Of course we fans know how insulting and idiotic this is.
But while I was reading The Cellar, the debut novel from the late cult horror writer Richard Laymon (Warner Books, Jan 1980), I suddenly felt like one of those non-horror fans who wonders how people can write this stuff. There's something that squicked me when faced with Laymon's horror scenario; I was unsettled not by the situation but by his envisioning of it: it seemed like a peek into a part of his mind I really wanted nothing to do with. Sadism and humiliation are in clear detail; human relationships and sex scenes, not so much. You got your rape and torture, but when it comes to depicting, even minimally, real human interaction and psychological motivation, Laymon's at a complete loss. Total amateur hour - The Cellar is that bad. I have been reading horror fiction for almost 30 years and it is easily one of the very worst books in the genre that I have ever read.
The story? Tissue-thin (which actually is fine with me). Donna and her daughter Sandy are fleeing Roy, Donna's vengeful husband, who's just been released from prison for abusing Donna and raping their daughter. Classy. They head to a California town known as Malcasa ("evil house," get it?) Point, which has its own problems, as its tourist attraction is what the locals call Beast House. Throughout the 20th century, brutal murders and rapes have been committed there, and some say the perpetrator wasn't human. A man who survived an attack by the "beast" as a child hires another man - oddly named Judgment - to kill it, and then they meet Sandy and Donna in a diner. Meanwhile Roy has a little family fun of his own. And then on to the Beast House...
The Cellar isn't a patch on, say, the awesomely fun and carnal Incubus. That's what you should read if you want the real stuff by an actual writer - Laymon "writes" without wit or insight and seems to be making the plot up as he types. And so much of it is dull, dull, dull! Up to the last 20 pages, The Cellar is very often simply boring: my mind would drift off the page thanks to the inane, repetitive dialogue and the weak overall execution.
The final pages are a ludicrous extreme - perhaps in 1980 this was seen as extreme - but since they stretch credibility and nothing Laymon has described about his characters previously would make you suspect the outcome, one can surmise the motive was shock value alone. Shock value alone isn't always terrible, but there's no fun to be had, nor even any scares, unless you dig it when men rape and kidnap little girls after slaughtering their parents. Some fun, huh, kid?
This is the kind of dumb, one-dimensional "horror" that Barker and Schow and Lansdale (who each go - or went - out into gut-wrenching territory but did so with skill, smarts, irony, and tough humor) and the Dell/Abyss series from the early 1990s wanted to do away with, make obsolete. What is it about Laymon that got him major blurbs, that sees all his novels back in print, avidly sought out by collectors, and first edition paperback originals going for collectors' prices? Are novels like The Woods Are Dark, Night Show, Flesh, Funland, et. al., really so terrific that I'm missing out? It's difficult for me to imagine so.
I like fucked-up horror, I like schlocky, bad-taste horror, I love it, you guys know I do, but thoughtless exploitation of child rape is really something I can do without in my horror fiction - particularly when it's handled so cheaply, so clumsily, thus making all its horrors trite and phony rather than deep and true - to say nothing of simply inept writing and an amateur approach. It's a fine line for a horror fan, but it's my line. It might be my only line.
Postscript: I just remembered that Stephen King rightfully dismissed this novel in Danse Macabre:
There are haunted-house stories beyond numbering, most of them not very good (The Cellar, by Richard Laymon, is one example of the less successful breed).
Then he goes on to discuss two excellent haunted house novels that make The Cellar seem like the piece of inept hackneyed pulp it truly is: The House Next Door and The Haunting of Hill House. Respect.