(Photo from http://www.urbanexplorers.net/)
A few months ago, Scott Roche asked if I’d be interested in contributing to the first in a series of phobia-centric anthologies. I said yes, firstly because it’s Scott and he’s great and secondly because much like my spiritual older brother Henry Rollins, my response to the word work is almost always ‘YES!’.
So I spent a blissful couple of weeks researching urban exploration. If you don’t know, Urban Explorers are people who find new ways to make their way through their cities. They find the Underground stations no one uses, the civil defense bunkers left behind by the arrival of Glaznost. They find their way to the lowest and highest place via the routes no one’s tried and no one’s really allowed to. Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Nathan Drake neatly combined with parkour, spelunking and on occasion just a smidge of low impact, victimless criminal activity.
Fiction catnip, in other words.
So I started thinking about how you measure success and status in a group like that. It wouldn’t just be who climbed the furthest, who got to the best spot or took the best photo. It would have to be something quantified, something real. Urban explorers cross over with both extreme athletes and nerd culture and both those groups are defined by pretty strict, competitive food chains. You have to prove yourself to be the best and that top slot changes constantly.
So what if they had a competition?
A yearly tournament at a set location to see who could climb a building the fastest? A victimless heist where the only person at risk was the explorer themselves?
And what if someone corrupted that?
Suddenly you have a weird form of inverse Die Hard crossed with a light seasoning of The Hunger Games. A group of individualistic, highly skilled athletes and thinkers trying to learn their environment faster than it kills them. It would be great, it would be epic it would…
Absolutely not fit into 1500 words.
So I went back to the drawing board and I started over. I asked myself one question;
‘What scares you?’
Loss. Heights. Not knowing. Knowing.
Those were the first four things to pop out. As foundations go, that’s pretty solid. From there I started thinking about location, and where I could use. I live in Milton Keynes now, which is a satellite town of London and as a result spend a fair chunk of time there. It still weirds me out sometimes too, the sheer weight of history and time that’s present on every street corner in every corner of the city.
There’s one spot in particular which embodies that for me. Borough Market is food valhalla, a vastly concentrated space filled with incredible produce of every sort. It’s crammed under a railway line and right across the street from the Shard.
(This brilliant, utterly bloody terrifying image is from Bradley L Garrett’s essay about climbing the Shard, published on Place Hacking. Read it, the photos are worth it all by themselves.)
One of the newest additions to the London skyline and conclusive proof Sauron has moved into the real estate business. A brutally simple tooth, stabbing up into the sky. Or, perhaps, a knife being driven down into ground made of history, violence and people.
Oh and the site of one of the most famous, and spectacular, urban exploration runs. I was back where I’d started, via an unusual route. Which seems rather fitting.
‘Yet in its Heights’ has nothing directly to do with urban exploration. It has no action scenes to speak of and the spooky, possibly inhuman butler in the original draft has politely stepped off stage to wait to make an appearance elsewhere. I’ve rarely kept so little from one draft to another.
I’ve never been happier with the result either. This is the first piece of fiction I’ve written in a long time and it was incredibly good, nasty fun to write. Thank you so much, Scott, for giving me the opportunity to play with your toys and thanks to everyone who’s read the piece already. The rest of you? The links, which get you my story as well as work by Scott and JRD Skinner for $3.07 or £1,99, are here:
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I appear to have the Urban Exploration Hunger Games to plan…