Saturday, February 6, 2016

1. Various Cellar Dwellers

An occasional preoccupation of The R’lyeh Tribune is the image of the house and how it is depicted in weird fiction.  In a horror story, a house is much more than a dwelling place or shelter.  Invariably it is a symbol, a kind of psychic map or diagram.  Various rooms can each have their own hidden significance, their own disquieting history.  It matters greatly whether there are different levels, accessible by dim staircases, and whether there is ample closet space.  It is amazing what you can find in a closet sometimes. 

Even the structural elements of a house can be suspect. The walls and foundation likely contain several more occupants than the owners may be aware of.  Often the family pet can hear or sniff out the worst, long before it completely manifests itself.  Sadly, their furry investigations are too often ignored.  Animals would rather not live inside houses.
What did the previous owner leave up there in the attic?  Where does that annoying dripping sound come from?  Why does the dog keep scratching at the wood over there?   Should we leave the antique mirror up on the wall in the children’s bedroom? (No.)  Isn’t this the room where so-and-so…there’s that noise again!  Hear it?

But I want to talk about the basement, that horribly local version of the netherworld, Hell’s annex.  (At the very least, a homey metaphor for the subconscious.)  Basement is the more common term for what some refer to as a cellar, and both terms are often used interchangeably.  However, there are significant differences between the two.  A basement is “finished”, with plastered and painted walls, and perhaps linoleum or carpeting on the floor.  In a sense, a basement is merely a superficially domesticated hole in the ground, lying just below that part of your house you would much rather inhabit after evening falls.  A cellar is enclosed by coarse bare stone or concrete.  More tomblike and primordial, it’s the cave we used to live in appended to the bottom of our bright, modern dwellings.

A cellar typically has an outside entrance, while a basement has no exit, other than back up the stairs and into the house proper.  Neither situation is a comfort; both options contain possibilities for terrifying, unplanned and un-illuminated events.

What’s down there?  My basement is half finished, displaying a schizophrenic psycho-architecture, one side light and familiar, the other utilitarian, but dark.  In the uncivilized side there are a few ominous cracks in the floor and on one wall.  (I should probably get them checked out.)  With the lights out it’s a cheery—because dreary—abode for various arachnid species and a few unidentifiable creatures with segmented bodies and unknown habits.   

There is some evidence of occasional small rodent activity, though these fellow warm blooded animals rarely linger.  If we have a heavy rain combined with a power failure—not uncommon events in our area—the well of the sump pump will overflow and create subterranean pools of mephitic darkness more foul than the slime that clings to the walls of Hell. 

Our cellar is adjacent to the basement, a family room where the television is.  A door necessarily separates these two regions.  As basements go, it’s pretty typical for homeowners in our neighborhood.  Did I mention that we wash and dry our clothes down there?

A basement, or cellar for some of you easterners, figures in David H. Keller’s helpfully titled The Thing in the Cellar (1932).  The story first appeared in Weird Tales alongside Clark Ashton Smith’s The Planet of the Dead and The Last Day, a poem by Robert E. Howard, among other offerings.  Keller was a psychiatrist who later turned to writing horror fiction, for which the earlier occupation provided excellent training.  The Thing in the Cellar is essentially a clinical case study in how not to manage childhood fears of the darkness beneath the stairs.  One wonders whether he drew inspiration from one of the files in his office. 

Little Tommy Tucker has a horror of the cellar door, which connects the kitchen to a dark nether region containing “firewood, winter vegetables, and junk”.  Which junk has accumulated over the years to create a tall pile and an even darker space behind it.  The door to the cellar is frightening in itself because of what it implies.  It is made of thick solid oak with ancient wrought iron hinges and “a lock that looked as though it came from Castle Despair.”  It seems like a door that would be more appropriately placed on the exterior of the house, to keep something out—not indoors to keep something in, or underneath. 

Keller is describes an impoverished rural family home very early in the twentieth century, before electrification and many household conveniences became available.  The principle sources of illumination are candle light and lanterns. More lighting is what this household very much needs.  

For years, Tommy would cry or have fits when forced to accompany his mother in the kitchen as she worked all day.  His troublesome behaviors seem triggered by the cellar door.  When he is a little older, he develops an unusual attachment to the lock on the door.  He frequently reaches up to touch it, caress it, later on to kiss it—some weirdness here. 

Distressed, his parents take him to a young doctor, who insists that they prove to Tommy once and for all that “there’s nothing down there”.  The doctor tells the father to nail open the cellar door and make his son, now about six years old, sit in the dark kitchen, next to the gaping door, for one hour.  It is a kind of crude psychic surgery.  This of course is horribly bad advice.  The doctor later consults with a colleague, who offers this discomforting insight:

Children are odd, Hawthorn.  Perhaps they are like dogs.  It may be that their nervous system is more acute than in the adult.  We know that our eyesight is limited, also our hearing, and smell.  I firmly believe that there are forms of life which exist in such a form that we can neither see, hear, nor smell them…This Tucker lad may be peculiarly acute.  He may dimly appreciate the existence of something in the cellar which is unappreciable to his parents…

The story ends predictably, but is interesting for the psychiatric realism Keller brings to the tale, and its depiction of how not to manage an instinctual childhood fear.  The Thing in the Cellar is probably one of the author’s best known short stories.  David H. Keller was an older contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and his circle of writers.  A prolific writer, he was active from the late 1920s until the late 1940s.  He passed in 1966.

The next several posts will linger in the basement, with lights out, to see else can be found in this convenient but less frequently visited room of the house.

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