The Devils in the Cellar was Sava Popov’s second book, but it was the first published by a serious and respected publisher. This is where his friendship with the publisher Filip Chipev and the creative collaboration and lifetime closeness with Iliya Beshkov, who illustrated the book, began. It enjoyed very good reviews even upon its release. In a review in Vestnik na zhenta (Women’s Newspaper) (No. 750, December 7, 1938), we read:
“Among the numerous books for children, this book by the young children’s author Sava Popov is a new, fresh stream, a new achievement even, which differentiates itself from every other book, and with everything in it, it is a true joy for children. Above all, there is nothing in The Devils in the Cellar that has previously been told by others. The plot, the development, the language, even the words are new, never spoken before now. Moreover, everything is alive, real, taken from the present life, not invented or composed. And it is written so engrossingly, with such love for the child, his real, modern peace of mind, with such a desire to help him find his way in life, that it will not be an exaggeration if we say that The Devils in the Cellar is a new first a work of its kind in our children’s literature, in which are combined energetic realism, fairy-tale romanticism, didactic thought, fascinating development, and fresh language that suits modern children. The book is even more beautiful with its magnificent illustrations by Iliya Beshkov. It has been published with such care and with such a sense of aesthetics that it can be cited as an exemplary publication for children. The Devils in the Cellar, also because of its instructive sober thoughts, should be read by every child.”
Hard cover in broken blue; drawing, authors, and title in relief and gilding. The layout and binding of The Devils in the Cellar is exquisite. In this period, the publishers from the Chipev family worked with the best children’s authors – the writers Angel Karaliychev, Yordan Stubel, and Dora Gabe, and the artists Iliya Beshkov, Pencho Georgiev, Nikola Tuzsuzov, and Georgi Atanasov. Their publications won international awards. In Sava Popov’s library we find books that must have been a model for him. Enchanting World and Aneto (1938) by Angel Karaliychev, The Forest Cottage by Dora Gabe, Sonny Bunny the Radio Amateur and Merry Guests (1938) by Atanas Dushkov. His book ranks right up there with the good children’s publications of the late 1930s.
The Devils in the Cellar is a story with an original plot, an interesting structure, and authentic characters. The book’s text and illustrations are in continuous interaction from the first scene to the last.
The plot of the book deals with a very widespread practice at the beginning of the 20th century – the use of alcohol by children. In the opening scene, the grandfather threatens his grandson that if he drinks the new wine, he will turn into a devil. This warning/prohibition does not work, and the child, overcoming his fear of the expected transformation, heads for the cellar and drinks some of the wine. From then on, the story is seemingly clear – drunkenness leads to a heap of shenanigans. The child meets his devilish accomplices with whom he carries out a number of hijinks, until a newspaper advertisement gives him a brilliant idea. Here, Sava Popov introduced the main theme into the narrative – this time a universal one – the insoluble problem of aging and running out of time. The child devils hatch a diabolical plan. Tempted by the offer of rejuvenation by “specialists,” the adults give all their money for the magical procedure. In the end, the picture becomes clearer, and reality turns out to be a dream. Sava Popov uses classic techniques: he places the characters before temptations and narrow escapes, offers witty solutions and, of course, finally leads them to repentance and catharsis.
Alcohol – the enemy of humanity
At the time when The Devils in the Cellar was published, there were more than twenty newspapers in Bulgaria devoted to the topic of sobriety. Everything had to be sober – sober thought, sober youth, sober education, a sober platform, sober child, sober leaders, the sober voice, a sober railway man, sober sheet, sober progress, sober champions, etc.
Some of these were put out by student committees. The topic was relevant for everyone, but apparently children were more vulnerable and susceptible to the dangers of alcohol. Texts by authorities – professors, doctors, writers – tried to convince people of how harmful alcohol intoxication was, on a par with gambling, onanism, and other vices.
“The natural drink for man, as well as for all animals and plants, is water. Intoxicants and alcohol are harmful, except for a short time, as remedies,” asserted Prof. Dr. Forel in his article in Trezvenost (Sobriety) from 1935. And he continues, “Let us also dispel the self-deception of people who imagine that they make water healthy by adding wine…”
Elsewhere, the respected professor Asen Zlatarov is quoted: “In the service of alcoholism, supported by the powerful interests of unscrupulous capital, all manner of reasons are offered. One of these reasons is that alcohol is food. And a concentrated, dynamogenic food at that, which powerfully serves the organism’s dwindling strength. Sometimes even physicians are in the service of this misconception that alcohol is food. But the truth is that alcohol has none of the qualities of typical food: it is just a general protoplasmic poison and nothing more. That is why the great Zola, whose novels are social treatises, was right when he painted the brandy still not as a simple apparatus for distillation, but as a beast that spits poison, spreads cankers and madness, sows crime and makes man a beast. I conclude: in whatever form and whatever dose it is taken, alcohol is not food, but an agent that lowers life functions, one which destroys the nervous system, produces weakness, pushes one to insanity, and degenerates the race. Alcohol is the enemy of human happiness.”
In numerous publications it was argued that alcohol was at the root of mental illness. The newspaper Trezvo dete (Sober Child), a picture paper for sober education, health, and science (1935), carried a news story from the streets of Sofia about a truck that ran over three people and destroyed a tobacco shop. In the end, the police caught up with the drunk driver and arrested him.
A newspaper report tells of an ugly case of a drunk man who kills his two children and his wife. The conclusion – such things will happen until sobriety reigns on earth. Moreover, drunkenness leads to poverty; this is pointed out everywhere in these publications. “While my father / used to go to the pub / I had no shoes / no clothing, poor thing!… / But since he said / he wouldn’t drink / wine and rakia anymore / we are rich! / We are happy at home / mama is happy too / and since yesterday I have / a big doll, too” – say the verses accompanying a photograph of a pretty little girl with a doll.