The last time I read a Robert Aickman book – his most famous short story collection, Cold Hand in Mine – I felt conflicted. I appreciated and admired the stories, but found the anticlimatic, deliberately ambiguous, and often abrupt endings to be problematic, making several of the stories feel either incomplete or simply disappointing. I think perhaps my more positive reaction to this collection was due to adjusted expectations, knowing more about what I would get; but my assessment of Cold Han
Like Cold Hand in Mine, this volume opens with a story that seems to set the tone for everything within. The Wine-Dark Sea tells, with heavy mythological overtones, the tale of Grigg, a persistent, somewhat boorish tourist who’s determined to visit a Greek island declared verboten by the locals. There he finds three women, ostensibly sisters, eking out a simple and sensual existence he’s naturally enthralled by. It seems clear this peacefulness cannot last, that surely the women will either kill or enslave Grigg, but this being an Aickman story, the ending was never going to be that obvious. ‘The Wine-Dark Sea’ shows how, in these stories, the true horror often lurks beyond the actual conclusion. What, you wonder, will become of Grigg after this?
It doesn’t have a very promising beginning (two bickering friends on a walking holiday), but The Trains turned out to be one of the most enjoyable stories in the collection. When Margaret and Mimi arrive at the house of the Roper family in the midst of a furious rainstorm, it turns out to be a bleak, old-fashioned place, described portentously by its owner as ‘a house of the dead’. But the heavy gothic gloom isn’t the only good thing about this story; its exploration of Margaret’s character is wonderful, her attraction to Wendley Roper lends it a human touch, and her revelation that she will always be at a disadvantage compared to the likes of the more attractive Mimi is arguably its most crucial moment. As expected, the ending – while it has a punchline-like quality – doesn’t resolve anything. (view spoiler)[Is Margaret’s appearance at the window an ironic echo of the past; or have the past sightings somehow been an echo of this inevitable future? It parallels ‘The Wine-Dark Sea’, in which it appears to the reader (though it doesn’t occur to the character himself) that the shadowy figure Grigg spots on the island might, in fact, be Grigg, so closely does its course follow his own initial exploration of the place. (hide spoiler)]
Your Tiny Hand is Frozen is another strong story, though the premise is perhaps one of the flimsiest. In the absence of his fiancée Teddie, Edmund strikes up a ‘relationship’ of sorts with a woman he’s never seen, via the telephone. Their calls become increasingly incomprehensible and disturbing, yet his obsession with her only grows, until the macabre climax.
Growing Boys presents a blood-curdling vision of parenthood – specifically motherhood, as Millie struggles to cope with her overgrown sons, who are terrifyingly large and violent for their age. Everything about this story – the menacing behaviour of the boys, Phineas’s infuriating indifference (and the lactose obsession!), Millie’s depression and desperation to get away – is horribly oppressive, even nauseating. There’s a recurrence of an occasional theme I also saw in Cold Hand in Mine, in that physical relationships between certain sets of characters – children, closely related family members – are described in deeply uncomfortable terms that suggest sexual undertones. It’s all very cleverly done; there is no concrete suggestion of anything ‘unacceptable’ going on, it’s just a feeling created by the use of particular words and scraps of description. You wonder how much more disturbing all of this would be if you could see it. (A TV adaptation would no doubt make Uncle Stephen obviously predatory and lascivious towards Millie – but I thought the fact of not knowing whether that really was the case made it all the more unnerving.)
While ‘Growing Boys’ is extremely effective, it is so nightmarish that it’s a relief to be done with it. I thought it exceptionally well put together, but I can hardly say I enjoyed the experience. This story reminded me of the things that made me remember Cold Hand in Mine so clearly, but also my reasons for giving it an average rating. Stories like this are unpleasant to think about, even weeks after reading them, and it’s that very unpleasantness that makes Aickman’s work so incredibly memorable and distinctive.
And that’s also the case with The Fetch, which tells of a character named Leith who frequently describes himself as a ‘haunted man’. The source of that haunting is ‘the auld carlin’, a witch-like creature said to be sighted prior to the death of someone in the family. Once again, the story is full of uncomfortable detail (view spoiler)[(the incestuous lust makes another appearance, and there has to be some significance to the fact that every woman Leith has a relationship with has some sort of minor disability relating to a leg injury, though I can’t for the life of me work out what it might be) (hide spoiler)], while the carlin is vividly described and appeared in my mind’s eye like something out of a much more modern horror story (or film).
In The Inner Room, a woman encounters – in adulthood – an apparent real-life version of a dolls’ house she had as a child, along with human equivalents of the dolls therein. More explicitly fantastical than most Aickman, but typically anticlimactic, as you expect Lene to be taken to the hidden room (view spoiler)[(and killed?) but she is simply led out of the house (hide spoiler)] and, even though she is narrating the story from a time after these events, there is no reflection, merely an abrupt stop – a conclusion reminiscent of ‘The Hospice’ as well as this book’s title story.
Never Visit Venice has some similarities to ‘The Wine-Dark Sea’, though it’s less subtle, and more melodramatic – in an entirely entertaining way that made it one of my favourites in the book. (What is it about Venice that makes it such a successful setting for a horror story?) Fern, like Grigg, is a blundering sort of man, and it’s his pathetic pandering to a woman – a stranger, who he believes to be the real-life fulfilment of a dream he’s been having for years – that leads him to ruin. I loved the ending of this. It’s so deliciously gothic.
Into the Wood reminded me of stories by both Daphne du Maurier and Anna Kavan. A woman checks into a hotel that turns out to be a sanatorium for insomniacs; is badgered by an annoying fellow guest (another example of ‘ordinary horror’); finds herself afflicted by the same insomnia after she leaves. As often with Aickman, the most effective parts are in the details, for example when she’s turned away from every other hotel in town except a Salvation Army hostel (the proprietor of which makes attempts to ‘save’ her). It’s the things unsaid, the suggestions of manifest madness (how does she appear to others at this point?) and the question of what happens next that make this so unsettling.