Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman;  Introduction by Richard T. Kelly; Afterword by Leslie Gardner; containing the following stories: The Wine-Dark Sea  (1966); The Trains  (1951); Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen  (1953);  Growing Boys  (1977); The Fetch  (1980); The Inner Room  (1966) ; Never Visit Venice  (1968); and Into the Wood  (1968) :

The great, unique English writer Robert Aickman preferred the term 'Strange Stories' for what he wrote, 48 published stories and a couple of published novels before he died in his 60's in the early 1980's. One could just call them 'Aickman Stories.' They're one of a handful of the most recognizable, idiosyncratic bodies of work in horror or ghost stories or The Weird or whatever you want to call this vast and shifting genre.

This is an excellent, posthumous collection, reissued by Faber and Faber in 2014 with a new introduction and a new afterword from one of Aickman's friends (and agents). Aickman started publishing fairly late in life and died far too early, making him an unknown to many who would find great enjoyment and reward in his peculiar literary universe of dread and wonder.

The stories included here are all fine pieces of work. The most traditional, "Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen," is nonetheless most peculiar. "Growing Boys" is a sort of bleak, black comedy that satirizes English reticence. "The Fetch" is also disquietingly funny, a rare foray into first-person narration for Aickman as a man chronicles his life-long flight from the eponymous Fetch of the title. 

Aickman's stories set outside Great Britain are nightmarish travelogues. Greece is a world of barely hidden wonders and terrors in "The Wine-Dark Sea." "Never Visit Venice" does much the same and more for Venice. A business trip to Sweden unveils a strange underculture in "Into the Wood." A trip across the "wilds" of Northern England imperils two young women in "The Trains." "The Inner Room" offers a haunted dollhouse, but haunted in a strange way that takes decades to pay off for its protagonist.

Aickman was a great, very individual (and individualistic) writer. The backbone of most of his stories is a tension between weird events and the understanding of them. I'm pretty sure Aickman knew exactly what was happening and why in a story like "The Trains": however, the story does not offer a full, Basil Exposition-style explanation for its events. 

And 'solving a mystery' isn't the point. The mystery may have many explanations. Or none. Even when a story is fairly explicit about its supernatural machinery, it's never comfortably final about these things. We pass from mystery into greater mystery. We're left with a great writer of the 20th century regardless of genre, one who deserves a far greater readership. Highly recommended.

See also: 

The Unsettled Dust by Robert Aickman
Dark Entries by Robert Aickman

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