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David H Keller's "The Thing in the Cellar"
Sandy Petersen, the creator of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, is recommending a spooky short story every day this October on his discord. This was the first entry and is called “The Thing in the Cellar.” The story itself can be found here or here.
Each post like this one will include 2 parts: a link to a rather good short horror story, and then an analysis of that story. Short fiction and some analysis all in one go. I hope that this works out because I know I would enjoy a format like this.
Are you studying writing? This is from a series of posts studying short stories in order to learn what makes a great one tick. If you don’t want to miss updates in this series, feel free to subscribe below!
Above I linked 2 versions of the story: a pdf with a 2-column layout, and a blog-style version. Here are some screenshots:
The 2-column layout, with the more classical font, makes the pdf version far more compelling in my opinion.
Why? The typography in the first is very stark and tense, yet is respectable, especially aided by the 2-column layout. The typography and layout of the second says, to me, “comfort,” and this is at odds with the story.
A winding stone stairway connected the cellar with the kitchen. Around the base of this series of steps successive owners of the house had placed their firewood, winter vegetables and junk. The junk had gradually been pushed back till it rose, head high, in a barricade of uselessness. What was back of that barricade no one knew and no one cared. For some hundreds of years no one had crossed it to penetrate to the black reaches of the cellar behind it.
I am already rather hooked on the mystery of this cellar somehow. How did that happen?
I can imagine the basement where I live currently. If it were as full of junk as this cellar, I too would avoid delving beyond the daunting barricade, even though I would wonder what is back there. It is so close yet out of reach. Interesting.
a lock that looked as though it came from Castle Despair.
Nicknames like this add a lot of personality, and a sense of camaraderie with the reader.
Suspension of Disbelief
It is not natural for a child to act like he does, and what with chinking the cracks with rags and kissing the lock, he drives me to the point where I fear he may become daft-like as he grows older.”
“Tommy, what is there in the cellar you are afraid of?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you ever seen it?”
“Ever heard it? smelt it?”
“Then how do you know there is something there?”
“Because there is.”
That was as far as Tommy would go, and at last his seeming obstinacy annoyed the physician even as it had for several years annoyed Mr. Tucker. He went to the door and called the parents into the office.
Before the parents try to cure the kid, it feels like a standard ‘the wisdom of children’ trope and it’s boring. Anticipating it play out is a drag. However, after the parents decide their kid is daft, and that they must fix him, I’m once again sold — suspension of disbelief and buy-in is restored!
This will be central to the remainder of the story.
“I tell you what to do,” advised the doctor. “He thinks there is something there. Just as soon as he finds that he is wrong and that there is nothing there, he will forget about it. He has been humored too much. What you want to do is to open that cellar door and make him stay by himself in the kitchen. Nail the door open so he can not close it. Leave him alone there for an hour and then go and laugh at him and show him how silly it was for him to be afraid of an empty cellar. I will give you some nerve and blood tonic and that will help, but the big thing is to show him that there is nothing to be afraid of.
Dramatic irony strikes again! Because we know this is a horror story, and because we have now been shown that every adult in the story disbelieves that The Bad Thing is down there (nicknames are great), the reader is now twisting in knots about what will happen to this poor kid, who, moments earlier, seemed like a dullard with a screw loose. Maybe he is a dullard with a screw loose, but he’s sure in trouble now and we can’t help him!
And I am going to nail the door open, Tommy, so you can not close it, as that was what the doctor said. Tommy, and you are to be a man and stay here in the kitchen alone for an hour, and we will leave the lamp a‑burning, and then when you find there is naught to be afraid of, you will be well and a real man and not something for a man to be ashamed of being the father of.
The poor doomed kid! This just gets worse and worse for him.
But at the last Mrs. Tucker kissed Tommy and cried and whispered to her husband not to do it
This paragraph shows that the parents are not shallow robots serving the plot — after the child’s complaints, the mother starts to give in a little. Then again, the doctor said the boy had been “humoured too much,” so the father insists. But is this whole fear of the cellar her fault after all? We shall have to see.
Ie, this tackles a minor hurdle that was threatening suspension of disbelief.
This Tucker lad may have a nervous system that is peculiarly acute. He may dimly appreciate the existence of something in the cellar which is unappreciable to his parents. Evidently there is some basis to this fear of his. Now, I am not saying that there is anything in the cellar. In fact, I suppose that it is just an ordinary cellar, but this boy, since he was a baby, has thought that there was something there, and that is just as bad as though there actually were. What I would like to know is what makes him think so.
Here, The Expert weighs in to justify what is about to happen, while also reinforcing that the child has no cause for alarm. Is this effective?
I think so. I imagine that, if this segment were missing, the story might feel a little too random for the reader to accept it.
This is a common technique that I wasn’t conscious enough of until now.
One More Thing to Worry About
“What do you think of my advice?”
“Sorry, old man, but I think it was perfectly rotten. If I were you, I would stop around there on my way home and prevent them from following it
It all worried Doctor Hawthorn so much that he decided to take his friend’s advice
This is interesting and creates tension, but why? Are we worrying not just for the kid now, but also for the doctor’s conscience? We are now empathizing with the poor doctor as well, taking on a part of his suspense.
And I guess he knows by now that there was naught to be afraid of. Well, the hour is up. Suppose we go and get him and put him to bed?
The poor brat is probably catatonic or eaten! This is setting you up and building tension marvelously!
“Tommy — Tommy has been hurt — I guess he is dead!” he stammered.
Aside: I am feeling a very 1950s horror movie vibe here in terms of sfx and acting style. Is it just me?
What killed him, Doctor? What killed him?” he shouted into Hawthorn’s ear.
The doctor looked at him bravely in spite of the fear in his throat.
“How do I know, Tucker?” he replied. “How do I know? Didn’t you tell me that there was nothing there? Nothing down there? In the cellar?”
Even to the end, we are battling suspension of disbelief, and it makes the story hit so much harder because of it!
I wonder how much of fiction is about adopting the characters and trying to look out for them in a parental way? Even though we can’t help them, we feel like we need to follow them through the story to make sure they are okay…
The killer is not shown, which is critical and which pays off a great deal. The story is fundamentally about wondering and worrying about the unseen thing that is down there, and that would have been deflated with a full description at the end
The story is about 2700 words
One Final Remark…
The thing that I am noticing more and more with supernatural short stories is that many of them could be told in a single page and they revolve around a single moment (or sometimes, a couple of moments); yet they end up being 10 pages. Of those 10 pages, 9 often seem dedicated to really, thoroughly nailing suspension of disbelief so that the ending actually hits the reader the right way and makes them feel it.
This isn’t always the case, but it’s a common pattern, especially with older stories: the entire story is there to build up enough plausibility that the reader feels like what is happening is real, and then — you may hit them with the ending.
By contrast, other genres may be more likely to spend those pages building up setting or character dynamics. However, when it comes to supernatural events taking place in our own mundane world, extra effort is done to make sure the reader buys into things.
I suspect that fantasy stories have a lot to learn from this approach.
Petersen’s recommendations are 2/2. I will spend a great deal of time this October working away at these.
If you are studying storytelling, join me. Subscribe. Comment. Share. It’s quite the voyage and you shouldn’t have to go it alone.
Earlier in October, I analyzed another of Petersen’s recommendations: