I'd heard of Shirley for years, but his books have only recently become widely available in mass-market paperbacks; his 1992 novel Wetbones and his 1997 collection of short horror stories Black Butterflies have been republished by Leisure Books. Both apparently fall into the "graphic horror" category; Cellars has its share of gore and many think it paved the way for Clive Barker and the like, as well as today's extreme horror writers. With a grim view of human nature, a concern for urban fringe characters who've fallen through society's cracks, and the whole "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" attitude - an attitude which Shirley displays much more effectively and believably than the splatterpunks - I can definitely see how Shirley must have inspired Skipp and Spector and David Schow. I can't imagine something like The Light at the End or The Kill Riff without it.
Cellars begins with the investigation of a series of what appear to be ritual murders, bodies flayed open in abandoned New York City subway stops or dirt-strewn basements of old apartment buildings. Bizarre scribblings accompany the bodies and the investigating cop, weary Cyril Gribner, calls in Carl Lanyard. A skeptical journalist for a trashy occult tabloid who had once been an assistant professor of anthropology, Lanyard is in New York to interview Madelaine Springer, a hopeful, beautiful actress with unwanted psychic powers. When Lanyard identifies the phrases as probably ancient Persian, and referring to the malevolent deity Ahriman, the action proper can begin. Well, all right! Darian Trismegestes, Lanyard's boss at the tabloid, offers him an oddly huge amount of cash to hang around and write about the investigation.
Lanyard is an interesting character, a divorced, somewhat troubled man, a definite skeptic but still seeing strange dark shapes swirling around and who heard voices as a bullied kid. Is his skepticism preventing him from seeing what's truly going on? Gribner sees quite a bit of what's really going on when he realizes his nine-year-old nephew who's living with him may also be involved (finding his nephew in the bathtub listening to a strange growling coming from the drain is a chilling moment). Then there is Joey Minder, a pompous theater and film producer with Madelaine under his thumb, who is deeply involved with the occult world and sees human sacrifice as a way to gain unlimited power. Don't they all.
Shirley is a punk, punk, a punk rocker
The graphic quality of the ritual murders and the environs seems less intended to shock or upset than to simply pull back the curtain and deal honestly with human depravity. In that sense Cellars also has more in common with crime fiction than with horror. But then Shirley's cult members aren't just psycho; in the end they're right. The Blessed People - many of whom are monstrous and bloodthirsty children who swarm through the sewers - are worshiping not a figment of their deranged imaginations but a monstrous creature that actually lives below the city, below the subways: the Head Underneath. I just love that name, which hints at some sociopathic child's fantasy. Once this guy appears at the wonderfully gross and sadistic climax, there's no doubt Cellars is a vintage horror novel without apology. But then punk rock means never saying sorry.