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.
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 1970s TV movie.)