Written by Adrienne Clark
This review contains spoilers because omg. I’m serious, I’m gonna tell you the whole thing so you can check this book off your list and thank me later. Not to mention there is a lot of icky stuff in here, so even though it’s presented through the lens of comedy, a trigger warning is clearly in order.
If Richard Laymon’s The Cellar were a dog, it would be a Chinese Crested that just took a shit on your royal blue carpet. It’s ugly as hell and it’s in the wrong, but it doesn’t care. It’s here. The shit’s already on the floor. And there’s no way a dog can be expected to clean up, so you better get to it. Clean up the shit, pathetic human.
Between thinly motivated main characters and hideous nocturnal sex monsters with enormous penises, The Cellar is a book so brazen it’s staggering. Although Laymon took the time to write an entire book (no small feat in any circumstance), that’s about all he did.
I’m not even sure where to begin. Do we start with the writing style filled with choppy sentences and an aversion to the pronoun “it?” Or should we talk about the way Laymon takes zero time to develop any of his characters beyond primary colors? Maybe it’s best to start (and finish?) by pointing out that Laymon refers to sex as “the slippery pushing.” I don’t know, dear reader, I just don’t know.
Best to start at the beginning, I suppose, and drag you through the whole damn story with me.
The Cellar begins when Donna Hayes learns that her child molesting, wife beating, thieving, murdering, ex-husband Roy, has been released from prison. So without further ado, Donna packs and hits the road with her 12-year-old daughter Sandy. In an effort to get as far away from home as possible, they push on into the night, driving past San Francisco and into increasing fog, which (surprise!) ends in them having an accident.
Any attempt at putting more distance between themselves and Roy will have to wait until new car parts can be delivered and installed. They’re grounded in Malcasa Point, a tiny town with a Welcome Inn, a diner, and a terrifying old mansion called “The Beast House” that apparently contains a creature that will murder anyone who trespasses at night. Totally normal.
The story switches POV from Donna to Roy as he kills and molests his way across California, hunting his fleeing ex. Every one of Roy’s scenes is so mean-spirited they’re not worth mentioning really. You can tell the work is that of a young writer who hasn’t figured out how to horrify a reader without trotting out the worst humanity has to offer in every scene.
There’s a third POV character named Judgement Rucker. He’s a for-hire type fellow (though it’s never really explained what he did before this story begins aside from murder bad people) who doesn’t relish killing but will do it for the right price.
Jud meets a man named Larry who escaped the Beast House as a kid. He has terrible nightmares about the Beast and hires Jud to kill it so he can finally have peace.
Jud and Larry meet Donna and Sandy on a daytime tour of the Beast House, and they all become fast friends. Too fast, in fact. Laymon gives no time for anyone to get to know each other at all. Within two scenes Donna and Jud are making out near a beach while Larry and Sandy play games and joke like they’re family (Insert shrugging emoji here).
Later that night, Jud gets attacked by the Beast during a stakeout, which leads to sex between our main characters for no other reason than Laymon wants to show how uncomfortable his relationship is to sex (more on that later).
Everything is revealed when Jud discovers a turn-of-the-century diary written by the original owner of Beast House. Turns out the Beast is real. He’s a large, pale creature with a giant (you know where this is going) penis. But not just any penis. A hinged penis with a tongue on the end. Great.
The former owner discovered the penis monster in her cellar and had the best sex in the world with it. This sex is so good she eventually decides she should send her children away for a week so she can bone it all over the house. Bad idea. The Beast liked having the run of the place while the kids were gone and kills everyone aside from his human lover. And thus the murderous Beast was created.
How this phallic freak could still be alive is beyond our heroes’ comprehension, but since people are still dying in the house, it must be. As Jud works on a plan, Roy makes his way to the town just in time to complicate the plot and pave an obvious path to his death-by-beast.
By this point, you think you know where this is going: Roy will die, Jud will kill the beast, Larry will live in peace, and Donna and Sandy will leave with Jud. #HappilyEverAfter
This is where things go off the rails BIG TIME, but not until the very last second. In fact, until about three pages from the end everything still seems to be going the way you’d expect. That’s when Laymon decides he doesn’t really care what ending he’s set up, it’s time to kick into overdrive.
Instead of one Beast, let’s have five. Let’s not only kill off Larry, but we’ll get rid of Jud too. Oh and poor persecuted Donna and completely innocent Sandy? Let’s lock them in a closet and make them sex slaves for the Beasts.
I’m going to try to keep it concise from here on out because I’m already at a thousand words, and you’re already at the point where bleaching your eyes doesn’t sound half bad. So let’s run it down.
THE WRITING STYLE
From choppy, repetitive sentences to strange verb and adjective choices, this book has it all. Fog shambles across the road, nipples are turgid, and butt cheeks are repeatedly referred to as “globes.”
It could be argued that the sentence structure is a style choice, but the continuous awkward phrasing suggests a certain, shall we say, lack of editorial oversight. Just try these on for size: “Her mind pictured Sandy’s head breaking through the windshield” or “‘Damn it!’ His mind screamed.”
TENSION AND STORYTELLING
This is the part Laymon gets right. He knows how to parcel out the horror, letting the unease grow over time. Instead of explaining the Beast House in one go, he stretches it out, revealing a new detail about the mystery each time the house is mentioned.
There is also a lovely and creepy touch of the Beast House proprietors living in a brick house with no windows. I don’t know exactly why that idea creeps me out so much, but it’s really effective. Not to mention, it’s integral to the plot and it’s a nice nod to Richard Matheson’s Hell House.
WHEN AN AUTHOR IS ACCIDENTALLY REVEALING
It was within a few chapters that I got the sneaking suspicion that–at least in this stage of his life–Laymon didn’t spend a whole lot of time asking women what they enjoyed sexually. Between describing female arousal as “warm fluid spreading in her loins” and the Beast having a tongue on the end of his dick (to do what with? Lick the . . . cervix?), let’s just say his ideas don’t seem well researched.
At the end of the day, The Cellar is a poorly written heap of mean-spiritedness that you probably should avoid. I skipped over the many scenes of violence toward children, but be reminded that’s a huge factor in the book, just in case I accidentally made this seem like a light and funny read.
Do you need to read The Cellar? The dude called sex “the slippery pushing,” so you tell me.