This is a transcription of Episode 43 — Secret Passages: Down the Rabbit Hole.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
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Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
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David: Welcome to Season four Episode 43 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we are getting curious about secret passages.
Melissa: This is another one of those things where in my imagination I wish so much that I would come upon a secret passage. And then if I really think about it in real life, I would be such a baby.
David: Yeah.[laghter] That said, though, we have been down some secret passages. You don’t remember?
Melissa: That made me tilt my head like a dog.
David: That’s what I was picking up when I said, you don’t remember? No. The Winchester Mystery House.
Melissa: Oh, the crazy Winchester Mystery House, which we went to on Halloween and went on a candlelight tour. What were we thinking?
David: And while we were there, we either saw one of the people who work at the museum dressed as Mrs. Winchester, or we saw the dearly departed Mrs. Winchester herself.
Melissa: That’s the only thing that makes sense.
David: Dead these many years, we’ve also been to the secret bookcase at the Strahov Monastery Library in Prague.
Melissa: Kind of. We went on a behind-the-scenes tour there and they very tantalizingly opened the hidden door in the corner of the library. And there’s a spiral staircase inside, and you’re allowed to stick your head in. But that’s it. And the lovely woman who works there was like, Ne! Ne! Ne! Which means, no, no, no. Because she could see on my face that I was about to bolt up the stairs.
David: Punch her in the face and run up the stairs.
Melissa: Oh, that would be so mean. She was such a nice lady.
David: She was a nice lady. And we’ve also been in when I was a kid, I was at one of the stops of the Underground Railroad.
Melissa: I did not know that. I love when I learn new things about you in the recording booth.
David: We also went to that secret hospital in Budapest.
Melissa: Oh, right. The one built into the mountain.
Melissa: I mean, it’s not really secret anymore.
David: No, not now. I mean, none of these places are secrets now. I wouldn’t be telling you about them.
Melissa: That would be shocking: ‘I forgot to mention there is a magic portal in our closet.’
David: It’s weird I didn’t bring that up before now. And then the last one I could remember is we went to that speakeasy in New York City.
Melissa: Oh, that place was great.
Melissa: Best cocktails ever. And it was really fun to get into because you had to go into this really seedy-looking alley with an unmarked door, and there was a tiny camera above the door which they would look out. And if they recognized someone in your party, they would open the door. But if they didn’t recognize anyone, you were out of luck. Happily. We were there with someone who is a friend of the bartender.
David: Which is how we knew about it in the first place.
Melissa: I’d forgotten we’ve been to a speakeasy that makes me want to wear a flapper dress.
David: Yeah. Yeah,
Melissa: Let’s just pretend I’m wearing a flapper dress. While we do.
David: I want to say that place was less romantic than you’re thinking. It is, but it was pretty romantic.
Melissa: It really was.
David: It was pretty nice. A little jazz playing in there. Really nice drinks. That’s pretty great.
Melissa: They had hooks for hats. So the gentlemen could remove their hats at the bar.
David: They had rules in the bathroom for how to behave yourself. It’s really great. Those are all the secret places I can remember.
Melissa: That was pretty good.
David: The rest are lost to time. And my memory.
Melissa: We’ll report back on the secret portal in the closet after we explore it more fully.
David: Yes. Yes, we will.
Melissa: Okay. Let’s talk about some real secret passages.
Melissa: First I want to say thank you to our Patron who recommended we do a Secret Passages episode.
Melissa: I think we both have the same reaction when we saw that, which was: oooooh.
David: And then: Absolutely, we’re doing that. Yeah. Yeah.
Melissa: And I feel like that’s been the response we’ve gotten from our listeners, too. If they’ve commented, they’ve been like, Oh my gosh, this is so much fun. I love it.
Melissa: The notion of secret passages has been around for a really long time.
David: Yeah, one might say caves since caves.
Melissa: And then jumping forward from caves, we get the Egyptian pyramids, which were just riddled with secret passages and booby traps to thwart grave robbers.
Melissa: I’m in favor of booby traps.
David: It seems fun now. And I can imagine at the time it was pretty terrifying.
Melissa: Secret passages are also built into castles and mansions and usually involve some kind of colorful characters.
Melissa: For example, maybe the wealthy owner of the manor house like to spy on his party guests. Or a criminal gang needed a way to smuggle their loot from one place to another.
Melissa: In 16th century England, Wales, and Ireland, country houses had priest holes.
David: You have mentioned, the priest holes many times. I think you’re obsessed.
Melissa: These were hallways and secret rooms built into fireplaces or attics or under stairways where the Catholic priests could hide if the Protestants came hunting for them.
David: The priest holds prominently featured in the James Bond movie Skyfall.
Melissa: Which is one of my favorite parts of that movie.
Melissa: Where they escape from the manor house under the ground to the chapel. Far away.
Melissa: Across the moors.
David: Across the moors. Yep.
Melissa: In the United States during Prohibition, inside legit businesses, there were hidden stairways and secret sliding panels that led to speakeasies and gambling parlors. And it is part of our family lore, my family, that my grandfather had a poker room in the basement of one of the buildings that he owned.
David: That seems very plausible, given what I know about your grandfather.
Melissa: I know, my relatives are kind of thugs. They are also secret passages with good intentions, like, as you mentioned, houses that were part of the Underground Railroad that helped people escape from slavery or tunnels built under the Berlin Wall, which I’m going to be talking about later.
David: There’s also the room that Anne Frank stayed in with her family.
Melissa: Maybe the best secret passage of all.
Melissa: For this show, we’ve defined secret passages pretty broadly. We focused on physical spaces, mostly. So, corridors, doorways, stairways, secret rooms, tunnels. We had a pretty rousing debate about time travel one morning on our walk.
David: Yeah, yeah. I mean, secret passages are interesting in literature for the same reason that they, you know, they parallel a character’s development, right? I’m going to read a quote later about how. A secret passage is almost the core of any story. If you’re being really generous with that.
Melissa: I tend to be a little more literal.
Melissa: So I came down on: time travel counts if a physical portal is involved, but not a time machine. This is carved onto a stone tablet. It will forever be the law of the land.
David: Yeah. What if the time machine looks like a door?
Melissa: Doors count. It’s not a machine. It’s a portal. Come on, Dave. We went over this. We chiseled it together into the stone.
David: Okay. I feel good about my decisions.
Melissa: As you referenced, there is a long history of secret passages in literature. They’re a staple of gothic novels. Where would we be without the secret passage in _The Castle of Otranto?
David: I don’t know.
Melissa: Or the hidden door to the attic in Jane Eyre that is hiding a big secret?
David: Yeah, I mean, there you go. Right. That was like novel number three. And she was like. Secret door. Be good here.
Melissa: And many mystery novel has been built around a secret passage. Ronald Knox is an author who wrote the ‘Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction.’ And he said that a detective story could only use a secret passage if that story was set in an old house or a castle. Oh, and this is a very important quote, ‘Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.’
David: That strikes me as a rule for my guy who likes making rules.
Melissa: He was very committed to the fair-play mystery.
Melissa: There are also a lot of classic children’s novels that turn on magical doors and hidden rooms.
Melissa: And I feel like many of us were perhaps shaped by those stories.
Melissa: The Secret Garden. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Nancy Drew story of the hidden staircase. I was a Nancy Drew girl myself. And of course, all of the Harry Potter books.
David: Yeah. Because when you’re a kid, every portal is a secret portal of magical unknown stuff on the other side.
Melissa: I like to pretend it’s that way as an adult, too. As I kind of alluded to earlier, there are dozens of examples from history of secret passages in famous landmarks and country homes and hotels and castles and abbeys. I will put lots of links in show notes because I definitely went down many delightful rabbit holes.
Melissa: But I want to share one story that really captured my imagination. This story has everything you could possibly want in a story about secret passages. A mountaintop monastery, a locked library, priceless books, and a sneaky thief that baffled police.
David: This is a non-fiction story?
Melissa: This is a real story. First, let’s talk about the monastery. Mont Saint-Odile was built in the seventh century, and it’s found in the Vosges mountains of France, above the small town of Severne. If you look at photos, it looks like something out of a fairy tale. It sits right on top of the mountain and it’s completely surrounded by forest. And it’s a complex of buildings made of red stone with dormer windows. The buildings have really steeply slanted roofs, and they’re decorated with crosses. And in one corner, there’s a turret, and on top of the turret is a little dome. And on top of that is a statue of Jesus. It’s a popular pilgrimage spot. And every year about a million people visit the abbey, the cloisters, and the chapel.
David: That’s a lot.
Melissa: Yes. And inside the cluster of buildings, there’s a courtyard lined with linden trees. And outside, the entire shebang is encircled by the ancient Pagan Wall.
David: The Pagan Wall?
Melissa: It dates from about the year 1000, and it’s made of 300,000 stone blocks and it encircles the whole mountaintop.
David: Is it to protect us from pagans? Or was it built by pagans? Who knows anymore? That was 1000 years ago.
Melissa: If you research the Pagan Wall at the monastery, it’s routinely described as ‘mysterious.’ They just don’t know very much about it.
Melissa: There’s also a restaurant and a hotel, so you can stay overnight and enjoy the view across the Rhine River. However, if you’ve read the novel The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, you know that this is also inviting some vampire action. So you make your choices.
Melissa: Inside the monastery, there’s a library filled with rare books and illuminated manuscripts. Between the years of 2000 and 2002, more than 1000 of the books went missing from the monastery, and the police could not figure out how it was being done. According to reports, the monks and the nuns started getting suspicious of each other, and some of them even thought it was the librarian himself, Father Allain Donius. They tried everything to stop the books from disappearing. They changed the locks. They sealed up the windows. They posted guards. But books continued to disappear. And that’s when the authorities started to suspect that there must be an entrance they didn’t know about. So they went on the hunt. They removed floorboards, and they tapped on walls, and they inspected the ceiling, but still nothing. And then one day a local gendarme leaned against one of the bookshelves in the library. And a plank swung open and revealed a small secret room.
David: Wow. That’s awesome.
Melissa: I know.
Melissa: So now they knew the how, but they still didn’t know who. So they installed a video camera and they soon found their culprit. And it turns out he wasn’t a master thief or a greedy opportunist. He was a book lover who just got caught up in an adventure of his own making.
Melissa: Stanislas Gosse was a former professor, and he was living nearby in Strasbourg. And one day he read about a hidden room in the monastery. Back in history, the senior clergy had used that room to spy on the younger residents. Gosse used information from public archives to figure out where the secret passage was located inside the monastery.
David: That is some good research there.
Melissa: In August of 2000, he hopped on his bike and he rode to the monastery. He started his caper in the hotel lobby, where he sneaked into a hallway between the abbey and the tourist area. Then he climbed up a narrow stone staircase and scaled an exterior wall to get to the secret room.
Melissa: Like Batman.
Melissa: Once he was inside, he was in the private library and surrounded by these dusty old books. So he had a seat, and he read for a while.
David: Sure. As he would.
Melissa: Yeah. And then on his way out, he helped himself to a few titles.
Melissa: And he got away with it. So he returned again and again for almost two full years. After the installation of the camera, the police caught him very quickly.
Melissa: When they nabbed him, he was carrying two suitcases with 300 books inside of them.
Melissa: At his apartment, they found the rest of his stash. Almost 1000 books. He’d kept all of them. He wasn’t stealing them to sell them.
Melissa: He cleaned them. And then he neatly lined them up on his own bookshelves. And during his trial, he said, ‘I’m afraid my burning passion overrode my conscience. It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings, and I felt no one consulted them anymore. There was also the thrill of adventure.’ He faced up to five years in prison, and the charge was ‘burglary by ruse and escalade.’
David: Ruse and escalade.
Melissa: That sounds so romantic.
David: It does. Everything about this sounds awesome. And he should be let off with the slightest punishment —
Melissa: And a parade.
David: And a parade.
Melissa: The judge agreed to suspend his sentence because he had taken such good care of the books and eventually return them to the monastery. He was required to pay fines of about $20,000, but his community service was to help the monks catalog and restore the books. The secret passage has since been sealed.
David: Aw. That’s a really nice story.
Melissa: There is a lot more detail that I didn’t have time to include here. There will be links in show notes, so you can really dig into that. Finally, if you are handy, I found complete instructions online for building a secret door bookcase. I will put that link in show notes, and I 100% expect one of you lovely people out there to build this thing and send us photos. And then invite us over for a tea party and a book club behind the secret door.
David: I found a company in Arizona that will do it for you.
Melissa: Even better.
David: Yeah, I can put a link there to. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I’m so excited.
David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Here are the three statements. One: After Benjamin Franklin died, they found 15 bodies in a secret room hidden under his house.
Melissa: I’m shaking my head.
David: Two: There’s a museum of hidden passages in Washington, D.C. Three: Two children were raised in secret rooms at the main branch of the New York Public Library.
Melissa: These all sound like lies. One at a time, please.
David: Let’s take them in order. So after Benjamin Franklin died, they found 15 bodies in a secret room hidden under his house.
Melissa: Are you implying that Benjamin Franklin was a serial killer, Dave?
David: According to Smithsonian magazine, founding father Benjamin Franklin was a coldblooded serial killer.
Melissa: No, he was not. [laughter]
David: Yeah, that’s not true. But it is true that after he died, long after he died, they found 15 bodies in a secret, windowless room under his garden.
David: Yeah, this was in London. So for almost 20 years leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin lived in a home in London. He was there as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He was in London to fight against things like the political influence of the Penn family with the king and the evils of the 1765 Stamp Act and other business like that.
Melissa: That diabolical Stamp Act.
David: Yes, exactly. He lived just around the corner from Trafalgar Square, across the Thames from the London Eye, the giant observation wheel. In 1998, a team of conservationists were repairing his home in London. It had fallen to shambles mostly. They were working on turning it into the museum it is today. They dug up an old basement chamber and started finding bones.
Melissa: Oh, my gosh. That must have been shocking.
David: Yeah. They called the coroner. Ultimately, they drag out the skeletons of 15 people, including six children. They dated them to Franklin’s day. It is still unknown how those bodies got there. Some people say Franklin had some skill as a werewolf hunter. [laughter] And those are the bodies of dead werewolves.
David: OK. That’s just me. But I would like to see that movie.
Melissa: Oh, man, I totally believed you. Someone write that novel, though?
David: The most plausible explanation is that Ben had a young friend and a protege, William Hewson.
Melissa: And he was a werewolf hunter.
David: Hewson ran an anatomy school.
Melissa: Oh, there you go.
David: This was back when the study of anatomy was frowned upon by decent-thinking people. The steady stream of bodies were hard to come by legally, so they may do. According to an article from Mental Floss: ‘Researchers think that Franklin’s home was an irresistible spot for Hewson to establish his own anatomy lab. The tenant was a trusted friend. The landlady was his mother-in-law, and he was flanked by convenient sources for corpses. Bodies could be smuggled from graveyards and delivered to the wharf at one end of the street or snatched from the gallows at the other. When he was done with them, Houston simply buried what was left of the bodies in the basement, rather than sneak them out for disposal elsewhere and risk getting caught and prosecuted for dissection and grave robbing.’
Melissa: Cool story.
David: Yeah. Right. Yeah. So, number two; There’s a museum of hidden passages in Washington, D.C.
Melissa: Well, that has to be the lie.
David: It is a lie. Yeah.
Melissa: I like that idea, though.
David: There is not a museum of secret passages in Washington, D.C. There is a place called The Mansion on O Street. It took me a while to get my head around The Mansion on O Street. Hopefully I can paint you a picture. It’s going to take a minute. The mansion on Oak Street was originally five different townhouses, all built in the 1800s. They have since been connected together into a large, complex building. Picture five Edwardian townhouses just pasted together. The mansion has over 100 rooms. It is 30,000 square feet, 2800 square metres. There are six main kitchens, 12 conference rooms, and 30 special events galleries. It is big, and it’s twisty. Inside, the mansion combines a museum and an antique shop. They have original artwork there. They have cultural artifacts. For instance, they have the guitar Bob Dylan played when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But they also have stuff. They have curios and knickknacks and political memorabilia and books. They have thousands of books spread across the 100 rooms. Wikipedia calls it, ‘eccentric interior styling.’ And everything in it is for sale.
Melissa: Oh, interesting.
David: Yeah. The furnitures and the fixtures. If you like it, you can own it. It is also a public space. So the museum has regular talks and concerts. Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Lenny Kravitz have played there. Michael Jackson played there once. I have a hard time thinking about how that would work. But it happened. It is also a hotel.
David: Yeah. You can spend the night there. They say they are a museum dedicated to exploring the creative process. But I’m bringing it up now because this museum has over 70 secret doors.
David: They have a tour of those secret doors. It’s not much of a tour, but I imagine it’s quite an experience. They bring you in, they introduce you to the place, and then they let you try to find the 70 secret doors.
Melissa: That’s a dream come true.
David: If you want to experience it, The Mansion on O Street is about a 25-minute walk northwest of the White House. Google has it at 4.7 stars after 740 reviews. And we’ll put a link in the show notes.
Melissa: That would be so much fun because I’ve literally walked up to doors and museums and jiggle the doorknobs to see if they’re locked or not.
Melissa: One time one of them was a bathroom, which was shocking.
David: We found an open door at the National Museum in Prague. We went down the hall and use the service elevator and came out another door. That’s all very exciting.
Melissa: It really was.
David: Don’t tell anybody.
David: So the third statement is true. Two children were raised in secret rooms at the main branch of the New York Public Library.
Melissa: That sounds like a lot of fun, unless they were kept there against their will.
David: Yes, I agree. In 1901, Andrew Carnegie gave the City of New York $5.2 million to endow a series of neighborhood libraries. That would be about $175 million today.
Melissa: Pretty good.
David: And also New York property was not as valuable as it is today. From that, the New York Public Library built 39 branches across the area, and each of those branches was heated with coal. Coal furnaces need regular tending. They need to be fed all day and all night. They’re a bear if they go out. They make smoke, and it gets cold. So the furnaces needed custodians and they needed to be there all the time. So when they were building the branches, the architects put apartments in them, usually on the top floor, because the top floor was undesirable in 1901 before the elevator was in wide use.
Melissa: Right. So interesting.
Melissa: That the exact opposite is true now.
David: Yeah. So for decades, the custodians and their families lived in secret apartments on the tops of New York public library branches.
Melissa: Basically, the penthouse.
David: Mm hmm. One family, the Fedelers, lived at the main branch in a seven-room apartment on the mezzanine floor. They had two children, one of whom was born at the library.
David: Yeah. After the father retired, his son took over and became the custodian himself. Eventually the combination of electric heat and the rise of rapid transport and the retirements of the custodians made the apartments obsolete. As of 2016, Atlas Obscura said there were only 13 library apartments left and they were all abandoned. Despite the fact that it seems incredibly romantic.
Melissa: Airbnb those things.
David: Yeah. We will post some articles about the the apartments, but that’s not why I’m telling you the story. I’m telling you the story because I wanted to talk about this one anonymous online poster who talked about their experience with the apartment at the St. Agnes Branch on Amsterdam. His babysitter used to live there.
Melissa: Oh, that’s so cool.
David: Yeah. With her boyfriend, who was a custodian. This could be entirely made up because it’s from an anonymous Internet source. But I thought it was lovely. Here’s what the poster said:
It was an insanely cool apt - you entered via what looked like the door to the custodian’s closet on either the second or third floor (near the children’s section, I think). In a sense, it was the custodian’s closet… but instead of being a tiny room with supplies, at the back of it was this massive staircase that took you up to the atrium of the apt (I’m talking like two flights up on really narrow steps). Once you made it to the top, straight ahead was the kitchen and to your right the bathroom and door to the roof of the library. They had three bedrooms in the apt, one of which my babysitter’s husband had decked out to look like an old time soda pop or comic book shop (red and white checkered tablecloth, action figures everywhere). He had a love of Star Wars (as did I), and had a bunch of star wars action figures that I was obsessed with. The coolest part was definitely getting to explore the library after hours when everyone was gone and I had the place to myself. My babysitter was (is!) an amazing woman and would play hide and seek with me, with the whole library in play.
Melissa: Oh, come.
Also, the library had an amazing selection of movies and VHS tapes, so basically any movie I wanted was at my disposal for free. Combine that with my babysitter’s shared adoration of chicken nuggets and vanilla ice cream, and you can clearly start to see that this place was a young kid’s paradise.
David: That’s so nice.
Melissa: Isn’t that nice?
David: I was just really glad that somebody had that experience. That’s Two Truths and a Lie. Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: Oh, I’m so excited about my first recommendation. I have wanted to talk about this series on the show for a long time, and this book is my favorite installment in the series. It’s A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn. Deanna Raybourn’s book star, the irrepressible amateur detective Veronica Speedwell.
Melissa: Words like mayhem and moxie were invented for Veronica.
David: Hundreds of years ago.
Melissa: Yes, yes. She’s a lepidopterist.
David: Yeah. Butterfly collector.
Melissa: In 19th century England. And she is attracted to trouble like a moth to a flame.
David: Hmm. A little heavy handed with a metaphor.
Melissa: I know I couldn’t resist. Her curiosity has zero limits, and she is very willing to put herself in danger. That is one of her strongest character traits. She will just rush into a perilous situation. She also regularly arms herself with a sharpened hat pin that she wields like a weapon, and her mind and tongue are equally sharp. She can be very prickly. So obviously I love her.
David: Yeah, I can see why you would.
Melissa: Fun fact: Veronica was inspired by the real life Victorian lepidopterist at Margaret Fountaine. At a time when most young girls were sitting around, looking pretty and waiting to get married, Fountaine traveled to six continents. Butterflying, putting together collections that she could sell and having all manner of adventures, including those of the romantic type.
Melissa: Yeah. Veronica is cut from the same cloth. And as a liberated lady, she has amorous trysts of her own. In my imagination, Veronica looks like the actress Eva Green.
David: Oh, okay.
Melissa: Veronica’s partner-in-crime-solving is Stoker. His full name is the Honorable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane. He’s kind of an aristocratic bad boy, except that he’s also a raging feminist.
David: Oh, nice.
Melissa: Yeah. And his interior is as soft-hearted as his exterior is rugged. In my imagination, he looks like Viggo Mortensen.
David: Because every male lead looks like Viggo Mortensen in your imagination.
David: Stoker is the third son of a discount.
Melissa: The words third son should prick up your ears. Because that’s code for ‘needs to make his own way in the world.’ Third son is getting nothing. And he does make his own way. When he was 12, he ran away with the circus. And from there, he joined the Navy and became a surgeon. And now he’s a taxidermist.
Melissa: He and Veronica have been hired by an earl to turn his collection of curiosities from around the world into a museum. But their work is slow going because they routinely go gallivanting off into adventures. Veronica and Stoker are like Bogie and Bacall or Sam and Diane from Cheers. They’re always bickering and flirting, and as a reader, we can see that they’re meant to be together. But they are knuckleheads when it comes to romance.
David: [laughter] Yeah.
Melissa: So the series is infused with their will-they-or-won’t-they eEnergy. So that’s them. They star in many adventures. They’re all super fun. This is my favorite. Here is the story.
Melissa: Let me just throw some words out there. Manor House.
Melissa: Isolated Island. Seance. Love triangle. And a harpsichord that plays on its own in the middle of the night.
David: I can see why you’d like this.
Melissa: It’s 1888. And Stoker’s brother, Tiberius, has lured Veronica to a moody island off the coast of Cornwall. It’s called St Madern’s Isle, and it’s owned by an old friend of Tiberius who’s hosting a glamorous weekend house party. Stoker has a rocky relationship with his brother, and he is not at all happy that Veronica is going away with Tiberius. When Stoker warns Veronica that his brother is going to try to seduce her. She’s like, ‘Yeah, no, duh, Stoker. Catch up.’ But the real appeal for her is that the island is home to the larvae of the Romilly Glasswing, which is a rare butterfly with translucent wings that is thought to be extinct.
Melissa: In exchange for going to the house party with Tiberius, Veronica is going to return home with some of this rare butterfly larvae.
Melissa: So she is in it for the butterflies. When they get to the island, it becomes apparent that this is not going to be a lovely tea-drinking, card-playing weekend filled with polite conversation. Behind the intimidating manor house, just through a gate, is a garden filled with poisonous plants. And in the nearby village, the locals tell stories of ghosts, pixies, mermaids, and giants. There’s also a little old lady who may be a seer. There’s a violent storm, of course.
Melissa: And thank upi. And during a very awkward dinner party, it’s revealed that everyone invited has a connection to the host’s wife, who disappeared on her wedding day three years ago. Of course, Veronica and Stoker start poking into all of this business of the disappeared bride.
Melissa: They unearth relationships that no one knew about. Secrets that are best left untold. They find themselves in grave danger, as they must. Because they’re Veronica and Stoker.
Melissa: I can’t tell you any more than that without ruining the fun. But rest assured that a secret passage plays a vital role in the plot. Along the way to solving the mystery of the missing bride, there’s lots of witty banter and Gothic goodness.
David: Sounds great.
Melissa: That’s A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybon.
David: So I hear your story about a Victorian girl with moxie. And I’ve got another one.
Melissa: Fantastic. I’m all ears.
David: This is The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. This is a fairy tale and a romance set in the early part of the 20th century. It’s got a precocious, solitary literary girl and hidden doors that move between worlds. A book within a book and villains with world changing plans.
Melissa: Yes. Book within a book. I’m in.
David: Yeah, it celebrates story. It has a like a modern sensibility that goes after the patriarchy and has a couple of things to say about colonization as well. If anything I said speaks to you in the least, you should probably just hit pause and go read this book. But if you’re even kind of interested in a fable, this is really good.
David: One of my favorite things about this book — and there’s there’s a lot to like in this book — is the narrator’s voice. I’m going to read you the book’s first page for for three reasons. First, you’ll hear that voice and you can make up your own mind. Second, you’ll get an idea of what the book is like. And third, it’s a fantastic bit for an episode on Secret Passages. So here’s the page:
When I was seven, I found a door. I suspect I should capitalize that word, so you understand I’m not talking about your garden-or common-variety door that leads reliably to a white-tiled kitchen or a bedroom closet.
When I was seven, I found a Door. There—– look how tall and proud the word stands on the page now, the belly of that D like a black archway leading into white nothing. When you see that word, I imagine a little prickle of familiarity makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You don’t know a thing about me; you can’t see me sitting at this yellow-wood desk, the salt-sweet breeze riffling these pages like a reader looking for her bookmark. You can’t see the scars that twist and knot across my skin. You don’t even know my name (it’s January Scaller; so now I suppose you do know a little something about me and I’ve ruined my point).
But you know what it means when you see the word Door. Maybe you’ve even seen one for yourself, standing half-ajar and rotted in an old church, or oiled and shining in a brick wall. Maybe, if you’re one of those fanciful persons who find their feet running toward unexpected places, you’ve even walked through one and found yourself in a very unexpected place indeed.
Or maybe you’ve never so much as glimpsed a Door in your life. There aren’t as many of them as there used to be.
But you still know about Doors, don’t you? Because there are ten thousand stories about ten thousand Doors, and we know them as well as we know our names. They lead to Faerie, to Valhalla, Atlantis and Lemuria, Heaven and Hell, to all the directions a compass could never take you, to elsewhere. My father –—who is a true scholar and not just a young lady with an ink pen and a series of things she has to say—– puts it much better: ‘If we address stories as archaeological sites, and dust through their layers with meticulous care, we find at some level there is always a doorway. A dividing point between here and there, us and them, mundane and magical. It is at the moments when the doors open, when things flow between the worlds, that stories happen.’
He never capitalized doors. But perhaps scholars don’t capitalize words just because of the shapes they make on the page.
Melissa: That is lovely.
David: So we come to find out January is a is a mixed race girl living in a vast estate crowded with items from around the world. She is the ward of William Cornelius Locke. Is a wealthy industrialist and an amateur archaeologist. Locke sends his employees worldwide to bring back treasures for his expansive private museum.
Melissa: Cabinet of curiosities.
David: Yes, yes. And even more so, January’s father works for Locke as a as an Indiana Jones type. Later we discover that January has found a magical door when she was just seven and adventures ensue. I was going to write about what this book was like, but then I read an interview with the author, Alix Harrow, and she sums it up nicely. She said, ‘If you take a kid raised on classic 19th-century children’s fantasy and add two years of graduate school interrogating those same texts as fantasies of empire, you’ll get something like The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It was my attempt to celebrate all the things I’d loved about my childhood books — whimsy, escape, clever orphan girls solving mysteries — while exposing (and hopefully subverting) their horrors’
David: Somehow, this is the author’s first book.
David: Yeah. It was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and the World Fantasy Award for Best Fantasy Novel. I should also mention that there’s a lovely audio version of The Ten Thousand Doors of January. This is just the kind of book you might want someone to read to you. I really enjoyed it. And maybe you will too. It’s _The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alex E. Harrow.
Melissa: My second recommendation is Tunnel 29 by Helena Merriman. This is a thrilling non-fiction book that tells the story of a very particular secret passage: a rescue tunnel built under the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. Here’s the basic story. In 1961, a young man, a student named Joachim Rudolph, escaped from East Berlin to West while the Wall was going up. He was able to slip through after they’d poured the concrete, but before they’d topped it with barbed wire. It’s a very small window of time.
Melissa: Safe and free on the other side, he decided to tunnel back in from west to east so he could help others escape to.
David: That’s a big decision.
Melissa: I don’t know how old I was when I first heard the story of the Berlin Wall going up overnight. But I vividly remember my reaction to learning about that. It just grabbed me and would not let go of me. What if your best friend was on the other side? What if your family was on the other side? What if you would never see them again? There are stories in this book about how some people gave birth to their babies in the West, went home to the East, and then the wall went up and they could not get back to the hospital to get their babies. I want to read you a passage from the book. It’s a description of what happened in East Berlin on August 13, 1961, and it will probably make you very angry. Fair warning, everyone:
_It’s dusk in East Berlin. The streets are covered in streamers and pastel splodges of ice-cream after the annual children’s fair. High on sugar, children have been allowed to stay out late and they crane their necks to the sky, watching fireworks… in the People’s Army headquarters, the country’s most senior military commanders are gorging on a luxurious buffet. It’s all the food you can’t usually get in East Germany – sausage, veal, smoked salmon, caviar. The commanders have no idea what’s brought this on… All they’ve heard is that there’s a secret operation happening that night.
At 8 p.m. exactly, the commanders open sealed envelopes and read detailed instructions, setting out what must happen every hour of the night ahead.
Meanwhile, the mastermind of all this, Walter Ulbricht, is hosting a garden party. It’s out of character – he’s serious, terrible at small talk and doesn’t have friends, but here he is, surrounded by his ministers in his woodland retreat… After supper, at around 10 p.m., as hundreds of tanks and armoured personnel carriers rumble towards East Berlin, ready to catch anyone who might escape, Walter Ulbricht directs his guests into a room and that’s when he tells them: he’s about to close the border between East and West Berlin. If anyone wanted to stop him, warn friends or even escape, it’s too late._
Melissa: The whole book is like this — riveting and tense and filled with small details that make this story, this almost unbelievable story, feel concrete and much more intimate. There are real people involved here.
Melissa: And it reads like a thriller, even though you know what’s going to happen at the end. At the heart of the story is Joachim, who was just an ordinary engineering student until he became extraordinary because he absolutely refused to give up this plan. There were so many reasons his plan should have failed and so many times when it almost did. There are near-misses with the Stasi who are always armed and don’t ask questions. There’s an informer who gets inside one of the rescue organizations and wreaks havoc on their missions. That part made me so angry. I remember one point reading and, like, pinching the bridge of my nose and yelling, No, while I was reading what he was doing.
Melissa: At one point, the diggers are really close to finishing the dig into East Berlin. They’ve built this tunnel. They are about to break through on the East Berlin side and the tunnel floods with water. There are equipment issues and conflicts among the diggers and so many feelings. They’re exhausted and scared all the time because even though they’re digging from the West, there are stories of Stasi nabbing people, dragging them back across the border, even if they catch them in the west. Yeah. Or they could pop up on the east side and find guns pointed at their heads.
Melissa: But each time Joachim works through the problem and just clings to his commitment that he’s going to get these people out. It’s the kind of story that makes you wonder if you could ever do the same. What are the circumstances that would make me devote my life to this extraordinary thing? When they finally succeed, and they move 29 people through the tunnel to safety, it is just a massive relief. But it was also a little bit somber and almost anticlimactic. Because it was so hard on them.
Melissa: And so much was lost along the way. I’m saying it was a little quiet for me. It did not feel celebratory. I don’t know how they felt in the tunnel, but for me it was more of a slow exhale than a cheer, because this is kind of a — it’s a triumphant story, but it’s also a heavy story. Because we know the wall continued to divide people for almost 30 more years after that.
Melissa: If you read this book, it will take you on a thrill ride that has many high moments. Don’t get me wrong. It is fantastic. They get 29 people out. There’s also a BBC podcast from 2019 that was wildly popular. This book is based on that podcast. And there’s a documentary called The Tunnel. The Tunnel was filmed by NBC in 1962 while the dig was going on. So you can actually see the moment those 29 people who were rescued exiting the tunnel into the basement in West Berlin.
David: That’s amazing.
Melissa: There’s no audio, so it has this very otherworldly quality. There is a voiceover, but there’s no music. There’s no sound effects. There’s just this black and white image of these people quietly walking through the tunnel and climbing up a ladder. It’s very haunting, and really powerful. That is Tunnel 29 by Helena Merriman. I want to sneak one more book in if I can. I want to just briefly remind everyone that Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank —
Melissa: iss also a tremendously moving story of an important secret passage. And if you haven’t reread it as an adult, I urge you to do that. Anne’s energy and her belief in the goodness of humans, even in the most terrible circumstances, is very life affirming. And reading it as an adult, I found her honesty really refreshing and inspirational. She does not try to make herself look good in any way. Sometimes she’s a little unlikable, but that makes her all the more compelling. That makes me have even more affection for her.
David: There’s an audio book, too, with Selma Blair as the narrator.
Melissa: Oh, that sounds really good, too. We will put links in show notes to all of that.
David: My second book is Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet by Will Hunt.
Melissa: I like how we both gravitated toward similar books without talking about it. That’s amazing.
David: Yeah. This book is a series of essays about the world beneath our feet. It describes an explorer’s sacred caves and derelict subway stations and nuclear bunkers and ancient underground cities. A lot of the writing is given to talking about how important the underground is for us, sort of physically and emotionally and spiritually. The first chapter is good. It’s good. It starts well. The author introduces the underground and how he got started. When he was a kid in Providence, a teacher told him about an abandoned underground tunnel, and he went looking and never stopped. Then he talks about moving to New York City and getting involved with the underground subculture there. They explore the vast underground, manmade caves of Manhattan and Brooklyn. One of his buddies finds the lab where they originally worked on the Manhattan Project. Wow, which is now sealed over. The original particle accelerator is still in it.
Melissa: Holy cow.
David: Yeah. So that chapter is a good piece of writing, but it’s a warm up. And it’s the second chapter where I was like, ‘Oh, here we go.’ In the second chapter, he and a group of friends travel across Paris underground. From the south to the north, under the city. It takes three days.
Melissa: Three days?
David: Yeah. So they camp down there.
Melissa: [whispers] I would never.
David: They traverse the catacombs, they meet other people who all seem to be walking through the underground like a big, damp, dark park. Hunt also writes about the history of the Paris Underground, the parties they’ve thrown down there and the tours and the first man to photograph the tunnels there back when photography was new. And from there, this book is just one remarkable revelation after another. It is nonfiction fireworks. In chapter three, he introduces the idea that there’s life far, far underground. There’s this paragraph: ‘The doors on the underground kingdom blew open in 1994 when a young biologist from New Mexico named Penny Boston climbed to the very bottom of Lechuguilla Cave 2000 feet underground. It was an environment, she said, “as close as you can get to traveling to another planet without actually leaving earth”—far too remote to support even the hardiest troglobite, or any other living creature. But at one point, Boston was scrutinizing a furry, brown geological growth on the ceiling of a cave passage, when a drip of water plopped directly into her eye. Boston was amazed to find that her eye puffed up and swelled shut. It could only have meant one thing: she had been infected by bacteria, by tiny microorganisms living in the cave’s depths, far deeper underground than anyone imagined possible.’
David: First, Lechuguilla Caves are part of the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. And then hooray for Penny Boston, who went, Hey, there’s something in my eye. Oh, it’s life.
Melissa: And not just ew.
David: And then finally, that discovery set off a swell of research. Long story short, there has been life everywhere we’ve been able to get to.
David: There is possibly more life underground than on the Earth’s surface. Hunt writes, ‘The intraterrestrials contradicted everything biologists had once held to be true about the characteristics of life. They did not breathe oxygen, did not rely on sunlight or photosynthesis for energy, did not consume carbon-based food. They subsisted on what biologists called a ‘dark food chain:’ eating rocks, or metabolizing chemical energy and radioactivity coming out of the Earth’s crust.
David: Those paragraphs made me think that there’s probably life everywhere. What if life is super common? The next chapter talks about the deification of the underground by some cultures. He travels to the Bolivian Andes to talk about what the locals call the mountain that eats men, which is —
David: Yeah. In Chapter seven, Hunt writes about underground art from New York’s graffiti artists to cave drawings from 14,000 years ago. He observes that it’s possible that the people of that era made art in caves because they hoped we would see it. They knew it would last. In chapter eight, he writes about Pythagoras. So most of us know Pythagoras because of the Pythagorean Theorem.
David: The idea that the square of the hypotenuse is of a triangle is equal to the sum of the square of its sides.
Melissa: Yes, 10th grade geometry.
David: Yeah. One of those things that’s pressed with a lot of importance when you’re young and rarely ever comes up. So Hunt writes this, ‘Pythagoras is today known as a mathematician, but during his life in the sixth century B.C. he was celebrated as a semi-divine man, a sage, who could hear “the music of the stars,” as one contemporary wrote. While none of his writings survive, his followers relay that Pythagoras healed the sick with incantations, predicted earthquakes, suppressed thunderstorms, journeyed into the past, and had the capacity to bilocate, meaning he could be in two places at once. Even allowing for a generous margin of exaggeration, no one doubted that Pythagoras possessed, in one form or another, a measure of extra-human potency. (Even sensible Aristotle acknowledged, Among rational creatures there are gods and men and creatures like Pythagoras.) Everyone agreed, too, that part of the source of Pythagoras’s wisdom was his practice of enclosing himself in dark caves for extended periods of time. He possessed his own cave on Samos, which he called his House of Philosophy, where he would retreat into darkness, in order to meditate on the intricacies of the cosmos. Once, Pythagoras wrapped himself in a black lamb’s wool and descended into a cave on Crete and did not reemerge for twenty-seven days. When the philosopher finally lurched out of the dark, pale and haggard, he announced to his disciples that he had experienced death, that he had journeyed to Hades and returned and now possessed sacred knowledge beyond any mortal rhythm.’
Melissa: That would have been way more interesting in 10th grade than the Theorem.
Melissa: That may have gotten me into math.
David: If you are a nonfiction reader, and I can’t interest you with illegal parties under Paris, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the revelation that Pythagoras was either extra-human or a cult leader, then I’m not sure what we’re doing here. NPR called this one of the best books of 2019. I should mention that it’s got a whole bunch of fantastic photos in it. I urge you to pick it up if you’re interested. It’s Underground A Human History of the Worlds Beneath our Feet_ by Will Hunt.
Melissa: That sounds amazing. That sounds like a nonfiction that would hold my interest.
David: Mm hmm.
Melissa: My final recommendation is The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley.
David: Oh, you love this book.
Melissa: This is the best book I read in 2021. And if someone dropped it in my lap right now, open to a random page, I would happily just read from there all the way to the end. It doesn’t matter where it is.
David: Yeah. That’s a nice relationship to have with a book.
Melissa: You might all remember that I recommended her novel, The Bedlam Stacks in our Peru episode.
Melissa: And I just finished reading her latest, which is called The Half Life of Valerie K. She is a benevolent witch who bends genres and cast spells with her words. She’s really good at rich world-building, and then she sends her characters on adventures and infuses them with sneaky emotions.
David: [laughter] You seem upset by the sneaky emotions.
Melissa: You’re just going on a big adventure, and then suddenly you’re crying and you’re like, Why are my cheeks wet?
Melissa: I will admit that if someone read me the flap copy and put this book in my hands, I would probably drop it on the floor.
Melissa: It’s a time-travel story set in an alternate history of the UK, in which England is a French colony. That’s the first thing people tell you about it.
David: Okay. I would read that.
Melissa: I have a rocky relationship with time-travel stories.
David: It’s true.
Melissa: In real life, just for some context, the British fleet triumphed over the French and the Spanish in the Battle of Trafalgar. This was during the Napoleonic Wars. In the book, this book, the French won. So that’s the scaffolding in which the plot takes place. There’s time travel. There’s some bits and bobs about the Napoleonic wars, but that is not what this book is about. So forget all of that.
Melissa: This book is about love with a capital L. When the story opens, it’s 1898 and we meet our hero, Joe Tournier. He’s 43 years old, and he is in a terrible muddle because he’s just stepped off a train expecting to be in London and he’s in Londres.
Melissa: All the street signs are in French. And what was the Tube is now the Metro.
David: That would be very unsettling. Yes.
Melissa: He doesn’t know who he is or how he got there. And he’s diagnosed with amnesia. He eventually finds his way back to where he belongs, but he still remembers nothing. Not even his wife. The beginning of this book, you feel like you are on very shaky ground because you’re seeing everything from Joe’s perspective and you have no idea what’s happening. Because Joe has no idea what’s happening.
Melissa: Then he finds a clue to his past. It’s a 100-year-old postcard. On one side is an image of a Scottish lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides. On the back, written in careful script, is this message: ‘Dearest Joe, Come home, if you remember.’ And it’s signed M. So Joe sets out on a mission to figure out who he is, where he belongs, and who is M. Boom! We are off on a caper and a quest.
David: Yeah. So there’s no act one. You’re just dropped into the deep end.
Melissa: Yes. Right in.
David: Yeah. Okay.
Melissa: In real life, the Eilean Mór lighthouse is shrouded in mystery. In December, 1903, three lighthouse keepers on the island vanished. And to this day, no one knows what became of them.
David: That reminds me of our Hawaii episode and and the book I read about rogue waves and how that’s a thing. It just got swept out by an 80-foot wave nobody was expecting.
Melissa: In the world of this book, that lighthouse and some stone pillars that are nearby are very important to the story. I’m not going to say more than that.
Melissa: I am 100% here for moody, mysterious, lonely lighthouses. So the section of the book set in the lighthouse was fantastic for me. And I want to read you a little description: ‘The Eilean Mor lighthouse wasn’t on the coast, but on a tiny spray of islands ten miles from the nearest harbor, shrouded in rain. It was a gaunt tower that rose from the natural slope of the rocks like a whale rib. Even from a distance it looked like it was falling to ruin. One of the lamp windows was smashed, a colony of white birds hopping in and out… Greenish streaks stained the side that faced the incoming tide. The steps were worn… and plunged right into the sea… A deep part of him hated finding it in ruins, having seen it etched whole on that postcard for so long.’
David: That’s good.
Melissa: It’s best to know as little as possible about the plot before reading this book. But here are a few things to entice you to give it a go.
Melissa: All of the plot twists, political intrigue and time jumps are in service to a very romantic love story that had me holding my breath to see what was going to happen. I so desperately wanted a thing to happen. So there are big, big feelings involved, but they’re all woven into an adventure that demands, I use the word swashbuckling.
Melissa: With a capital S. There are sea battles and a creepy Scottish prison and gunfights. There are mysterious boats in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, and there is a very entertaining dinner party held by a secret society. So based on that, you might expect something kind of Gothic, and some parts of it are, but it’s really difficult to put a genre label on how she writes. I just call it good with a capital G.
David: It’s just good writing.
Melissa: It’s just good. And the thing that keeps me coming back to her novels is her characters. The people she places in Joe’s path during his quest are just so good. The good people are really good, and the villains are really bad.
Melissa: And don’t sleep on her side characters because they all have rich backstories and reasons for being there. And I might have a bookish crush on Missouri Kite.
David: Who’s Missouri Kite?
Melissa: He’s a Royal Navy officer, and Joe ends up on his ship. Missouri is not always likeable. He’s pretty flinty, and he’s at the helm during naval warfare and all that that involves. So, floggings, drownings, amputations. But underneath the crusty barnacles, his heart is true.
David: Is this the character that’s played by Viggo Mortensen?
Melissa: It is. [laughter] And let me just say that I was not the only one taken with Missouri Kite. When I was doing research for this episode, I found a whole batch of fanfic about him.
David: Oh, really?
Melissa: And then there’s Joe. Oh, Joe. It’s impossible not to root for Joe, who literally tries to defy the rules of time to fight for love. If you want to be swept away by a story with lots of moody atmosphere and characters that will delight you, please, please treat yourself to this book. And really, anything else by Natasha Pulley. This is The Kingdoms.
David: Those are five books we love set in secret passages.
Melissa: And let me just add that coming next week on our blog, I’ll be sharing a post of at least ten books featuring a secret passage of some sort, because there are so many wonderful books we could have included in the show. So I’ll be writing about them on the blog. And I have four books I read that I couldn’t sneak into the show, but we’ll be sharing with our patrons over on Patreon, so you can jump into that conversation if you want to join us on Patreon.
David: These words that are coming out of my mouth are the last time you’re going to hear us ask you to support us on Patreon this season. To do that, head over to strongsenseofplace.com/support and that will redirect you. And again, thank you for everything.
David: Remember to take a look at our show notes for all kinds of interesting things about secret passages.
Melissa: There are so many videos and blog posts with photos of secret passages and library bookshelves that swing open, and a story about a guy who was digging in his house and found a secret passage. And so many things. They’re all there.
David: That sounds great.
Melissa: I sounded so desperate when I was saying that you.
David: Sounded like you were being closed up in a secret passage.
Melissa: There have also been several times in Two Truths and a Lie when you’ve mentioned people finding passages and villages through tunnels in their homes. I’ll include those links, too. Everything you need to know about disappearing into a secret place. We’ll be there.
David: Everything we’ve got. Mel, where are we headed for our next episode?
Melissa: Our next one is our final episode of season four. And it’s a really, really good one. We’re taking a virtual trip to Italy to live our best lives.
David: Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of CreativeAngela/Shutterstock.
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