Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Crawlspace by Herbert Lieberman (1971): Hey Daddy-O, I Wanna Go Down to the Basement

With these odd, detached, near-catatonic icy eyes peering from unknown shadows, this cover for Crawlspace at first seems rather generic - till you read the book. This Pocket Books paperback (June 1972) for Herbert Lieberman's second novel features, as you'll learn, some accurate and appropriate imagery. I wasn't familiar with the book till a TMHF fan - yes, I have a few! - kindly and considerately shipped me some of his old paperbacks, and this title was one of the first to catch my eye (although I was thinking and at first hoping it was related to this Crawlspace). Knowing that some of my favorite vintage horror novels have been those pre-King bestsellers of "growing menace and terror" I had some expectations... and huzzah - had them (mostly) met.

Elderly, retired, and recuperating from a heart attack, Albert Graves lives quietly but satisfactorily with his wife Annie. They tend with much care to their New England farmhouse and garden, and look to spend their remaining decades in peace with their lives, their home, and each other. Lieberman - or rather Albert - lovingly describes his surroundings, and I could just feel the cool damp stone of their house, the summer wind blowing through the many old trees on the front lawn, my mind's eye refreshed by the verdant green of the wild land beyond. Ahhh, I thought, this is just the kind of '70s slow-burn spookiness I'm craving right now, because mild hints rise immediately that something will go entirely wrong - Give me fifteen minutes of your time and I shall make you loathe me. Okay, you're on!

Then one day the oil man shows up to help with their furnace, a shy young man who lingers so long working in the basement that Annie surprisingly invites him to stay to dinner. His name is Richard Atlee, his manners are lacking - Albert is shocked when he asks to borrow a copy of Albert's treasured Blake: I've always considered it an impertinence to ask to borrow anything as intimate as a book - and despite his "brutal" face he has about him an oddly beautiful quality, rather religious in some indefinable way, like an Eastern saint. Richard will return after this meal, seeking another but under the guise of wishing to check again their furnace, and he will most impertinently not have read the Blake. And he spills the wine. What the what?! This type of affront will not stand, and Alice insists simple Richard frightens her. Soon after, however, in a carefully wrought scene of chilly intimation and discovery, Albert finds.... well. You can guess.

 
UK paperback (and below)

Richard circumvents all rules of social conduct by simply taking up residence in the dirt and grime of the crawlspace of their home. Oddly, but with a vague sort of Christian charity and sympathy, the Graves allow this. Ideally he is to reside with them only till he finds a job. At first Richard may seem to lack any knowledge that what he's doing goes against every convention, but almost imperceptibly he becomes entwined in their lives, making himself indispensable to their rural home and hearth: We never saw him, mind you. Only the effects of his work. He was like the elf in the fairy tale that performs Herculean tasks while everyone else in the house sleeps.

He chops wood, bakes breakfast pastries and perks fresh coffee every morning, sets out clean laundry (which eventually upsets Annie as this is a chore she much prefers to do herself), then disappears into the wilds for the rest of the daylight hours doing God knows what. He builds an enormous wall bordering their property using the heaviest stones. Soon the Graves have invited him to sleep in their guestroom, a prodigal son, offspring they never produced themselves. Albert's narration, somewhat defeatist while marveling at the events over which he seems to have no control, sweeps you along and despite its unlikeliness, you can't imagine the situation any other way.

The townspeople - always with the townspeople in these kinds of books - start to turn against the Graves and their strange young interloper when they learn of this seemingly untenable living situation. Richard, who has let his hair grow wild and looks generally unkempt, runs errands for the couple and so becomes the target of abuse by ignorant redneck teenagers - abuse which turns violent. Later, these same hooligans will turn up at the Graves's home at night in deadly, harrowing scenes that are some of the best of the novel. Cue ineffective, resentful local sheriff who condescendingly placates the Graves but truly hates Richard. When our crawlspace-dweller takes vengeance in town, it's ferocious, brutal, shocking, feral. The no-exit climax is primed, a foregone conclusion...

Now some fun stuff! This reprint from the early 1980s is too literal by half, and deprives a potential reader of the gently building unease and disquiet that the novel does so well. The guy looks like a deranged predator, and that's not what's going on, Lieberman's style is not that obvious.

And I dislike this '70s reprint because the clashing colors are all wrong; it looks like some kind of science fiction or ghost story.

There's a lot more to this slim novel than I'm giving you; Lieberman is a skillful writer, evoking mysterious psychological depths to Richard Atlee without spelling them out, convincing us that the Graves are acting out of good faith and trust even while the situation bewilders them. Though at times the story seems stuck in a holding pattern, moving in circles but not quite moving forward, its uniqueness kept me reading. When the Graves begin to feel put out and put upon by their guest, their guilt is palpable. And while I don't want to give away the climax and the denouement, I have to say I didn't entirely buy the background Lieberman eventually provides for Richard. There is a parable-like quality to it all that doesn't impress me. Perhaps I should've seen that coming, what with a Bible verse about strangers and exiles as the book's epigraph. Crawlspace isn't a true horror novel but if you've enjoyed The Auctioneer, Harvest Home, or other early-'70s creepy thrillers, I say crawl on in. And oh yeah, of course it was made into a TV movie in '72!

16 comments:

Tim Mayer said...

How does the TV movie compare to the book?

Will Errickson said...

I haven't watched it but it looks almost exactly as I imagined the book.

matthew. said...

Question, Will....

Obviously this isn't the place for this question, but I'm hoping you'll see it and respond.

I'm not looking for a specific book, but rather, a recommendation. I'm in the market for some medium to high quality horror that features mummies. Yes, mummies. I've read my fair share of other iconic monsters (vampires, werewolves, etc), but nothing that features a mummy. Have you read anything that isn't pure schlock (ie something with even a quantum of literary merit) that you would recommend?

(Also, hilariously, my captcha for this window is "muffdive 88")

Phantom of Pulp said...

I really love this book; it had a profound impact on me. The TV movie is pretty lackluster, and lacks psychological depth. Atlee is, for me, one of the great horror fiction characters. His background is a bit underwhelming, but the creeping sense of his spreading presence in the house is very well done.

AUCTIONEER gave me similar feelings, but it's a bit more successful and, ultimately, harrowing.

Will Errickson said...

Matthew, you've caught me at a horror fiction disadvantage: I don't believe I've ever read anything with mummies. At all. Two novels spring to mind: Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars and Rice's The Mummy. There is also an anthology from Martin Greenberg titled simply Mummy Stories.

Phantom, great points, especially about his "spreading presence." Atlee's like a slow-acting poison and the hosts are completely unaware of the damage he's doing... But The Auctioneer is simply one of the best books I've read for TMHF.

Barrymore Tebbs said...

I followed Lieberman's career for awhile: Nightbloom, Brilliant Kids, and especially The Eighth Square, are all brilliant psychological thrillers.

Will Errickson said...

Ooooh - I also have The Eighth Square!

HueyLewis said...

I have the reprint with the ugly pink-purple title lettering.

Now, after your review, and seeing that the author resembles Peter Lorre, I have no choice but to read it.

Zwolf said...

LOVE Crawlspace! It's one of my favorite books. Love the TV movie, too - it's one of the best 70's TV movies, along with Bad Ronald (if you ever find THAT book, SNAG IT!) Lieberman's underrated, I think. I read City of the Dead a while back and was very impressed. It's not really a horror novel, but it's damnsure a DARK novel.

I may be able to help Matthew a little bit... I can't remember too many mummy novels, but there is _Dearest_ by Peter Loughran, which isn't about a living, stalking mummy, but it does have a lot of mummification in it. Been a long time since I read it, but I remember it being pretty good and very strange. I also just finished reading _Dark Inspiration_ by Russell James, and that had some mummification in it.

Wordsworth Editions has a collection of classic mummy short stories out called _Return From The Dead_, edited by David Stuart Davies. There are some great stories in there, including the Stoker novel you mentioned and a few short stories. _Tales of the Dead_ edited by Bill Prozini (also available under the title _The Arbor House Necropolis_) has a section of mummy short stories in it (and also a section of voodoo stories and another of ghoul stories). J. N. Williamson had a novel called _The Offspring_ that features a mummy on the cover art, but I haven't read the book so I can't vouch that mummies actually show up in the story (you know how early 80's Leisure books were about that).

Those are all I can recall off the top of my head...

Todaydownload.com said...
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highwayknees said...

I loved this one too Will! AND tried to read everything by Lieberman afterwards. it's always such a thrill when you think you've got your hands on the output of an undiscovered genre writer. BTW: I thought the TV movie paled in comparison too-althought the actors do a fine job.
Other Lieberman works I liked were Nightbloom, Shadow Dancer and Brilliant Kids. I need to read City of the Dead and didn't even know about The 8th Square !

R T said...

I just finished reading this and thought it was excellent, not at all what I expected. Thematically it's very similar to Stefan Zweig's BEWARE OF PITY. Time to check out more of Lieberman's work!

Will Errickson said...

Unfamiliar with that Zweig book, but I will probably sooner or later read another Lieberman.

Kristine Ong Muslim said...

Hello. I am a big Lieberman fan. City of the Dead is my favorite book. I also find Crawlspace fantastic. I'm really glad to have found your blog.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks Kristine! CITY OF THE DEAD sounds pretty cool...

Hemant Sharma said...
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