Unfortunately the popularity of the short story is waning, to say the least, and as a form for storytelling it is very nearly dead. With this in mind, I want to introduce a new regular segment here at Gravetapping—a segment that is exclusively dedicated to short stories. Once or twice a month I will review one or more stories—they will be presented very much as I present everything here at Gravetapping with the randomness of my own reading. If I enjoy the story, I’ll tell you about. If I don’t, I won’t.
In this premiere post I want to talk about a story many of you have probably read: “The Underdweller” by William F. Nolan. “The Underdweller” was originally published in 1957 as “Small World” in Fantastic Universe, but Nolan later revised the story—he expanded it significantly—and published it under the title “The Small World of Lewis Stillman,” and later still the title changed to the more familiar “The Underdweller.”
“The Underdweller” is a last man story. It features Lewis Stillman, the last man to survive an alien attack. He lives in the storm-drain system beneath Los Angeles, where he survives by stealth. The city streets teem with an unidentified menace; a menace that will surely kill Stillman if he is discovered. He is alone, lonely and desperately in search of not only survival, but also acceptance by a world that no longer exists.
“The Underdweller” is a science fiction story, but it is more. Nolan has created a world that is our own, with one exception—we, all of us, are gone, but unfortunately the memory, the fear, and the disappointment that riddles us is still very much alive in Stillman. It is a tool Stillman uses—or a tool that uses Stillman—to berate himself into an action that will define his existence, or, put another way, give his meaningless life reason.
If all that sounds pompous—and it probably does—don’t worry, because above all else “The Underdweller” is a helluva well-told story. It is fast—the prose is light and readable, and Stillman is an everyman. He is likable, real and very much someone worth spending twenty minutes with once a year. Heck, maybe even two or three times a year.
“The Underdweller” has spent most, if not all, of the past fifty years in print. It has been anthologized multiple times and included in various William F. Nolan collections. It can currently be found in Nolan’s collection, Dark Universe, published in paperback in 2003 by Leisure Books.
If you are an author or publisher and have a short story, collection, anthology, or novel you think I would like to review please send me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org