Saturday, February 13, 2016

2. What Not to Raise in the Cellar

The previous post introduced the topic of horror stories that take place in the common cellar, which is both an echo of our primordial experiences in caves and a handy metaphor for the unconscious mind.  How many nightmares begin with a hesitant climb down the basement steps to the darkness below, to a place in the house that rarely sees much light--unless we bring it there ourselves? 

The last post discussed David H. Keller’s The Thing in the Cellar (1932), a meditation on the child’s instinctual fear and beliefs about what may be hiding in the darkness of a cellar.  The story questions the reality and efficacy of such beliefs, and whether they suffice to bring imagined, egregore-like horrors into existence.

About three decades later, the TV anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired an episode called “Special Delivery” (1959) written by the well-known fantasy and science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury.  The teleplay was later rewritten as a disturbing short story called Come into My Cellar (1962)—and later retitled Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar! (1964), a louder title that partially gives away the story’s ending. 

Bradbury’s tale is about a clandestine extraterrestrial invasion of earth by way of homegrown mushrooms—a hobby taken up by adolescent boys in various American suburbs.  Come into My Cellar is closely related to Jack Finney’s memorable paranoid classic The Body Snatchers (1955), which precedes it by a few years.  It is tempting to conclude that Bradbury’s teleplay and short story version are inspired by Finney’s novel and the subsequent film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  However, it is likely that both authors were tapping into the same source of collective anxiety about subversion, corruption and societal changes during the Cold War years.

There were numerous stories like those of Bradbury and Finney from the time period—the first two decades after World War II.  Other examples include Philip K. Dick’s The Father Thing (1954) and John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There, written in 1938 but made into the classic science fiction film The Thing from Another World in 1951.  Stories like these exude a distinctive mid-century paranoia that rapidly transforms into delusional nightmare by the end.

Besides its depiction of Cold War era anxieties, Bradbury’s story is interesting for its reiteration of the “panspermia” hypothesis to explain the growing alien presence in suburban America:

“Spores, seed, pollens, viruses probably bombard our atmosphere by the billions every second and have done so for millions of years.  Right now we’re sitting out under an invisible rain.  It falls all over the country, the towns, and right now…our lawn.”

If one replaces “spores, seed, pollens, viruses” with communists, juvenile delinquents, organized crime, and ethnic minorities, one may have a clearer picture of what the American middle class was fearful of at the time.  It is not clear why the extraterrestrials in Bradbury’s Come into My Cellar would go through the trouble of operating a company in New Orleans—a “front”—that sells hazardous mushroom hobby kits to unsuspecting young Americans.  But it is something one can imagine communists or organized crime bosses doing.  Because the evil mushrooms must be consumed, first by teenagers, and later by the rest of the neighborhood, the alien conspiracy also seems to prefigure the emerging drug culture of the 1960s.

(An excellent earlier example of the panspermia hypothesis in science fiction can be found in P. Schulyer Miller’s 1931 story, The Arrhenious Horror, so named for one of the principle theorists involved in the development of the idea—see also How to Make a Silicon Life Form.  Here the extraterrestrial infestation is not biological as much as geological.)

In Bradbury’s Come into My Cellar, a suburban dad named Hugh is enjoying an idyllic Saturday but gradually becomes aware of a horror unfolding in his neighborhood, in the cellar of his own house.  Teenaged boys, those agents of chaos and anarchy, his own son among them, have begun a new hobby craze—raising mushrooms in the basements of their homes. 

Hugh’s friend Roger, who has a son the same age, has recently become paranoid and delusional.  His son is also growing the mushrooms—all the boys on the block are.  Roger tells Hugh that people “don’t use 10% of what God gave us”, that is, make effective use of their five senses.  They do not pay attention, they are not vigilant.  Roger mysteriously disappears for a time, then later recants his suspicions that something is going wrong in the country.  When Hugh’s son surreptitiously leaves a plate of mushrooms in the kitchen for his parents to eat, the boy’s father suspects the worst.  ‘You are what you eat.’

Surely some contemporary horror writer has replaced mushrooms with video games or smart phones to achieve a similar effect on the nation's youth...

Another story from roughly this same time period is Richard Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman (1950).  This was the author’s first published story, considered “groundbreaking” for its depiction of an abused, mutated child, who survives precariously in his parent’s basement, accumulating a murderous rage as he approaches adolescence.  The renowned Matheson went on to write such classics as I Am Legend (1954), and The Shrinking Man (1956)—most of which also occurs in the basement—as well as numerous teleplays for TV shows like Twilight Zone and Kolchak. He later created the screenplays for several of Roger Corman’s Poe-inspired horror movies in the early 1960s.

Born of Man and Woman is a marvel of economic and vivid prose—relatively short, but powerful and haunting.  The story is told in a series of crabbed, grammatically primitive journal entries that use a series of X’s to mark the passing days.  Ominously, the last entry begins again with a single X—“This is another times.”  Matheson’s story should be considered mandatory reading in order to appreciate what effects can be achieved in short fiction.   

In David H. Keller’s The Thing in the Cellar (1932), a horror in the basement pursues a child, emerging from the darkness below to find him in the familiar, wholesome territory of a common kitchen.  In Ray Bradbury’s Come into My Cellar, adolescent children are agents of an extraterrestrial menace, and bring about the unfolding horror in the basements of their suburban homes.  In Richard Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman, the child is the horror, emblematic of what sorts of things can be oppressed and repressed in the cellar of an American home.

The next installment in this series will return to the earlier time period typically explored by The R’lyeh Tribune—the first few decades of the twentieth century.  The focus will be on H.P. Lovecraft’s most famous tale of eldritch basement horror.      

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