Herbert Lieberman | Pocket Books | 1972 | 278 pages
Less a straightforward horror novel than a sad and creepy meditation on the nature of parenthood, Crawlspace drives its middle-aged protagonist couple through much torment over their stand-in “child”, while also exposing the latent poison in the judgmental attitudes of neighbors and community.
Shortly after inviting an emotionally needy young utilities worker to dinner, Albert and Alice Graves, a retired childless couple living alone in the countryside, make a startling discovery. Their one-time guest, Richard Atlee, has secretly returned to their cellar, and is now living in an impromptu human nest in their crawlspace. Rather than reacting with horror and revulsion at the filth and animal remains surrounding the makeshift sleeping quarters, Richard’s arrival triggers a nascent parental concern the couple thought lacking in their lives.
Feeling a strange sense of duty to help Richard, the couple allows this unusual habitation to continue. Primarily unseen during the day, Richard performs various household chores in exchange for his unusual residency. Eventually, they gain his trust enough to lure him up into the house proper, although his dirty appearance and demeanor still evoke the animal nature of his crawlspace existence.
Alice, and particularly Albert, view Richard as an almost angelic creature, frequently reflecting upon his beauty (even in his unkempt state). When squatting in the crawlspace, however, Richard is almost feral, spending his days in the woods and deep inside a nearby cave. After moving into the spare room, he seems more severely maladjusted than wild, unable to articulate beyond a basic level or follow any accepted social norms.
The local community, however, is alarmed at the prospect of the Graves couple sheltering—what they characterize as—a young drifter. When the small hardware store in town cheats Richard out of fifty dollars on an errand, a violent retaliation is set in motion that prefigures more tragedy to come.
The couple’s compassion for Richard slowly creeps into fear, as they experience a sinking realization that they have become virtual prisoners in their own home. Terrorized by a local juvenile gang and unable to rely on the corrupt local law enforcement for help, the Graves are unable to force their houseguest to leave.
Alternating between a maddening disbelief at the allowances Albert and Alice make for Richard and empathy for his withdrawal from human interaction, Crawlspace also depicts conventional society’s reaction against the sixties counterculture drop-out lifestyle. The narrative tension develops from the slow burn of the untenable relationship, rather than shocking horror, but once a certain line is crossed, the story plunges toward its violent conclusion.
An epilogue in the Florida Keys explaining Richard’s early history is mostly unnecessary.