Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Cellars by John Shirley (1982): Well, New York City Really Has It All

Cellars (Avon May 1982) is the first book I've read by John Shirley, a multi-talented author and musician who has published novels and short stories not just in the horror fiction field but also in crime/suspense and science fiction. SF icons like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling have named his early works as influential on the legendary cyberpunk movement, although Shirley certainly never became as famous or as widely-read as those two. Shirley had actually been a singer in a punk-rock band and since his background was in that kind of counterculture, it's no surprise that his second horror novel, an Avon Books original, is also seen as a precursor to - you guessed it - splatterpunk.

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.

2006 edition

 Shirley's style only hits a few sour notes; his writing is smooth and assured, and the dialogue rings true. He has a detailer's eye for the the gritty, nonsupernatural dangers of New York City streets of 1981 and the attendant drug trade, criminal youth, abandoned buildings and miles of subways drenched in graffiti, and filthy homeless people - less like a horror novel and more like big-city crime fiction, although at times his penchant for adding a mildly askew, hallucinatory effect to these descriptions reminded me of Ramsey Campbell. He's walked these mean streets and the authenticity is palpable. But at 300 pages Cellars feels a bit overlong; some pruning could have worked well in the middle of the book to make it more of the intense, shuddering experience Shirley seems to want it to be, quick and dirty and raw and unblinking. (Cellars was partially rewritten and republished in 2006).
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.


Kevin said...

I read this one, and two bits I remember was the factoids about how many miles of tunnels exist underneath New York that no one knows what goes on in them, and a truly venomous rant about New York with the note that New Yorkers will list its flaws with a gotta-love-it attitude that is absolutely galling to the ranter (and I suspect, Shirley himself at the time of writing).

Anonymous said...

Ah, once again you're getting into the good stuff. A novel that I loved back when I read it about 20 years ago. And one that I've never forgotten, I might add.
I recall another well known genre author commented on it during one of those year end type things & absolutely SAVAGED it. I can't recall who it was, but he pretty much called it an atrocity for it's violence, gore & " glorification of "child abuse".
Those comments are actually what sent me out to find a copy of it, to see if it could possibly be as bad as he said.
It took me a while, but I finally found a copy in a little used shop in Salem, MA while on my way to Maine in '87.
I read it on that vacation & was just wowed by the audaciousness of it. I'd never read anything like it up to that point & while it was far grittier & MUCH more violent that the other genre fiction of the day, I was ready for it.
That other author obviously wasn't...

As for Shirley's other work, he followed up CELLARS with the equally as good minor classic IN DARKNESS WAITING. An even creepier book than CELLARS. And one that I highly recommend getting ahold of if at all possible.
then came WETBONES. Which I believe is his most notorious novel. A terrific take on Lovecraftian horror that while almost over the top gory & violent also manages to be a bit legitimate scary as well. A very rare feat indeed.
If I remember correctly, I think there was even some sort of controversy surrounding WETBONES mainstream publication because of the level of it's audacious gore.
It's another one that I'd go out of my way to get if I were you.
BLACK BUTTERFLIES has some excellent stories in it as well.
There's also an earlier work of his that he did for Zebra back during it's heyday called DRACULA IN LOVE that's worth a look too.

Happy reading.

Crows 'n' Bones said...

Shirley at his best is a truly great author. Both Wetbones and Black Butterflies are genuinely disturbing and you can tell he knows what he's talking about, be it the way Hollywood works (he wrote part of the screenplay for The Crow), the LA and NY punk scene, Gurdjieff's teachings, etc.. I got to interview him for my old rock 'n' roll fanzine GangBang Press & Sound and he was gracious and sharp. For anyone who's into that sort of thing, the interview can still be found here:

He has also written a couple of fun novellisations for the John Constantine, Hellblazer comic (he, of the crappy Keanu Reeves Hollywood adaptation). I haven't read Cellars, but I intend to rectify this soon. Great blog by the way.