thanks to AirBnB and vacation homes, it's expensive here. In Neverwhere, Door's family lived in a house whose rooms were all in different places instead of comprising a single structure. My own House Without Doors might include a bedroom in Bristol, a reception room in Exeter, a kitchen in Cambridge, and a bathroom in Bath. Somewhere in remote northern Scotland for the library, perhaps, or Aberystwyth, where it's quaint and nothing happens. Great for reading, plus a view of the sea. And a foyer in Falmouth to shorten the commute.
In all likelihood, I'll end up with House of Leaves instead of the House Without Doors. Bigger on the inside than the outside. Doorways that open into rooms that shouldn't be there. A mysterious spiral staircase leading down, down, down. Thanks to Cornwall's derelict mineshafts, sudden plunges into black depths can and do happen from time to time, but radon is a bigger concern here than a minotaur in a trans-dimensional haunted sub-basement. Either way, there will still be subterranean evils hissing and howling in the depths. British homes are, as a rule, poorly insulated, so if the monsters aren't bellowing, the winds will be.
In my fifties, I'm buying property for the first time, and my concerns are so much more mundane now: Qualifying for a mortgage. The cost of houses I don't think are built all that well. Will I find something in Truro in my price range or should I move over to Redruth or down to Helston or Penryn. I'm far more likely to put in another bathroom than a secret passage. Maybe a conservatory if there isn't one. I have one now and my indoor cat likes having the outdoors to look at. Generally speaking, people don't install trapdoors and hidden rooms or become obsessed with them without good reason. A renovation just might be in order.