Simon and Schuster yesterday abruptly canceled Bret Easton Ellis's controversial new novel, "American Psycho." The book, which contains vivid descriptions of violence against women, was to be shipped to stores next month. A decision to back off this late in the publication process is extremely unusual, especially for a work of fiction.

S&S Chairman Richard Snyder said that "in my opinion, there was an incorrect decision" by the editors who had bought the book and approved it for publication. Neither Bob Asahina, the editor on all three of Ellis's novels, nor Michael Korda, S&S editor in chief, could be reached for comment.

Snyder denied that the cancellation was requested by Martin Davis, the chairman of S&S's parent firm, Paramount Communications Inc. Sources indicated Davis was disturbed by reports in the media that quoted some of the book's more brutal passages.

"Through the press, I became aware of the book, and then aware of its contents, and it was I who decided we should not put our name on this book. It's a matter of taste," said Snyder. Davis concurred, he said.

Ellis, the 26-year-old author of the best-selling and critically acclaimed "Less Than Zero" -- which, like his second novel, was published by S&S -- said he was "completely shocked" by the decision. He also said he felt that news accounts about the book -- particularly articles in Time and Spy magazines -- had distorted its contents. Both publications ridiculed the book from a literary standpoint.

"American Psycho" is about a Wall Street businessman -- young, handsome, successful, Trump-worshiping -- who can't stop killing people. His attacks on pets, children and beggars, wrote Time, "are only warm-ups for what the M.B.A. monster does to women with nail gun, power drill, chain saw and, in a scene that should cause the loudest uproar, a hungry rodent." Women staffers at S&S were said to be outraged over the book.

"The book is 400 pages long, and there are less than 40 pages with the type of mayhem they quote," said Ellis. "The articles make it seem like they're a disproportionate amount of the book. Both pieces verged on the hysterical and gave a false sense of what the book was about."

Ellis conceded that "the scenes which women objected to are appalling," but noted that "the character is crazy. ... There's a sense out there that people think I'm advocating this type of behavior."

In the Time article last month, trade division publisher John McKeown said that "We plan to market it aggressively, with muscle and energy." As recently as last Friday, S&S was debating various tactics that would permit publication to go forward, including either a wraparound band or a disclaimer inside the book warning off the timid. Use of either of these would have been very unusual for a novel.

Amanda Urban, Ellis's agent, said that "Simon & Schuster is a first-class publisher and they, like any publisher, have a right not to publish a book. But I don't think they have the right to decide not to publish a book that was delivered a year ago, was paid for in full, has been copy-edited, has been legally vetted, has been designed and put into production and listed in their catalogue and was to be shipped to bookstores next month in order to make a January publication -- not without raising suspicions that there are other reasons for their decision." Refusing to publish the book without explanation, she said, "seems to me to raise the question of whether there is a form of censorship going on here."

Urban added that the cancellation "abrogates a written contract which is meant to be sacred, not to mention legally binding." When a publisher does not honor a contract, the general practice is for the rights to revert to the author and for him to retain all money paid -- in Ellis's case, a reported $300,000.

Snyder refused comment on this point, and said he was confident S&S would find its reputation unaffected by the last-minute cancellation. The publisher has not had a great November, what with less than impressive initial sales of Ronald Reagan's $6 million autobiography and the unexplained firing of the popular and respected editor of much of their literary fiction, Allen Peacock.

"We have a grand tradition, and so do the people who work here," Snyder said. "We'll stand by our reputation."