That Slimey Well Of Horrors
As told in The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller twice tried to descend an ancient underground cistern in Mycenae, Greece, but was too terrified to continue. While Henry's fearful journey into these depths was aborted in 1939, Professor Eric D Lehman completed the downward mission on Henry's behalf in 2002. He wrote about tracing Miller's steps in Greece in his travelogue essay from that year called The Ghost of Henry Miller.
In it's heyday, there was one big problem with Mycenae: there was no natural water source. In the 1200s BC, a cistern was tunnelled into rock in order to collect spring water running from Mount Elias. To this day, the underground passage descends nearly 50 feet (15 metres), and is accesible only by carefully walking down 99 steps. This staircase surface is notoriously slick.
The Lion's Gate at Mycenae (image from Jan Bergtun)
By late morning, the two men passed through the Lion's Gate entrance to the citadel. When they reach the cistern entrance, they entered it cautiously, using lighted matches to peer into the darkness. "The heavy roof is buckling with the weight of time. To breathe too heavily is enough to pull the world down over our ears" [p.91]. Katsimbalas didn't want to miss this opportunity to explore the ancient depths and was willing to crawl on his knees if need be. He had been through much more frightening situations during his service in WWI. Henry, who had managed to avoid the military draft, had not developed a thick skin, and refused to proceed further into "that slimey well of horrors." "Not if there were a pot of gold to be filched would I make the descent" [p.91]. After a few more steps in which air quickly snuffed their matches and the stone beams seemed to sag dangerously, Henry retreated to the blinding Greek daylight.
Not long before leaving Greece a month later, Henry returned to Mycenae. This time, he had two companions to lean on for courage: Lawrence Durrell and his wife, Nancy. Despite having lived in Greece for a few years, the Durrells had never seen Mycenae. Again, Henry found himself atop the dark, slippery staircase; only this time he had a flashlight. "Durrell went first, Nancy next, and I followed gingerly behind. About half-way down we halted instinctively and debated whether to go any farther" [p. 215]. Despite the flashlight and twice the company, Henry felt even more terrified than his first attempt because he was even further in the rocky bowels than before.
"I had two distinct fears--one, that the slender buttress at the head of the stairs would give way and leave us to smother to death in utter darkness, and two, that a mis-step would send me slithering down into the pit amidst a spawn of snakes, lizards and bats." [p.215] Henry felt great relief when he finally convinced Larry to abandon their mission. "When I reached the surface I was in a cold sweat and mentally still going through the motion of kicking off the demons who were trying to drag me back into the horror-laden mire" [p.215].
"I descend the slippery staircase behind two young boys and a girl. The light bobs and flickers. My knees shake. The ancient steps, probably the oldest on the continent, are worn and wet. I remind myself that I need to do this, to go where my hero could not. The walls are slick, marbled slime.
At the third turn, the three teens balk, echoing at each other in Greek. I take the lead, stepping down, down, down. The meager light from our three candles makes the cistern seem small and tight. Finally, the bottom appears in the dimness, wavering and watery, muddy and flat. I step into the muck and touch the final cold wall with my right hand, invoking a blessing for my gods and heroes - for poor, claustrophobic Henry.
I don't linger. Some victories are not meant to be savored."
Above left: Students from Dickinson College explore the cistern with candles.
Another shot the the doorway (image from odysseyadventures)
And here's some analysis of Colossus of Maroussi [PDF] by Andy Hoffman.
 Miller, Henry. The Colossus of Maroussi. New Directions paperback NDP75 27th printing.