Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 30: Good Fare, Some Accommodation

What specifically the above book cover is meant to communicate, as the image pertains either to the book's contents or to Robert Aickman in general, is difficult to figure. Granted, when it comes to Aickman's stories I tend to bounce around, never reading a collection straight through but rather picking among the various tables of content for a title that catches my eye, or for a story I've heard something interesting about but haven't yet gotten around to, so maybe somewhere in Cold Hand in Mine there is in fact a story about a beaked and handless armored hedgehog soldier and his dead Indian chief pal having adventures on an alien planet (maybe "Pages From a Young Girl's Journal," I haven't read that one yet), but even if not, and even though I doubt this ever entered anyone's mind along the road to publishing this particular edition of Aickman's classic 1975 collection, the very inexplicability of the image would seem to be, or could be said to be, the whole point. Aickman's reputation as a horror writer, apart from his quite frankly exquisite prose talents, rests on his special gift for creating haunting stories whose eeriness lingers because the reader's ability to to coherently describe what he or she has just read will always be very sorely tested. By which I mean, describe it in terms of "This happened and then this happened, and it all happened because of this." Aickman will not allow this.

If you've never read Aickman -- and if not what's your deal, I've pushed him on you guys often enough, God knows -- you shouldn't take the preceding paragraph to mean that a typical Aickman story features a guy sitting in a museum when suddenly a unicorn walks up to him and they eat peas together THE END. Although absurdity does play a part, even a large part, in his fiction, it is not merely absurd, nor does the absurdity overwhelm the story (though the most surrealistic Aickman story I've read, "Growing Boys," comes close). These elements, which are invariably unnerving in ways that are not always easy to pinpoint, are woven through the lives of his characters, even if only for a brief period of time. It may only be a day out of the decades of life to be lived by a given character, but as Aickman describes these strange -- and that's the word; it is, in fact, Aickman's preferred description -- events they can briefly seem, if not natural, then at least among those things that sometimes people have to deal with. Somehow, Aickman describes the strangest occurrences with a very precise verisimilitude.

Readers familiar with Aickman will probably find that description to be inaccurate as a general description of his body of work, but you must forgive me because at the moment my head is full of one particular story of his, one of his best-known and most-anthologized, called "The Hospice." And I do think the previous paragraph contains a workable description of this, one of his genuine masterpieces. Writing about "The Hospice" presents two problems, one of them being a problem that would spring up when writing about anything by Aickman: one is, how do you describe the indescribable without killing the impact for those who don't know the story; and two, how do you write about a story that you (me) honestly thinks is perfect? Given that opinion, it's entirely clear to me that there is nothing I can say about "The Hospice" that would not be better and more clearly, and I don't use that word ironically, expressed by the reading of "The Hospice" itself. I've read many stories by Robert Aickman over the years, and it's just now, with this story, that I found the one that is plainly the best introduction to his work for newcomers. This isn't to say it's my favorite -- that honor still goes to "The Inner Room," my favorite horror story of all time -- but to understand what Aickman is all about, "The Hospice" is where you should turn.

I will continue my pattern of beginning a new paragraph by referring to the contents of the previous one by assuring you that none of the above is my way of saying "And that's why I'm not going to describe 'The Hospice' to you," though my fear of ruining the experience remains. Nevertheless: Lucas Maybury has finished work at a location that, the reader gathers, is not familiar to him. Wishing he could simply "follow a route 'given' by one of the automobile organizations," he is instead bullied by the manager of the location to take a supposedly shorter route home, one whose benefits have been proven -- again, supposedly -- time and again. But Maybury experiences none of those benefits, and instead is soon lost, and his car is running out of gas. He gets out of his car and walks a bit, and is soon attacked what he, in the darkness, assumes is a cat. It bites his leg, and he kicks back savagely. "The strange sequel was silence," Aickman writes.

Eventually he finds, as you do, a place -- there are no other houses or buildings of any sort in sight -- where he might find food, gas, a phone, something. There is a sign at the entrance that reads: "The Hospice -- Good Fare -- Some Accommodation." Upon entering and asking for food -- and being followed into the restroom by a white-jacketed server while he quickly washes up -- he is shown to the dining room, the walls of which are covered with heavy, massive hangings, the reason for these being "possibly noise reduction":

It is true that knives and forks make a clatter, but there appeared to be no other immediate necessity for costly noise abatement, as the diners were all extremely quiet; which at first seemed the more unexpected in that most of them were seated, fairly closely packed, at a single long table running down the central axis of the room. Maybury soon reflected, however, that if he had been wedged together with a party of total strangers, he might have found little to say to them either.

This was not put to the test. On each side of the room were four smaller tables, set endways against the walls, every table set for a single person, even though big enough to accommodate four, two on either side: and at one of these, Maybury was settled by the handsome lad in the white jacket.

Immediately, soup arrived.

And so the strangeness begins. The food, which is served in enormous quantities, seems to be good enough, but Maybury's inability to finish a course drives the woman serving him to scold him and smash his plate on the floor. He notices, too, upon leaving the dining room that one other diner is attached by a string to a rail that runs around the room. Maybury's pleas to Falkner, the manager of the hospice, to help him find gas, seem to fall on sympathetic ears, yet he comes away from it all without any gas. There is no phone, a bit of information Maybury doesn't believe but he can't do anything about it. The potential for a sexual encounter with a strange, beautiful, "tragic" woman he first saw across the dining room tempts him in a way that belies his worries that his wife Angela will be horribly worried if he's not home soon.
It's all very subtle, and the eeriness is almost more of a nuisance, certainly as Aickman describes Maybury's reaction to it, than anything else. Along the way, and as the strangeness deepens -- and you are not wrong if you believe that Maybury will probably be forced to accept a room for the night -- bits of the kind of man Maybury is are revealed. At one point, through Falkner's attempts to be accommodating, Maybury is paired off with a sad, shrunken man named Bannard, who is delighted by the company as he is, he says, quite lonely. Bannard, a true believer in whatever The Hospice is, is clearly a long-term resident -- is his apparent lack of life experience a result of his being there so long, or is he there because it's the only place he can exist without hassle? Either way, he quizzes Maybury with great interest:

"Tell us about it," said Bannard. "Tell us exactly what it's like to be a married man. Has it changed your whole life? Transformed everything?"

"Not exactly," [said Maybury]. "In any case, I married years ago."

"So now there is someone else. I understand."

"No, actually, there is not."

"Love's old sweet song still sings to you?"

"If you like to put it like that, yes. I love my wife. Besides she's ill. And we have a son. There's him to consider too."

"How old is your son?"

"Nearly sixteen."

"What colour are his hair and eyes?"

"Really, I'm not sure. No particular colour. He's not a baby, you know."

"Are his hands still soft?"

"I shouldn't think so."

"Do you love your son, then?"

"In his own way, yes, of course."

A terrifically strange conversation -- funny, pathetic, unnerving, revealing. It reveals a coldness in Maybury, an absence of affectionate emotion, but what does that "In his own way," as opposed to the clearer and more appropriate "In my own way" reveal? Nothing too good, I'd wager, but it's a very curious bit of phrasing. This is the other thing about Aickman -- if his stories make no logical sense, that is not because he's ignorant of actual humanity.

The ending is one of Aickman's best, and I won't say a word about it. The story comes together, to the degree that it does come together, in a way that was entirely unexpected to me, but unquestionably right on target. It also, in the way Aickman goes about this sort of thing, moves the story from an ambiguous strangeness into legitimate, yet still deeply ambiguous, horror. It is, as I've said, perfect, the kind of ending that all great short stories have, one that is completely of a piece with what has come before, and crystallizes everything into a final paragraph that is inevitable and powerful.

I was talking to a Arion Berger about this story when she was considering covering it herself, and I had to admit I'd never read it. Considering the place "The Hospice" has among Aickman's work, this, I said, was a little bit like a Faulkner fan admitting that they'd never read As I Lay Dying. In retrospect, this was an interesting comparison. And you shouldn't assume that I've just now accidentally revealed too much, but then again, who knows?


John said...

Ah, one of my favorite horror subjects. But absurdity, implying a sophomoric reveling in the unconventional for amusement's sake, isn't the word I'd use here. Any absurd quality in Aickman's stories, I think, is probably a side effect of the conflict between the eerieness and incongruity of their stranger details, and his unfailingly dry, considered narrative tone, which maintains a coolly detached, sometimes wittily acerbic commentary on developments, even as they grow progressively unusual and perhaps sinister.

The "cat attack" in this story offers a good example for consideration, I think. Whereas a typical horror writer would get this seemingly minor episode out of the way as straightforwardly as possible--cat bites guy, guy kicks cat, cat flees screeching into the night, story continues--that's almost exactly the opposite of how the scene is rendered by Aickman.

Most significantly, maybe, it's never clear that there is in fact a cat, or that the wound sustained is a simple cat bite. Indeed, the amount of pain and physical trauma involved, as the story eventually makes clear, suggests something substantially worse than any cat-inflicted injury I've ever heard of.

So right off the bat, things are starting to seem a little off-kilter. And this is a natural consequence of the inherent ambiguity--intentional ambiguity, importantly, as opposed to the unintended ambiguity of lax and lazy writing--of Aickman's style: he rarely, if ever tells stories in terms of plain facts set in stone. Rather, he relates proceedings from the standpoint of an imperfect observer--as all of us ultimately are, though too little storytelling actually accounts for this--whose not entirely definitive perceptions and conclusions remind us sometimes of our own, especially when we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations.

(Note: this "imperfect observer" shouldn't be confused with the fashionable literary gimmick of the "unreliable narrator", a conceit I generally have little to no time for.)

Anyway, I might try reading this story again at some point and coming back here if I have anything else to say about it, as the whole is a bit of a muddle in my mind now. But before I go I'll add that I don't agree that conversation necessarily reveals a coldness on Maybury's part; a certain guardedness, perhaps, but only as much as seems reasonable in conversation with a somewhat nosy, and strange, stranger, I would think.

ptatleriv said...

Was laid up with a stomach bug yesterday and figured it was as good a time as any to catch up with Aickman. On your recommendation, I went for this one first. I have little to add to the discussion (still head-swimmy from the bug) but: WOW. One of those stories (and, I'm assuming, writers) that is staggeringly direct in the writing but fathoms deep in its effect.

You don't mention it here but, man, that Cromie scene... hilarious and unsettling.