There are plenty of novels, both speculative and literary, based in London, with bestsellers ranging from A Journal of the Plague Year in 1722 to The Girl On The Train in 2015.
But what about novels set beneath London? When I first started thinking about the impact of a Wailing Woman of the Ford in modern London, it was obvious that this would have to incorporate the underground rivers trapped in Victorian tunnels. Bazalgette’s sewer system is rich with folklore and legend and makes for the perfect setting for a rich fantasy story. Combine this with the London Tube stations deep underground, with some closed down and others shut off entirely, and it is not hard to see why so many authors are fascinated by London’s underbelly.
To celebrate this, I have collected my five favourite modern novels which focus on the world underneath the United Kingdom’s capital city.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
I’m slightly horrified, if I’m honest, to realise that Neverwhere is already over twenty years old—not a great start to a collection of “modern” novels. But this is, of course, the granddaddy of the modern stories that take place below London and its influence can be felt on all of them. Neverwhere started as a television series by Gaiman and Lenny Henry. This was Gaiman’s first solo novel and he explained why in a tweet:
@dimortuisunt well, the book was written because the TV series left me going “But it’s not meant to be like that”.
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) June 21, 2009
The story is probably well-known to most of you: a young businessman stumbles into the mysterious world of London Below, where London’s saints and monsters have come to life. This is a place of the lost and dispossessed, based on the homeless people in London who have fallen through the cracks. Richard Mayhew believes them below his notice, until he discovers that he has disappeared from London Above and is forced to search for answers in the labyrinth of abandoned stations and sewer canals known as London Below.
If you haven’t yet read Neverwhere, I must insist that you try it, especially as Gaiman has now announced the sequel: The Seven Sisters. Seven Sisters is an area of north London named after a circle of seven elms. The ring of trees appears on maps from 1619 although the location has changed, most notably with the trees being replanted in 1876 and then disappearing completely in 1955. A new ring of hornborn trees was planted in 1997. Seven Sisters station opened in 1872 and is now on the Victoria underground line. The leg between Seven Sisters and Finsbury Park is the longest uninterrupted section of deep level tunnels. I can’t help but imagine the many story lines which could cluster there.
Montmorency by Eleanor Updale
Montmorency takes us back to the Victorian era for this crime novel with the subtitle Thief, Liar, Gentleman? in its US release. This Victorian mystery follows the story of a thief who takes advantage of the sewers running through London to live a dual life: one is a life of crime hiding below London and the other is in the streets above as a gentleman, taking advantage of his newfound riches. When we meet Prisoner 493, he is undergoing radical surgery to repair his shattered bones and flesh after he fell through a skylight in a burglary gone wrong. The patient becomes the surgeon’s exhibit at scientific conferences, where he has the good fortune to witness Sir Joseph Bazalgette present the map of his newly built sewers servicing London. The potential for crime is clear to him and, when Prisoner 493 is released, he plots a rise to the upper classes through a series of daring thefts, using the sewers to disappear without a trace.
It’s unlikely, of course, that a self-made Victorian man with no education could pass as a gentleman simply by mimicking the accent but, with a bit of suspension of disbelief, this is a fun and interesting story. Having waded through the sewers myself, I can tell you that I’m convinced that Updale has been there too. She describes too perfectly the shocking warmth of the water flowing down the pipes (although I note the liquid only went up to the ankles of her main character, whereas I experienced it up to my thighs!) and the conversations of the flushers clearing the oddities stuck in the bends of the brick tunnels.
There is no speculative aspect to this Victorian crime novel, the first in a series of five, but I enjoyed experiencing the “real world” underneath London as long as I didn’t think about the history too hard.
Un Lun Dun by China Miéville
Un Lun Dun initially appears to be a good old-fashioned portal fantasy, in which two young girls are led through a portal to the mirror world underneath London. One of the girls turns out to be the Chosen One who is prophesied to defeat the Smog. However, this is where the traditional portal story twists into something much darker. The wonder of the mirror world borrows from both Lewis Carroll and Neil Gaiman, but the whimsical and broken population of London through the looking glass is pure Miéville. UnLondon, after all, is where the obsolete items of the city above seep into the very streets. With characters ranging from carnivorous giraffes to the “half-breed” ghost rejected both by the living UnLondoners and the dead inhabitants of Wraithtown, Un Lun Dun repeatedly follows the track of a traditional fantasy quest just to jump the rails when you are convinced that you know what is coming.
As I really enjoy subverted tropes and a good pun, Un Lun Dun kept me thoroughly entertained. And I will never look at an empty milk carton the same way again.
Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan
Midnight Never Come is the first book of Marie Brennan’s Onyx Court series: a compelling narrative of faerie England in the catacombs beneath the streets of London. This novel (and the series) is an exciting mashup of historical fiction and fantasy. The detail of Queen Elizabeth’s reign is mirrored by the politics and dark alliances of Invidiana, the ruler of the Onyx Hall. The story focuses around two courtiers longing for royal favour: the all-too-human Michael Deven for Queen Elizabeth and the disgraced faerie lady Lune for Queen Invidiana.
Like Un Lun Dun, the Onxy Court is a self-contained city underneath the capital city but, although there is also a portal to be found, the second city is unabashedly subterranean, forever in the shadow of the mortal London above. Brennan’s detailed research of the 15th century courts shines through without becoming overwhelming: the characters are strong and the plot has enough twists to carry the reader through. As the narrative reaches its climax, the depths of the intrigue and betrayal come clear.
I enjoyed the immersion in the Elizabethan world and, although it sometimes moved slowly, there was no question that the ending made it all worth it.
Dodger by Terry Pratchett
Dodger is the story of a teenage tosher in Victorian London. Toshers scavenged the sewers for “tosh” (items made of copper), a darker and danker version of the mudlarks who searched the banks of the Thames. He emerges from a manhole to see a young woman in distress. The street urchin, who has learned to urch above the ground as well as navigate the filthy sewers below the streets, seems an unlikely candidate to save the day but the seventeen-year-old makes for a fine hero in true Dickensian style.
Although Dodger is technically a children’s book, Pratchett’s trademark charm and sense of humour easily won me over. The novel, described by Pratchett as historical fantasy rather than historical fiction, includes cameos by Charles Dickens, Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Joseph Bazalgette and even Sweeney Todd. A companion piece, Dodger’s Guide to London, is based on Pratchett’s extensive research done for the book and includes eccentric trivia and a list of resources to find out more about life in Victorian London. If you’ve enjoyed the Discworld but never ventured far outside of it, you’ll find this surprisingly upbeat Pratchett story of surviving London definitely worth a look.
These books will give you a different taste of the possibilities of a London underneath London, each taken from a very different perspective.
I could spend a lifetime in London and still find it new and exciting even if I stayed above ground. But there’s a certain charm in the underworld of the thriving metropolis, with its rough Victorian bricks of the sewers and the bright white tiles of the Tube. As to which perspective of London is my favourite, well, that depends on the day, the crowds, the weather and above all, the stink.
Sylvia Spruck Wrigley writes fantasy and science fiction. Domnall and the Borrowed Child was published in 2015 with Tor.com Publishing. She writes paranormal suspense under the name Kenzie McLaughlin and her novel Wail takes place both above and below the streets of London. You can find out more here.