Monday, April 18, 2011

Laymon Month: The Cellar

Where do you start when looking to review The Cellar?  It is the book that made the career of my favorite author so I have to admit that I’m a bit intimidated.  Over the next four days I am going to review the entire Beast House Chronicles and I think that I’m going back to the formula I used with the ‘Mondays With Richard’ feature- keep it casual and keep it personal.
The Cellar
Richard Laymon
Cemetery Dance (1997; oringinal publish date 1980)
Simply put, The Cellar is Richard Laymon at his best.  He keeps the reader completely off-balance with a barrage of brilliant deviance.  Laymon’s prose is fired off like bullets from an Uzi.  The bursts are short and EXTREMELY hard-hitting.  It is Laymon’s unique style that helps propel The Cellar’s frantic speed and gory narrative.

The story opens with Donna and her 12 year-old-daughter, Sandy, fleeing from her deranged ex-husband, Roy.  Donna and Sandy make their way up the California coast until their car has an untimely accident and they are forced to spend a few days in the small coastal town of Malcasa Point.  Malcasa Point has the dubious distinction of being home to a morbid tourist attraction known as the Beast House. The Beast House has long history which is soaked in blood.  Locals will tell you that there is a mysterious beast that enters the house at night to destroy any trespassers. 
While Donna and Sandy are holed up in this tiny town Roy closes in on them.  The thing about Roy is that he is an ex-con who has a penchant for abusing young girls.  He is also a total psychopath who will stop at nothing to destroy the lives of his ex-wife and daughter and has no issue dispatching anyone who gets in his way.
As Roy closes in on Sandy and Donna we are introduced to two additional characters, Judge and Larry.  As a child Larry was attacked by the Beast of Malcasa Bay but lived to tell the tale.  As a result he has spent numerous sleepless nights in the grip of the memory of the Beast.  Finally he has had enough and enlists Judge, an ex-military type, to finally hunt down and destroy the Beast.   
The story comes together as all five main characters end up meeting in Malcasa Point and are forced to confront their worst nightmares.  The finale is pure genre greatness.
The Cellar is the standard to which I hold all other horror fiction to. Laymon uses the horror of reality along with the terror of the fantastic in such a way that I am never able to get comfortable when reading The Cellar.  Laymon approaches the horror of the story from so many angles that he leaves the reader no place to hide.  Whether reading about the taboo exploits of Roy as he indulges his pedophilic urges or bearing witness to the Beast as he violates his prey, The Cellar brings all types of scares.
When I first read the back cover of The Cellar I was giddy with excitement.  I was looking for a gory tale of a monster who stalks a small coastal town.  How can that not be fun?  Well, there are a lot of adjectives that can be used to describe The Cellar but “fun” is not one of them.  The real beast in the story is Roy.  Laymon describes his crimes against children with an unflinching sense of realism.  There is absolutely nothing that is off-limits.  This book was published 31 years ago and the descriptions of Roy’s atrocities are just as jarring today as they were then.  Again, this is a testament to Laymon’s greatness. 
As I mentioned earlier, Laymon also uses some surreal horror to keep the reader on edge.  When the reader is not being exposed to Roy’s heinous acts we get to meet the infamous Beast of Malcasa Bay.  The Beast has been terrorizing Malcasa Bay since at least 1903- claiming at least 10 “official” victims.  The reader is introduced to the origins of the Beast through the found diary of Lillian Thorn.  Lillian was the first inhabitant of the Beast House and the diary outlines how the Beast began entering her house (and the inhabitants of the house). It also explains Lillian's bizarre role in the Beast House murders as it traces the downward spiral which made the Beast what it is today.  The diary was a truly unique way to introduce the audience to a very mysterious creature. 
I understand that this book is not for everyone. It is an all out assault on the reader as Laymon attacks you from every possible angle.  As a father of young children I found the Roy subplot to be especially unsettling but isn’t that what this genre is all about?  It is about authors bringing their readers to a place they normally wouldn’t go.  It is not supposed to be safe.  Everything should not end well.  This is what Laymon understood and this is what made him one of the true masters of the genre.


  1. The Cellar has to be one of the most influential horror novels ever - combined with Ketchum's Off Season. You have to believe that a lot of what now passes as horror and "extreme" fiction simply wouldn't exist were it not for Laymon and Malcasa Point.

    The Roy subplot was a little much though, and though it is necessary and does make the finale that much more satisfying, I think I could have done with a little less description on Roy's actions.

    Of course, then we wouldn't have the juxtaposition with the Judge character so, well, I guess I don't know what I'm talking about.

    At any rate agreed that this was Laymon at his absolute best, and even with the rather bleak subject matter, mandatory reading for modern horror fans.

    Well written article.

    - Aaron

  2. Excellent review and I am enjoying the whole Laymon month. The Cellar was the third Laymon book I had read, the first two being the expanded version of The Woods Are Dark and Savage.
    As other people have mentioned, there were times that I wanted to throw the book down and read something a little more trivial. There were spots in this book (and others) that made things feel a little bleak and despairing. But, like the car wreck-analogy, I always went back. The book only took just over a day to read, but I had to take it in smaller doses. What kept me coming back was the writing and how it drew me in as if these were actual events.
    Anyhow, this series and The Woods Are Dark novella are what have made me a Laymon fan in the last couple years where I have now read about 18 of his books. Keep up the good work!

  3. Finally catching up on the posts...

    As I mentioned in my review of IN THE DARK, THE CELLAR was my first Laymon read and I was a little disappointed. Mainly by the mother and her romance with Judge because even though a budding romance between them was believable, I found the timing of their coupling completely ridiculous. Especially considering her daughter was in grave danger.

    I was really shocked by the Roy subplot and I wouldn't say I "liked" it obviously, but it is interesting how Laymon mixes real life horrors with supernatural ones.

    I may have to give this one another shot sometime.

  4. Excellent review. I've already got it on my wish list and am continually on the look-out for it at used bookshops. No luck yet. Maybe some small press will put out an e-book version one of these days.

  5. Looks like I'm the outlier - did not like CELLAR whatsoever! If you want crazy monster sex stuff, check out INCUBUS by Ray Russell. So much better and more fun!


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