Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Cellar by Richard Laymon (1980): It's a Sick World, Sick, Sick, Sick

We all know horror writers have a creepy reputation; any mainstream interview or feature about them must point out how, well, normal the writer seems. This surprises who exactly? Do people who don't follow horror think that all its writers - or filmmakers - are hunchbacked, drooling monstrosities with blood beneath their fingernails and fetid breath? My god. Non-fans seem to think that dreaming up all that horror must mean there's something not right with the creator's brain.

Of course we fans know how insulting and idiotic this is.

But while I was reading The Cellar (Warner Books, Jan 1980), the debut novel from the late cult horror writer Richard Laymon (1947 - 2001), 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.

Craptacular '06 reprint from Leisure Books; prolly gonna throw my $3 copy away

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...

1980 UK edition

It's not a bad setup, I guess, but Laymon's waaay out of his depth and simply doesn't have the writing chops to get the job done. Sure, at the end there's some gruesome tasteless monster sex stuff, and a real no-one-here-gets-out-alive vibe, but 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?

1987 Paperjacks reprint

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.


Anonymous said...

A great and well-reasoned review. You read it, and gave an almost mathematical dissection of what was and wasn't. I've read Laymon and I whole-heartedly agree with everything you wrote.
One thing. All those people who have fuelled the Laymon secondary market? Those people to whom Laymon is a saint and a spiritual father? I hear they have access to the internet. You may want to get our your asbestos undergarments.

Anonymous said...

And there I thought I was the only one who absolutely loathed The Cellar... great review!

Anonymous said...

Haven't read it. Let me add, though, that the only thing I think should be considered off-limits in horror is poor writing. (Yeah, I know--FAT CHANCE.) And by the sound of it, that more than anything else would keep me from reading this book.

Show Me Your Books said...

The classic covers are always the best. But you can't judge a book by it's cover ;)

Michele (TheGirlWhoLovesHorror) said...

Hm, I've thought about reading some of Laymon's stuff, and The Cellar in particular, after stuff I've read online but now I'm not so sure!

Have you read any of his other novels? Are they any good?

Will Errickson said...

"the only thing I think should be considered off-limits in horror is poor writing."

That's the real problem - taking a "taboo" or delicate subject, and then *writing about it terribly*. Ugh.

I read and reviewed RESURRECTION DREAMS here last year; didn't like that one either. It had a better story *conception* but the execution was clumsy, trite, and underwritten.

Anonymous said...

Wow, so glad you posted this. I've thought for a long time I was the only one. Anything I've attempted to read by Laymon has been AWFUL! It baffles me why so many horror writers point to him as an influence, a great writer, etc. Oh, right---they're mostly authors who've made their names (so to speak) in the past 10 yrs or so, and I can't read THEIR stuff, either! There was a lot of dreck in the 80s, but there was a ton of good stuff, too. Laymon's was, and always will be, dreck.

Jeff P.

Anonymous said...

I read Night in the Lonesome October by Laymon and although there were a few good moments, there was also a lot of padding. The first-person narrator was annoyingly indecisive, "Should I do this? Maybe I should do this instead. Hmm, that might look suspicious. But then again, if I did this..." Get on with it already!

But Laymon gets a free pass from me for his excellent short story Boo! from October Dreams. I love a good Halloween story, and he nailed it with that one.

Ron Dionne said...

Great post, and hats off for writing a negative review of a minor icon. Too many blogs on single topics are indiscriminately positive about everything and anything within its subject matter, and it's nice to see you draw a boundary and demonstrate real discernment and taste.
What do you think of Jack Ketchum? I find that "The Girl Next Door" stuff unreadable/watchable (in movie form) for many of the infractions you cite against Laymon. Ketchum falls into the Saw/Hostel torture porn category, in my mind.
Which raises another issue for all of us who read your blog and love at least the idea of horror fiction -- why is it that so so so so much of it just pure crap, and yet we never cease to hope and dream and long for the occasional not-so-bad, even nigh unto good piece of prose that genuinely scares or disturbs us? The ones that are few and far between, and, in my mind, often in short story rather than novel form. Such as "The Pear-Shaped Man" by George R.R. Martin. "Twilla" by Tom Reamy, "The Swords" by Robert Aickman, "The Terrapin" by Patricia Highsmith... I could go on.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks, Ron! I haven't read *any* Ketchum - I'd never even heard of him until 5 or 6 years ago. Ironically, I found the movie version of GIRL NEXT DOOR to be just *inside* my line, probably because of the haunting, convincing performance by the actress who played the victim. Also, since it was based on a true story, it seemed a bit less exploitative, a sort of STAND BY ME in Hell. I've heard, however, Ketchum's novel goes further in places. I'm interested in his first book, OFF SEASON, if I can find the original 1980 pb. I just have to find out myself what it's like.

As for why we fans never cease to hope and dream and long for the not-so-bad stuff, well... it's just when the stuff is good, my god, it's wonderful unlike anything else. Kinda worth shoveling thru' the shit to find the diamond, or something, as I believe a Mr. King once put it.

William Malmborg said...

Great review. I too never cared for this novel, or really anything Laymon has written. The only exception to this was his novel In The Dark. I enjoyed that one. Unfortunately that was the first book I ever read by Laymon, and since I did like it, I went out and bought everything I could find by him, my mind thinking I had discovered another great author to read. Big mistake. His books just don’t work for me. I enjoy extreme horror, but only when the characters are ones I care about. In his books this doesn’t happen. All his females seem to be ready made victims that continue to make stupid decisions, and all the males seem to be obsessed with alternative sex to such an extreme that they will frequently fantasize about it throughout the stories, even while running for their lives from some crazy killer carrying a nasty edged weapon. I just don’t buy it. I also now wonder, having been exposed to the same Laymon characters over and over again in all the books I have read would I have enjoyed In the Dark if it hadn’t been the first book I read by him?

Anonymous said...

Gotta say, "my god"! I think Laymon is one of the best, if not the best horror writer there ever was! Ok, his style is no Stevie King, but I think you've really missed the point with what Laymon was doing. There are so many writers out there who wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the man, and check out the tribute book just released. Woh, he must have been doing something right?!!
I have never found a writer that seems to have ticked all the boxes, hmm except maybe Masterton.
If you think he pushed boundaries, check out Ed Lee for some stomach churning reading.
I'm going to read your blog with a pinch of salt from now on.

Zwolf said...

I love Laymon... but, I love Cheetos. And it's kind of the same thing - junk food fiction. But, he's usually pretty good at it. He does have a formula, though, and that's why I tend to skip six months or so between reading Laymon books.

It's been forever since I read The Cellar, and I remember not liking it very much. But something like Midnight's Lair, Traveling Vampire Show, Night in the Lonesome October, etc. are finely-tuned page-turning machines. You do have to get around a few things (most notably a juvenile obsession with titty-peekin') and the violence is crazy at times. I can't blame anybody for not digging him, but, I do. I'm not sure how I'd see the Cellar if I re-read it. I recently re-read The Woods Are Dark and wasn't as impressed with it as I had been previously. Laymon's later stuff is his best stuff.

I am kinda queasy on child-rape, though, having known too many people who were abused as kids and having serious hatred for the people who abused them. That's one reason I'm such a major Andrew Vachss fan.

Anyway, great review, as always. Even when I don't fully agree, you state your case well and with sound reasoning... gotta respect that. :)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, Laymon got you! Another reader is disgusted! 10-points to Laymon, 0-points to Toomuchhorrorfiction.

Altijd verbijsterd said...

I agree about Laymon.

I've read only one novel by Laymon, Funland, and 150 pages were enough to convince me that skip-reading was a better way to go through the book.

I really don't get it why he is so admired, because his so-so writing is swamped with unneccesary sexual fantasies by characters with a depth measured in molecular layers. And I was lucky that the disgusting scenes were not as bad as child-rape. They were so ridiculous that they only made me laugh. Apparently he thought that a description of gore was enough for horror.

When I went fast forward to the ending it made me feel glad that I passed over most of the book. It was just underwhelming and over the top at the same time. It was like Laymon botched up something which could have been so much better if it was remade (it would have to be a total overhaul of plot, writing and characters) by a much better author.

His idea of using our fear for the homeless crazy people was even fertile ground for some non-preachy social commentary.But yeah... better writer...

Mystic River said...

Hi Will,
Laymon in my opinion was a god. His writing is not in-depth as maybe early Stephen King, but he really grabs you by the throat, eats you up and then spits you back out again.

I love his work and I actually loved The Cellar! I'm actually sad to read that so many people just don't seem to understand Laymon's work, and what he wanted to achieve. In all honesty stop frowning and concentrating on your disgust and and actually drink the story. If he writes about a subject matter that makes you unconfortable, well great, he got you by the throat as I mention earlier. Kodos to him!
I love how Laymon would create characters that go through hell, but end up on top, and his descriptions of simple things such as relationships, food, partying, so pleasing.

By far he isn't the sickest writer, just the most entertaining. Try more of his work Will, and try to remove your "I hate this" cap. Seriously fun stuff.

youthfulzombie said...

I am a huge Laymon fan, but I read him for what he is - B-movie horror, fun and schlocky. I will say of all his books I find the Beast House books to be the least entertaining - there's not nearly enough blood!

Will Errickson said...

What else can I say? But that Joe Lansdale, Graham Masterton, Ray Garton, Ray Russell, David Schow, John Shirley, Skipp & Spector, James Herbert, Poppy Brite, Clive Barker, James Ellroy, John Farris - to name a few writers off the top of my head - have all written schlocky, grim, harrowing, disgusting, graphic, and repulsive stories and novels. And yet somehow they managed to make their stuff utterly entertaining, well-written, and fun!

Altijd verbijsterd said: "It was just underwhelming and over the top at the same time. It was like Laymon botched up something which could have been so much better if it was remade (it would have to be a total overhaul of plot, writing and characters) by a much better author."

I agree 100%!

Anonymous said...

Hello, oh dear, seems like Richard laymon is not for everyone.
I have to disagree with your blog and opinions. The Cellar is an EXCELLENT book, streets again of its time, he kicked ass over any other writer at this time too, hands tied behind his back. Long live the Beast!

wormface said...

Dude! You've got to get a copy of Jack Ketchum's Off Season! Last year, I read a nice scuffed paperback of it from 1981. It still holds up amazingly well after 30 years.

That whole cannibals-in-Maine trilogy - Off Season, Offspring, and The Woman - is pretty solid stuff.

fun fact - As a Johnny Thunders fan, I would always start singing, "toooooooo much... horror fiction!" when I'd visit your blog! I only found out just now it was named after that song! :)

Jeff P said...

"What else can I say? But that Joe Lansdale, Graham Masterton, Ray Garton, Ray Russell, David Schow, John Shirley, Skipp & Spector, James Herbert, Poppy Brite, Clive Barker, James Ellroy, John Farris - to name a few writers off the top of my head - have all written schlocky, grim, harrowing, disgusting, graphic, and repulsive stories and novels. And yet somehow they managed to make their stuff utterly entertaining, well-written, and fun! "

To this, a resounding "Yes!"

Broonage said...


Dude just want to let out my frustration. I think this article is so wrong in so many ways. How can a horror lover not get Laymon? He is by far my favourite author. His writing style is not like, let's say Campbell or Herbert, it is a totally different prose - and I love it.

Only one book bored me and that was The Lake!

I actually think it is wonderful that someone who loves horror fiction can feel uncomfortable with Laymon. As mentioned earlier, brilliant - i think Laymon should get a horror medal for that! Way to go Richard.

"What else can I say? But that Joe Lansdale, Graham Masterton, Ray Garton, Ray Russell, David Schow, John Shirley, Skipp & Spector, James Herbert, Poppy Brite, Clive Barker, James Ellroy, John Farris - to name a few writers off the top of my head - have all written schlocky, grim, harrowing, disgusting, graphic, and repulsive stories and novels. And yet somehow they managed to make their stuff utterly entertaining, well-written, and fun!"

I agree, I also would put Laymon as the first in that list.

I'm keen to know have you tried some newer authors? Like Keene, Smith, Lee, Gerlach. Those guys are hardcore compared to Laymon.

Anyway, I'll do my best to continue reading your blog as i have enjoyed it in the past, but in all honesty this article has made me feel that perhaps you don't understand horror like I like to understand horror.
All the best

Nicholaus Patnaude said...

Try The Traveling Vampire Show, Body Rides, or Island. While his characters are a bit like paper dolls, the matches with which he burns them emit from a warped and unpredictable unconscious.


Will Errickson said...

Hey guys - Thanks for the alternate views. I knew I was going to elicit strong responses to this negative Laymon review, knowing that he's quite popular these days. I read "Mess Hall" in 1989 in BOOK OF THE DEAD and it seemed to me even then, as a callow, not-so-widely-read teenager, an artless mess; gore and sexual violence for that sole fact. Did it upset me? Yes, in the way that reading true crime can upset me, but without the seriousness of a journalist. In horror *fiction* I need something more than just an unhealthy glee for human humiliation. I need lots more.

That said, what I dislike about the Laymon novels I've read - and I haven't completely discounted reading more, believe it or not - is his inability to write interesting, or even unique, prose. Laymon simply doesn't have the writing muscle to carry the imaginative load he's conjured up. He seems to have no grasp of the mechanics of the written word and how to use it to create believable situations, characters, dialogue, settings, themes, metaphors, etc., much less to create haunting horror fiction. He lacks conviction and authority; as I said, he seems to be making it up as he goes with no regard for how real humans interact and react in real life.

Do I need all my horror fiction to be so "lofty"? Not at all. if they can't master that stuff, at least give me a ripping good yarn filled with fun and cheese and schlock and outrageousness that makes me cry out loud, "Holy shit! What the fuck?!" Laymon doesn't do this for me, whereas Masterton, Herbert, Garton, etc. do.

In fact, I'd say that *Laymon* doesn't understand horror the way *I* do. Which is fine. Completely fine. He played no role in the development of my taste for horror - only in that I knew to avoid him because his stuff seemed cheap, tawdry, mean, nasty, trite, and poorly written - while many of the authors I referred to above did help help develop my taste. Part of the reason I started this blog was precisely because I saw folks like Laymon being lauded while others, again like the ones I named above (as well as quieter writers that aren't part of this discussion) were being forgotten because they weren't somehow "extreme" enough.

I have pretty much zero interest in reading new horror writers if all they have going for them is how "extreme" they are. The splatterpunks did it over a quarter century ago, and plenty of writers did it before them. To be extreme just to be extreme is no virtue. At least the splatterpunks tried to invest some sort of concern about people and understanding of the world in which they lived while they were eviscerating them. If Laymon doesn't want to do that, cool, but that simply means I won't be reading much of him.

That's my view. Thanks to everybody for reading!

Malibu Express said...

Ouch. I'll admit I'm one of those guys that views Laymon - and particularly The Cellar - as a major influence, and while I'll admit some of his stuff crosses the line both taste-wise and talent-wise (but who isn't guilty of a few bad sentences?) he was a talented writer and had a great, cinematic style to his writing that a lot of other, more "talented" authors really don't.

So yeah, that didn't come off as the desperate rant of a Laymon fan in hostile waters, did it?

I'll admit the "hardcore" and "splatterpunk" stuff gets old pretty quick - classic era or modern - but Laymon did go beyond that in a lot of his stuff. And I still say, without this and Ketchum's "Off Season" we likely wouldn't have a lot of the current crop - good or bad.

Well written as always Will, but I respectfully disagree (maybe for the first time).

- Aaron

Jeremy said...

Will - Great post. You nailed exactly why I don't get the love for Laymon. Besides the eye-rolling, perverted Mayberry voice -- and I'm no prude -- it was the sense that he was just making it up as he went along without any thought to creating a tight story. I like my b-level shlock, but I just didn't have the patience for his books.

Alejandro Omidsalar said...

I was big-time disappointed by "The Cellar" when I read it after hearing that Brian Keene considered Laymon to be a major influence. I wrote a brief review of the book at Good Reads and one of my main points was that the mother and daughter on the run from the psycho ex-husband portion of the story might have done well if it stood alone... and was written by Jack Ketchum.

As for your search for the original publication of "Off Season," I don't know if I'd be too hasty on that one. The original 1981 print had a lot of changes made to it, including (if I'm not mistaken) the ending. I can understand and do totally respect the desire to keep it real with the horror fiction of yesteryear, but this might be a case where a worthy exception can be made.

On a tangential note, I heartily recommend Ketchum's "Cover," originally published in 1987.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Will, when you denigrate THE CELLAR premise with "classy", you come across as condescending. Since when is "class" a criteria for good horror? Good horror explores material that other literature has a condescending attitude towards, material that is inherently disturbing. Laymon did not write extreme for extreme's sake. He did focus on marginalized people, but he did it from a unique point of view with a pulpy enthusiasm. I think his book 'Quake' makes my point well.

Will Errickson said...

Phantom, I agree that more mainstream literature condescends to disturbing topics ( see CHILD OF GOD by Cormac McCarthy, with its lead Gein-esque character). That's something that really bothers me about "literature." But also, in a way, I *am* being condescending, but only to Laymon, whose lack of class is not in his choice of subject matter but in his utter inability to present such unsavory material in an interesting or unique or insightful manner, and thus be "classy."

And I am ironically positing that horror *should* be classy, because I don't think it has to be at all, as my enjoyment of Masterton and other above-mentioned authors shows.

Obviously he is not my go-to guy when I want "extreme" or pulp horror, or however one wants to term it. I certainly detected no enthusiasm in THE CELLAR, only a joylessness and grim determination to go "too far." For enthusiastic pulp horror there is INCUBUS, THE MANITOU, THE RATS, NIGHTRUNNERS, LIVE GIRLS, etc.

Perhaps it is first-novel amateurishness that turned me off, and Laymon got lots better later; like I said I'm willing to read more by him. But I also felt RESURRECTION DREAMS to be anemic and half-hearted, despite its interesting premise.

So, who knows! Maybe I'll find a later Laymon novel that I think can stand with those other horror highlights.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Will -- I'll put my thinking cap on and try to recommend a Laymon you might find some merit in. Of course, he may just not be your cup of tea at all. No crime in that. I have authors who've written books I've never warmed to -- Charles Grant, for example. I know he's well regarded, but I've always found his writing to be awkward.

Mac Campbell said...

Er, Hi Will.
This is a little awkward, what with the Laymon fans on your butt because you trashed his crappy book.

But I'm a Cormac McCarthy fan of the highest order. I won't fight your opinion on Child of God, but it was never mainstream. Cormac was never mainstream. Before The Road, he was an acquired taste, selling 5000 copies per book, and sometimes he couldn't afford toothpaste.

And most of his books have threads of cannibalism and necrophilia running through them (all except the border trilogy). So he comes by the extreme stuff honestly. In my opinion, his work is more gory and violent than Ed Lee and Laymon put together, and it's literary and impossibly complex. And who can forget the seven-foot, albino genius, child-molesting, mass murdering Judge Holden?

SRM said...

Hi Will,

Enjoyed the review. I just came back to Laymon having read most of his work as a kid and was utterly shocked at some of the stuff I found in his books. Just wrote a pretty long blog on the topic:

Scary stuff!

Will Errickson said...

Thanks for the link, S.R.!

Jezzer said...

"...who isn't guilty of a few bad sentences?"

I think the problem is that Richard Laymon slapped a bunch of bad sentences together and called it a novel. He seriously didn't have the writing chops to complement his imagination. His writing was simplistic, and his characters were tissue-thin and interchangeable. One of the most important tools of horror is making your audience feel something about your characters -- obviously caring about them is ideal, but the death of a hated character can be cathartic -- before you do terrible things to them, but most of Laymon's characters were so thinly written that you only cared about them because you were obviously meant to, He didn't write characters, he took carbon copied character archetypes and pulled names out of a baby book. If you can't make people feel things about your characters other than "That was unfortunate, what just happened to Bob. Or Bill. Whatever," you've failed as an author.

Will Errickson said...

"He seriously didn't have the writing chops to complement his imagination."

*That* is my major problem with Laymon, not his subject matter.

Unknown said...

Oh, boy... these are some really surprising (and unintentionally hilarious) comments. Since the last number of posts seem to be focused on his prose, I'll share my two cents on that, but first I want to talk about The Cellar.

You guys really are missing the point here. The book was a big "fuck you" to the industry at the time: it was written to be weird, extreme, and more over-the-top than any other book on the shelf. There isn't supposed to be any depth. The characters seem thin because he barely gives them weight; this ain't like other horror novels at the time that are going to make you read 100+ pages of character setup before anything happens. Not saying there's no other way to make you invested in characters, but that really wasn't one of Laymon's concerns, at the time at least.

And about Laymon's prose... the guy had a masters degree in English literature; he had serious writing chops. His prose is lean and mean, and the fact that it's intentionally stripped down and that he wasn't trying to show off and waste time and pages like some other writers out there is one of the things I enjoy and admire most about Laymon's writing. It's straight to the point. If I want some elaborate, nice & pretty prose, I'll read some Ramsey Campbell, Barker, or Lovecraft etc.

Now I don't know what all novels you guys have read of his, but Laymon's writing did mature over the years and though his earlier novels are more fast paced and have a bit more minimalist prose, his prose itself didn't really change at all and is always lean and mean so I don't know if you, Will, or others where Laymon's writing is the big obstacle will be able to get into a different novel of his. If you're looking for a really character driven story then I would recommend In The Dark and Island as good ones to start with.

Speaking of Campbell, this article has elicited a similar kind of split opinion: The people that like him really like him and consider him one of the best and the one's that don't are scratching their heads over it. In my personal opinion, I think Laymon was one of the greatest horror writers to ever live. The man was an absolute ingenious plotter and that along with his ballsy, minimalist prose is why I think he gets such high praise from other writers (other than the fact he opened doors for so many of them) and on a final note, I consider Masterton, Herbert, and a few others on that list to have written some flatter stories and characters than Laymon has.

DJ Mike G said...

I am a fan of many of Laymon's books, but when he was bad, he was BAD. "The Cellar", "Resurrection Dreams", "The Woods Are Dark", "Beware" are all pretty horrible. One of his books, "Come Out Tonight", was so bad I couldn't finish it. That's pretty rare for me. That said, he wrote some incredibly entertaining books. "The Stake", "Endless Night", "In The Dark" and "One Rainy Night", for example, were extremely entertaining reads, in my opinion. But yeah, when he was off, he was terrible.

Will Errickson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will Errickson said...

Tyler Durden (sorry I'm responding so late) - There's another book that came out the same time as THE CELLAR that had similar aims but is worlds better: Jack Ketchum's OFF SEASON. Ketchum gets down and dirty and over-the-top with a long build-up but he can really and truly write plus he understands humans & monsters. The reader knows that Ketchum *knows* where he's going and wants to go along for the ride - no matter where it goes. He has a conviction that I feel Laymon lacks, and he lacks the depressingly amateurish vibe that Laymon has.

Anonymous said...

Late to the party.....

Disclaimer, I enjoy the works of Richard Laymon.

But I do agree he's over-rated, at least in the pricing of his first editions. These books were never intended to be works of art, as such. Laymon has a set of bullet points, and he tends to hit 90% of them in each of his books. Car crash - check. Raped by a monster - check, disfigured a protagonist - check, etc.

Still, if you like that sort of thing, Laymon is a reliable source of it. Apparently he is much more popular in England than he ever was in his native US. I heard that he was a heck of a nice guy who attended a lot of horror conventions and would always talk with the fans, and you know that really does count a lot.

I think "In the Dark" is his best work. It's safe to say that if you don't like that one, you aren't going to like any of them. The Cellar is a lot less representative of his body of work as a whole.


Griff said...

yeah, The Cellar sucks, but I've read a few books by him that worthwhile, my favorite being Body Rides

I mean his books are pulp, make no mistake, but entertaining and fun pulp

Adam said...

I'm genuinely shocked that so many feel that Laymon is a "bad writer". Not to your taste, too *blank*, whatever; sure, I can see that. Everyone's opinions are going to vary wildly when dealing with something of value. Which, I daresay, his writing IS of value.

I don't see anybody calling out "The Island" by Laymon which is one of the most twisted contes cruel I've encountered. Not twisted because of the actions of the characters (though there's plenty of that), but because it flips so many expectations that the jaded horror fan finds appealing that it becomes almost a personality test for the reader. It comes after you, the sickos who enjoy this kind of stuff and it doesn't let you off the hook.

There's a reason that so many horror writers admired his work so deeply.

The feeling of "making it up" as he goes along is one of the funnest things about reading his work for me. I'll honestly have no idea of what will happen next and there's precious few books I read anymore that give me that kind of frisson. When he's on it often feels as though you're reading it as it's typed on the page.

*sigh* I have so, SO much to say on the subject of Laymon, one of my favorite horror writers out there, but I feel as though (for some reason) I need to qualify myself as NOT a gore-hound or sex-fiend when it comes to my horror tales.

Adam said...

Wow. I've got way too much to say about this subject and not nearly enough time or energy to touch upon all of it, but...

Laymon is something of a litmus test to me. You either get it, or you don't.

"Not getting it" is no incrimination upon a person or a negative assumption of their intelligence or taste. However, to not "get" Laymon and be a fan of horror, genre fiction, or just plain ole' fringe entertainment seems to just not...Well, it feels like you guys are missing out on something.

It's been mentioned here in the comments already, but it is true that Laymon was an English professor. The man had a far better grasp and command of language and the form than I fear you're giving him credit for.

Short, sparse prose is not a negative aspect. In a time where all that seemed to exist in horror fiction were mass-market catch-alls that went on for hundreds of pages longer than their thin premises can sustain, Laymon was a breath of fresh air for me. The Cellar, in particular, punched me in the gut and reminded me why I read horror; it is trying to push limits. I don't even necessarily mean limits of taste or content, but form, structure, language. Myth-building.

I daresay that within the pages of The Cellar, the horrors are far, far tamer and conventional than most true-crime stuff you can see on TV, let alone read in the books. So what makes Laymon's use of atrocious real-life horrors (pedophilia, rape, incest, etc.) make people flinch and wag fingers at it?

Perhaps it has to do with the EXACT reason why Laymon's prose strikes a chord in me, as it does in others. It's so, so true. True to the things that you wouldn't want to admit.

That you DO leer a little too long at that girls ass. That some dark part of you would really enjoy killing that guy who cut you off. That you really are afraid of where your life has taken you and that you'd almost do any horrible thing to escape the mundanity of nine-to-five with the missus and the rugrats.

Laymon, by all accounts from his voluminous number of professional friends and fans, was a great, kind, and gentle man who loved his wife and daughter more than anything in the world. When asked and interviewed about that very dreaded question, "Was your husband/father really like his characters?" they always laugh and act as if, yep, he still fools them.

And that was his job. To fool us all with words.

Adam said...

Did the darkness exist within him? Surely. As it surely must exist within everyone, but he harnessed it. Used it. Took it in his hands and wrestled it to the floor and put it on his payroll. He exercised his demons on the page but here's kind of the trick to it, in my opinion: they weren't even necessarily his own demons.

Laymon was a hack, let's get that out of the way. When I say "hack" however, I mean it in kindest way. A hack is someone who performs a task over and over for the pay while knowing that what he's producing is not the finest product he could produce. Laymon was a writer for the pay. When he struck upon the knowledge that depravity and sex and violence were flying off the shelves (or at least being bought by every publisher) regardless of quality, he did what any man who loves his wife and daughter and used it to give them the things they wanted.

He wrote all of those terrible, awful things specifically for his family.

When Laymon was asked in interviews how he comes up with these things, he admits that he is a gigantic coward. Apparently, he would faint at the sight of blood and could become borderline neurotic if something were worrying him. He said it was easy for him; all he had to do was think of a situation and let his cowardly, frightful imagination do the rest.

I think he actually somewhat "feared" things like kinky sex and hormone ravaged men. Think about it, he had a young daughter and a wife. Rape, an element that pops up quite often in his novels was quite literally the worst thing he could imagine happening.

And the worst things that could happen are exactly what people wanted. That's what they wanted to read and he could supply it.

Really though, it's all the comments on his prose that are irking me a bit. I will take short, sweet, and to the point over something like, oh, King. While a guy like King can write and write damned well, he seems to love burying any actual point under mountains of navel-gazing.

How do you feel about Joe R. Lansdale or Donald E. Westlake? 'Cause I'll put Laymon right up there with them in the clarity of prose and character category.

There's a very, very good reason that Laymon is and was a "writers writer". Many an author finds themselves a bit jealous when confronted with his confident and clean prose.

Sure, not all of his books are fantastic and even a few of them can only manage "good", but when he was on, there was no other game in town doing what he was doing with the same wit, intelligence, and, yes, depth. Go read some Edward Lee or Guy N. Smith if you really want depths of depravity with wretched prose and characters. Laymon was leagues ahead of those guys.

Required reading:


The Stake


Fernando Brambila O. said...

Heh, I almost feel guilty contributing to what is already far too much discussion about a novel that is, depending on your viewpoint "lean and mean" or "just plain horrible". Almost.
See, I have read plenty of Laymon books, incidentally most of the other ones mentioned in previous comments, Adam's in particular, and I actually think "The cellar" was his best book by far, in that it has all the ingredients you'll find in pretty much all of his books: rape, some scenes of gore that his readers appear to think are longer than they actually are, oft victimized women, and in the case of his 80's novels, rape of pre-teen girls. In the 90's, teenager girls. In the late 90's, young adult women. And so on.
I think it's his best and yet I agree with your review, in the end it's at best a novel that's more interesting for the idea than for the execution.
But like with "Resurrection Dreams" I will say one nice thing about it, and this time honestly nice: The concept of blue lightbulbs as signaling where the monster dwells and why they exist is actually not a bad idea (and, uh. it's hard to spell out without making it a spoiler so I'll leave it at that).

Fernando Brambila O. said...

Oh, yeah, one more thing: Generic as it is, that cover for "Flesh" is interesting in that it's an actual scene from the book.
And, no that particular novel isn't any better than this one --mostly you'll remember it as the book where our college-educated heroine decides to spend the last 50 pages walking around in a man's shirt. Just the shirt, no underwear and no socks or anything. Not because she's fleeeing from a monster or anything, she just doesn't want to miss an appointment with a man who already treated her like crap for most of the book and she simply did not have anything else to wear. So she'd rather walk around barefoot on concrete than postpone it.
No, seriously, I'm not even making this up.

Bad Ronald said...

Thank you for nailing down exactly what is wrong with Laymon's writing and his "craft." I've read a few of his books (or have listened to the audio versions)and found them to be intriguing (in premise), but ultimately tedious, and frustrating. He's one of those authors where I would find my self asking out loud (very loudly) "What! Are you serious?" The Cellar was the last Laymon book I read... actually, I tried to read it. I just couldn't take it anymore. The task of plowing through all the tedious prose outweighed the desire to see what weirdness lied ahead. You see, I read fairly slowly, so I really do ponder the value of story to the time it'll take to read.

One of my pet peeves about Laymon is his total disregard for women as real humans. He clearly goes over the top, putting them on pedestals, and making his heroines as innocent and undeserving of the acts inflicted on them as possible. But, then he sexualizes them in their most mundane and common moments. It's never just windy out when the woman walks to her car, it's a moment where the "wind whips her shirt open, allowing the gust to flit across her nipple, standing it tightly against the soft fabric of her blouse..." [paraphrasing here]

This is why his fans love him. Because, they are introverted people, who live vicariously through his words. Laymon, too, is clearly an introvert who is terrified of intimacy, but he wants so badly to have sexual potency. His characters may rape and bully women -- and he clearly detests these people -- but he also has a desire to have power over the women, too. He fawns over them, giving them wondrous beauty and kindness, while at the same time, having his way with their bodies, examining them whenever he pleases. He obviously fears intamacy.

CrabbyCrib said...

I too have read this book. The follow up, Beast House, is also nothing to write home about (which ultimately turned me off of going forward to Friday Night in Beast House and Midnight Tour.) Although I do think there are decent, more readable Laymon books out there such as Darkness Tell Us. It's not a fantastic book by any means, but it's done well for cheap, pulpy horror. It tends to transcend the monotony and random perversions that many of Laymon's book showcase. I also have read and reviewed other Laymon books as well on my blog if you're interested in reading. I love your blog, keep up the good work!

Walter said...

I haven't read this, but I really enjoyed Funland. Are our tastes different or did he just improve over time?

CrappinCrunch said...

"A naked man covered in blood with a hard on" is pretty much how I sum up a Laymon novel. Though I have read close to thirty-yes thirty-Laymon novels, I honestly can't call myself a fan exactly. I suppose I'm a slow learner, but after you read enough of them, you definitely see a formula. You could almost say that, aside from some of the novels with a supernatural theme, he more or less writes the same book over and over again(in a way I guess you could also say the killer is basically the same guy again and again). They tend to consist of psycho perverts after a woman. There are exceptions of course, but you can always rely on that fact that in his novels, the psycho/monster always wants to kill/rape the leading lady. I'm not a big fan of rape, and Laymon uses it CONSTANTLY. In fact, he seems to project his own sexual fantasies into his books. In more than one of his books, the leading man ends up with two girlfriend/sex buddies and they all live together as one big happy family. Yeah, right. I tend to get irritated with his adolescent ogling of females as well. Laymon continuously takes note when a male character observes any woman's body part in any stage of undress. Oooooh! He saw the outline of her buttcheek through her shorts! Oooooh! He saw half of a breast as she was reaching up for a bag of Bugles!
But are any of his books worth reading? Sure. When he was on, he was on. Some of his stuff is pretty good. Laymon's schtick works well in some of his novels. Personally I liked Savage, which takes place in the old west and involves Jack the Ripper. A little different for Laymon. I also liked Bite and After Midnight(leading lady pursued by sicko, but she's basically a sicko herself).
The Cellar? Well, I like the idea. I would have liked this book more without the child abuse. I can't recommend it to people for this reason. Completely unnecessary. The Beast House wasn't that bad and neither was The Midnight Tour, if a bit overlong. Friday Night In The Beast House? Short, yet kinda boring.
Well, that's about all I gotta say about Mr. Laymon.

Will Errickson said...

Pretty much how I feel too Crappin, 'cept one big thing: Laymon is simply NO FUN.

MikeGibbonz said...

I'm a fan of some of Laymon's stuff but when he was bad he was terrible. Cuts, The Cellar, Beware, The Lake, All Hallows' Eve are garbage and Come Out Tonight is one of the absolute worst things I've ever attempted to read. He has a bunch of books that are pretty mediocre and then he has a few gems. His gems are fantastic. The Stake, Endless Night, One Rainy Night, and In The Dark are deliriously fun and messed up reads. Flesh is pretty good, too. But yeah, he took chances and when they worked they were great, when they failed they were horrendous.