David H. Kellar is an author I’ve always meant to read more of after, decades ago, reading his first and very memorable story “The Revolt of the Pedesterians”. So, I’m glad my nomination to discuss this story was taken up by LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition group.
Review: “The Thing in the Cellar”, David H. Kellar, 1932.
The story starts out by describing a house somewhere unknown though reference is later made to London streets so this may be around London England, but it could be around London in Pennsylvania, a state Kellar lived at one time.
The house’s cellar is much larger than the house. Perhaps the original house burned down and a smaller building was built over it. The entrance to the cellar is in the kitchen and has a massive door, reinforced with a sturdy lock. It is weirdly inappropriate for an interior door and more suitable for a door to the outside. The inhabitants of the house, over the years, have created a “barricade” of firewood, vegetables, and junk in the basement so the whole thing is rarely used.
We then switch to the Tucker family and their one child, Tommy. The Tuckers are hardworking if rather “simple-minded” people. Tommy is a good child and somewhat clever.
He has one peculiarity. Being in the kitchen makes him nervous if the door to the cellar is unlocked or ajar. He’s fine when’s it’s locked. He even goes over to fondle the lock when its engaged. He absolutely won’t stay in the kitchen when the cellar door is open. He screams and flees. At times, when playing in the kitchen when his mother is working there, he will put things like bits of cloth or wood between the bottom of the cellar door and the floor much to the annoyance of his mother. He’s perfectly normal in the rest of the house. He’ll help his mother with chores – except he will not go down into the basement though he refuses to say why.
When he starts school at age six, his parents are troubled enough that they take Tommy to see Dr. Hawthorn since the father, though proud of his boy’s performance in school, is a bit embarassed by this oddity regarding the cellar.
Hawthorn talks to Tommy alone. Tommy doesn’t know what he’s afraid of. He’s never seen anything in thecellar or smelt anything. He just knows there’s something there to be afraid of. Even Hawthorn gets frustrated with Tommy by the end of his talk.
After bringing the parents back in, Hawthorn, who vaguely remembers some “lectures on the nervous system”, suggests they take Tommy home, nail the cellar door open, and make Tommy stay in the kitchen for an hour to prove to him there’s nothing to be afraid of.
The Tuckers go home. Tommy, knowing what’s coming, tries to run when they get home, but he’s caught. After the evening rituals of a meal and Mr. Tucker reading the paper, he nails the cellar door open, lights a lamp, and then he and his wife leave Tommy alone in the room. Mrs. Tucker kisses Tommy before she leaves. She has her doubts about all this, but Mr. Tucker wants to Tommy to confront his fears and become a “real man”.
At supper the same day and after visiting with the Tuckers, Hawthorn happens to dine with Johnson, a psychiatrist with an interest in children. (Kellar had a career as a country doctor and, later, a psychiatrist.) He tells Johnson about Tommy. Johnson says there probably is nothing in the cellar, but some children are like animals: they have heightened senses. After all, Tommy has been afraid of the cellar all his life. He asks for the Tucker’s address to visit with them the next day. Johnson also tells Hawthorn that his advice to the Tuckers was “perfectly rotten” and suggests he swing by their house and advise against implementing his therapy.
Hawthorn does go to visit the Tuckers. The therapy is still going on. Mrs. Tucker wants to end it, but she hasn’t intervened because of her husband. They say Tommy’s still in the kitchen and has been quite after yelling once. The three go to the kitchen.
While I expected he would find a catatonic Tommy, what he finds is worse – if vaguely described. Tommy is dead, a “torn, mutilated thing”. Mr. Tucker shakes Hawthorn and demands to know what killed his son. How would he know, says Hawthorn? Didn’t Tucker tell him there was nothing in the cellar?
Yes, the resolution is fairly easy to see coming and strikes one as an unproduced episode of The Twilight Zone. One suspects it had great influence given the number of times it’s been anthologized.
The story does bring to mind some unanswered questions besides what the thing is. Why is the basement so large? What happened to the previous home? Did some previous inhabitant discover the danger and hence the reinforced door? What happened to the previous structure?
Many thanks for this post! I remember reading this story for the first time in an anthology I discovered in my elementary school library.