Original Mass Market Paperback:
A seminal horror novel, twistedly imaginative and modern-gothic, Cellars impregnated both later psychological horror and "splatterpunk". John Shirley's classic horror novel is set in the New York of the 1980s—the New York of Studio 54, of the first assault of the most vicious wolves of Wall Street, of the new era of yuppie cocaine-infused selfishness and glossy partying; the New York of the Hellfire Club and Plato's Retreat and the Donald Trumps buying up tenements cheap and forcing the poor out of them...
This was a new, modern Gomorrah, no one consciously remembering the primordial worship of the golden bull, the sacrifices to Ba'al and Moloch, the ancient sorcerers like Simon Magus. But Moloch and Simon Magus have never left us. Cellars shows us what's hidden beneath our outer gloss of sophistication, beneath the glamor and the clamor and the amour. The cellars, the sub-cellars, the forgotten subway tunnels under New York contain ancient secrets that fester anew...and reveal once more the monsters among us. And now(cica 2019)—it remains a strangely relevant tale, indeed...
"Cellars proved to be one of my strongest creative inspirations, ever. It seems unreal to me that I first read it nearly a quarter of a century ago... Yet after all that time, it's one of the few horror novels I'm first to recall. Because it was a progenitor to a good-sized pie wedge of the horror market in 2006. Some books are timeless, immune to fading from their original creative luster, and Shirley's early masterpiece of the form is one such endeavor. I hope this new edition of Cellars inspires new writers today the way it inspired me so long ago....The bottom line is this: One of the very first hardcore horror novels truly remains one of the very best, even after two and a half decades."
"Shirley's 1982 novel of urban monsters and terror seems just as fresh, just as scary now as it did back then." [Trashotron]
One of the first truly visceral horror novels, hard to believe Cellars was published in 1982—pre-Barker and pre-splatterpunk.
Within Cellars the savvy Shirley reader will find many of the demon-seeds that grew into his later dark fiction. Tom Winstead in the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers sums it up as a "fairly graphic...story of a sort of demonic manifestation in the underworld of New York City. A writer who is skeptical about the supernatural is called upon to assist the police in solving a rash of horrible cult mutilation murders. The writer's employer shows undue interest in the case, and though the writer quits his employ, continues to pay him handsomely to assist the police. In the company of a psychic woman he has been interviewing, and who quickly becomes his lover, they track down the secrets taking place beneath New York, the rebirth of the cult of Ahrinam [sic], Many of the themes in this book foreshadow a much more successful use in the novel Wetbones."
Well, more or less. Mostly less. There's a great deal more to Cellars than Mr. Winstead notes. Lanyard, the writer, is a prototype of Shirley's "seeker-hero," but with no spiritual grounding, only a fanatical skepticism. The world and his life are a mess, yet he feels there has to be "a hidden pattern that made sense of all the random damage that was done to people. Life had to be more than a great obstacle course...There had to be some hidden pattern making sense of it all. Beneath it all." He denies the existence of the supernatural so completely that it blocks his acceptance of what is happening around him.
New York City, circa 1981, is vividly depicted—kinky sex, disco decadence, drugs both chic (the days when cocaine was considered "not really addictive") and dirty (junkies in shooting galleries), porn, the street life, pre-sanitized Times Square—and it's all placed in the pressure cooker of an October made supernaturally hotter than August.
Cellars is significantly subterranean. The killings take place beneath the city and the city itself is a place where any ordinary drain becomes a direct connection to a gruesome death. Drains go "into the secret places under the city's skin where tubular infinities of liquefied civilization pumped through crumbling pipes, gurgling." There are forgotten tunnels, a secret subway train, a covert temple—a first circle of hell.
As Halloween approaches, more are sacrificed to the Head Underneath, power currents feed the evil, and children become murderous monsters. Lanyard and Madelaine, an actress with psychic abilities face, some very nasty things. (Including, for Lanyard, a seductive woman who suddenly has "four glistening, transparent, rubbery tendrils extending from her vagina, wriggling like the antennae of silverfish; beckoning, dripping yellow ooze..." A female counterpart of Dracula in Love!)
Cellars is unrelentingly dark, and it is Shirley's only novel so completely stygian. Protagonist Lanyard has not sunk low enough to find the power beneath despair. He has nowhere to go to find strength. There is no glimmer of redemption, no spark of hope, no acknowledgment of a moral balance, no evidence that there IS anything "beneath it all" except depravity and wickedness.
Written during his sojourn in New York City during a period in his life when he switched from abusing psychedelics to abusing harder narcotics (although he never wrote on drugs), Shirley was deeply punished with depression. He saw only dark side and Cellars reflects this. Of all Shirley's novels this might be the one that could be most interestingly re-written.