The Wine-Dark Sea (Robert Aickman)

Dipped into this short story collection as the mood struck me. Each story was 30-40 pages of horror, called more exactly supernatural or “strange”. Each concerns a character or characters who meet with a strange, otherworldly person, thing or events and their reactions to what they come upon. Endings are open-ended, not neatly tied up. The horror is subtle and creeps up on you. Aickman is a master in this genre; not for him the bloodfests of recent horror literature and movies. The writing conveys just the right amount of creepiness.

My favourites:

The Wine-Dark Sea [a nod to Homer]: A man vacationing in Greece sees an island across the sea, and although told not to venture there, does so with devastating results. It’s sort of an amalgam of the Lotus Eaters, the “wyrd sisters” [or could they be the Fates of Greek mythology?] and Philoctetes.

Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen: An excellent combo of loneliness and the eerie. A weird melancholy which Aickman was so adept at portraying. A man’s obsession takes him away from life, disregarding his own well-being. There’s plenty of criticism of modern technology, bureaucracy and addiction to impersonal technology. A lonely man plagued by wrong number phone calls tries to find someone to spend Christmas dinner with. He contacts an equally lonely woman over the phone. He becomes obsessed with waiting on her return calls.

The Fetch: A ghost story set in Scotland. This feels like a more standard ghost story than being a typically vague “strange story” I expect from Aickman. The horror here is a bit easier to put your finger on, possibly a supernatural figure from Scottish folklore. But it’s psychological depth and depth of characterization and place makes it Aickman’s own memorable story. A man is plagued throughout his life by the appearance of a ghostly woman who signifies the death of one near to him. What could that mean? I’m not telling.

Into The Woods: A couple on holiday in Sweden discovers a sanatorium or Kurhus. The wife spends some time there; it is a sanatorium for insomniacs, who can only be cured by going into the surrounding woods. This one seems to be an allegory of some sort.

Never Visit Venice I think this story has much to say about disillusionment with travel. I’ve always found the “idea” of travel to be more rewarding than the reality. After years of dreaming of finding true peace with a woman in a Venetian gondola, a man travels there to see if the reality stands up to the ideal. A very anti-modernist theme.

The Stains [my favourite]: A man whose wife has died recently visits his brother, a vicar in the country with an interest in mosses and lichens. The protagonist meets and has an affair with a girl he meets on the moors; is she a maenad or wood nymph? He takes her to his flat in London, which shrinks and becomes moss-furred. Then they return to the moors and live in a house that becomes stained the same way. There is a shattering conclusion.

The author’s writing is impeccable. What he could do with his word-pictures!! I admit I had chills up and down my spine on occasion, although to get the full sense I’d have to stop and reread a paragraph here and there. Unsettlingly creepy tales, not exactly ghost stories in the classic sense of the genre (except for one or two), but many with the inexplicable atmosphere of a nightmare: very odd, scary things happen, for no obvious reason and they’re not explained away. Many of them have echoes of the darker side of Greco-Roman or other mythology, most obviously the title story (I spent most of it trying to decide whether the three “sorceresses” the main character encounters on a decidedly weird Greek island are meant to remind us of the Fates, the Eumenides, or the Maenads–maybe all 3 combined).

Others are just full of a sense of mysterious weirdness lurking deep in the everyday: wrong turns taken on walks in the countryside or in a suburban patch of woods, incessant wrong-number phone calls, a woman’s discontentment with her passive-aggressive husband and unruly teenage twin sons, bits of mold and lichen appearing on wallpaper… Several of the narrators or main characters seem peculiarly unaware of the oddity of their circumstances, which adds to the overall uncanny effect. Also, props to Aickman for pulling off a “haunted dollhouse” story, in “The Inner Room,” in a genuinely disturbing and non-clichéd way. You’ll never look at a dollhouse quite the same way again. Highly recommended if you can’t sleep and the midnight hour is upon you. Just keep the light on and that mobile phone handy…

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Comments

  1. This book sounds amazing! I’m a lover of horror short stories, so I’ll have to pick this one up. I haven’t read ‘The Wine-Dark Sea’ yet, but wonder if they could be connected to the sirens too? Great review as always, I love being able to pick up your recommendations before inevitably seeking them out on Amazon. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much! 🙂

    Like

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