The last time i knew of this story was as an audiobook anthology. i listened to it about three or four years ago, but unfortunately this doesn't mean the story isn't much much older than this.

In this short story, a tunnel is being dug, and a fossil hunter is asked to look inside, where he finds small worm like thing.

The man is sitting on a pile of slag looking for fossils, and the workers digging a tunnel ask him to come look at something for them. There's a breach in the tunnel wall, it smells, it's dark, and there are worm-like things in there. The worm-like animals are 'a type never seen before' and the fossil hunter thinks they have evolved isolated from the rest of the world in the huge cavern they find through the breach in the tunnel wall.

Plot order as i can remember it: Starts with a man (A professor? Englishman, an older gentleman), sitting on a spool heap, searching through the rocks, looking for fossils. He then starts to eat his packed lunch while sitting looking at the tunnel workings. The tunnel is (I think) a new train tunnel being dug. A foreman then calls him over and asks his advice as a 'man of science' the foreman then shows his a sealed glass jar with a strange worm/insect inside. He asks if the professor knows what it is. He says it was found in the tunnel in a place where a blast opened up a whole in the tunnel wall. The professor and foreman then walk into the tunnel towards the breech. There's a bad smell. through the breech he sees a mass of writhing worms, or worm like creatures. My memory lets me down from here.

Its setting is Victorian i think, in England or maybe Wales.

I read this in an anthology, it was most like a 'best of the year' type anthology, either horror or sci-fi.

  • Hi there! That's some info already, but could you please take a look at these guidelines on story-ID, see if they trigger any more memories you could edit in? For instance, when did you read it and when would it have been published? Also, were those worm-like things "science fiction" creatures, or actual animals that can be found on Earth?
    – Jenayah
    Feb 15, 2019 at 19:51
  • An amusing detail: Kiernan's 'In the Water Works' is set in Birmingham, Alabama, rather than England or Wales. Jul 23, 2019 at 15:38

1 Answer 1


This is In the Water Works by Caitlin R. Kiernan. I read it in the anthology American Supernatural Tales.

The professor, Henry Matthews, is picking through a spoil heap looking for fossils when he is approached by the foreman, Warren Wallace:

A week later, and Henry Matthews is again picking over the spoil heaps, a cool and sunny October day crisp as cider, an autumnsoft breeze that smells of dry and burning leaves, and his spirits are high, three or four exceptional trilobites from the hard limestone already and a single, disc-shaped test of some specie of echinodermia he’s never encountered before, almost as big as a silver dollar. He stoops to get a better look at a promising slab when someone calls his name, and he looks up, mildly annoyed at the intrusion. Foreman Wallace is standing nearby, scratching at his thick black beard, and he points at Henry with one finger.

Wallace has the worm like creature in a jar:

“Now, Professor, you tell me if you ever seen anything like this here,” and the foreman produces a small bottle from his shirt pocket, apothecary bottle Henry thinks at first, and then no, not medicine, nitroglycerine. Warren Wallace passes the stoppered bottle to the schoolteacher, and, for a moment, Henry Matthews stares silently at the black thing trapped inside.

“Where did this come from?” he asks, trying not to show his surprise but wide eyes still on the bottle, unable to look away from the thing coiling and uncoiling in its eight-ounce glass prison.

“From the tunnel,” the foreman replies, spits tobacco juice and glances over his shoulder at the gaping hole in the mountain. “About five hundred feet in, just a little ways past where the limerock goes to sandstone. That’s where we hit the fissure."

Henry and Warren go into the tunnel where they encounter the bad smaell:

“Sorry. Guess I should’a warned you about the stink,” and Warren Wallace frowns, grim face like Greek tragedy, and takes a step back from the hole in the wall of the tunnel, hole within a hole, and now Henry’s eyes are watering so badly he can hardly see. “Merkel had us plowin’ through here full chisel until we hit that thing. Now it’s all I can do to keep my men workin’."

And looking through the hole in the tunnel wall they see the rest of the worms:

At first he doesn’t see anything, angle a little less than ninety degrees where black rock meets blacker water, and then he does see something and thinks it must be the roots of some plant growing in the pool, or, more likely, running down from the forest above to find this hidden moisture. Gnarled roots as big around as his arm, twisted wood knotted back upon itself.

But one of them moves, then, abrupt twitch as it rolls away from the others, and Henry Matthews realizes that they’re all moving now, each tendril creeping slow across the slick face of the crevice like blind and roaming fingers, searching. “My God,” he whispers. “My God in Heaven,” starts to pull away from the hole, but the foreman’s hand holds him fast. “No. Not yet,” Warren Wallace says calmly, and “Watch them for just another second, Professor.”

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