"Van Horne! Pneumatic transit! I can't believe it's still here!", or In the NYC City Hall Subway Station At Long Last

So I’ve always loved the underground, even as a child: going down into the dark places in the earth and coming out again a slightly different person felt natural, felt correct. I loved mines and I loved subways and tunnels dug underneath water — and I have also always loved the abandoned. If I had any guts at all, and the potential consequences were not so dire, I would absolutely be urbexing all over the damn place; as it is I have to look longingly at derelict and fascinating structures and wonder what’s inside.

There are some places underground that are well-known to people like me as a kind of prize achievement, something longed-for, a wonderful addition to a collection. The deep-level shelters under certain London Underground stations, for example: I still hold out hope that just maybe I’ll be able to see inside one myself, after having spent so long writing about horrors hiding in those tunnels and shafts. It’s much, much easier to visit the Paris catacombs, and that I plan to do when I eventually make enough money and time to go back to France for a holiday. But the crown jewel of underground exploration in New York is the old City Hall subway station, and today I got to go down there and omg omg omg.

You can look up the history of City Hall at the New York Museum of Transit; ground was broken in 1900 and the city’s first subway train departed City Hall station in 1904. It was closed at the end of 1945 for several reasons, one of them being that the longer trains of the latter day had trouble navigating the tight radius of the City Hall loop. It’s still used as a turnaround for the 6, and while we were there several trains squealed and shrieked their way around the curve — some of them containing passengers staring in awe, or possibly just surprise.


The tour we took is arranged through the museum, and you have to sign up several months in advance and cross your fingers you got there before the list was full. It was fantastic. I’ve been on countless guided tours of various stately homes or ancient fortresses and this was one of the best I can remember; our guide was not only incredibly informative but also wry and funny and engaging, and obviously loved her job.

She told us all about the first underground attempt at people-moving, Alfred Beach’s Pneumatic Transit, which never got anywhere beyond a demonstration tunnel with a car shuttling back and forth — I’ve researched it myself, to some considerable extent, because I’ve been fascinated with the Beach project ever since I first encountered it in Ghostbusters II. Remember the abandoned Van Horne station Ray finds under the street, the one containing a river of shimmery pink psychomagnetheric slime? That’s a conflation of the Beach Pneumatic Transit and City Hall station, and the Ghostbusters fan in me as well as the underground history enthusiast was internally jumping up and down and yelling in glee.

I’ve put a few photos up of the station and the wonderful undulating arches of the City Hall entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge station, which is where we emerged. I fell in love with the city pretty much the first night I spent in it with my future wife, and I keep falling. Every time I come here it’s like being accepted into a huge, vast, incredibly complex living thing, a corpuscle in some unknowable circulatory system, and the more I see of it the more I love it. Visiting this station was an enormous gift, and I’m so grateful — and also still so goddamn stoked I GOT TO SEE THE GHOSTBUSTERS STATION AAAAH.

Nobody ever accused me of dignity, after all.

Unrelated to Varney the Vampire: Research Boner Time, Aviation Edition

So one of the things I love to do most in all the world, other than lie around reading books, is doing research for stuff I’m interested in. Right now I’m writing a novella about practical necromancy and air crash investigation, and therefore there is a lot of research being done at the moment.

And despite the ongoing dumpster fire that is reality — look around, look around, to see how lucky we are to be alive right now in a world where you can access practically any damn thing on the internet, at once, without even having to get up and go anywhere, or even put on pants. For example, I needed to know what route a fictional flight from Reagan National to Eppley Field in Omaha would take, and at first I started out going “welp, let’s find the navigational waypoints and imagine what route might be the most sensible between them,” before finding the most wonderful site I’ve encountered in ages, called iFlightPlanner. Which does what it says on the tin.

It shows you all the charts for the United States. There are a lot, and you have to look up how to read them, but that’s not difficult: the FAA has kindly provided a guide. The charts and the custom flight plan showed me all sorts of things I needed to know, such as roughly how long it would take from the point where the flight was handed off from one air traffic control center to its scheduled landing. If I’d needed to include the actual ATC transcript of the handoff I could have done that too, because there are lots of places around the internet where people ask questions about this and have answers provided. In this case it was reddit, but there are others.

And this is only one aspect of one project. The internet is an absolute treasure trove of information, readily available in incredibly useful ways (for the most part). When I was writing STRANGE PRACTICE and DREADFUL COMPANY, I used Google Street View heavily to give myself an accurate picture of what routes people would take to get from here to there, what landmarks they would encounter, what views they would see — because I can’t personally nip over to London or Paris for a fact-finding mission, lacking Ruthven’s cash flow. I could have worked out the routes with an ordinary map, but I wouldn’t have known what my characters would see on the way, and therefore wouldn’t be able to describe it, and I won’t write something I’m not pretty sure I can get right.

Which, of course, makes me That Person regarding other people’s research habits. It drives me nuts when people don’t bother to do any, and it almost drives me more nuts when the person has done a little bit of research but either completely misunderstood what they’ve read or failed to read any further, thus setting themselves up for great big glaring factual errors. The metric for this type of fail is the Dan Brown Scale of Did Not Do the Research, upon which Brown himself scores an eleven.

My point is that the internet is an enormous resource for writers — and because it’s such a vast repository of information and it is generally so easy to access, there is no excuse for not doing your due diligence. Back in the Cretaceous we had to rely on interlibrary loan and long hours in uncomfortable library carrels cramming information into our eyeballs: these days you can get very nearly anything you damn well please delivered directly.

Go forth and learn cool things!

(If you’re interested, here’s the flight plan and a closeup of the chart to give you an idea of what they look like. Ignore the groundspeed; I just needed to know the route.)

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