Book review: The Wine-Dark Sea, by Robert Aickman, Faber & Faber
July 14, 2014 | 8:24 pm
This is one more in Faber’s series of reissues to mark the centenary of the birth of Robert Aickman, probably the best English horror writer since World War 2. However, it’s not a direct reissue of an original collection from Aickman’s lifetime. The Wine-Dark Sea was actually compiled from several other volumes in 1988, seven years after his death, and published by Arbor House/William Morrow in New York with an introduction by Peter Straub. As a summary of his entire work, its eight stories range all the way from 1951’s “The Trains” to 1980’s “The Fetch,” and are a very representative bunch, though perhaps skewed a little towards the most diagnostic embodiments of his worldview rather than the most immediately horrifying or unsettling. This is a straight reissue of that collection, which has been available from Faber since 2008, but still welcome, although ebook readers rather than print bibliophiles will hardly notice the difference in access.
Much of the collection hardly concerns horror at all, but rather the difficulties, as Straub says in his wonderfully considered and sensitive introduction, of “being a dedicated, delicately organised man named Robert Aickman.” The title story actually sees the protagonist escape the outer world into an idyll out of time by a trio of Circean enchantresses, who live apart from the “stupid Greeks” who have conquered reality by “changing our world into a place where it was impossible for us to live. It was impossible for them to live in such a world also, but that they were too stupid to know.”
Aickman’s worldview can get a little exasperating, even more so than his sometimes very similar predecessor H.P. Lovecraft. As Straub says, “for Aickman’s sensibility the contemporary world was a raucous, clanging din growing ever emptier of any real content. He frequently tells us that he abhors man in the mass and the pleasures of the vulgar crowd.” And I’m not convinced when Straub acquits Aiokman of the change of straight snobbery – a literary vice at least as old as Saint-Simon. The teasing mockery in a story like “Growing Boys” might be a lot easier to swallow if Aickman had more to offer than fastidious disdain. But as with Saint-Simon, the failings of the man are the making of the artist, and Aickman was often his own best critic. “Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen” is one of Aickman’s most effective dramatizations of an Aickmanesque protagonist Edmund’s difficulties with the modem world as typified by the telephone, with an especially horrible ending, which you could easily imagine transposed to the age of social media. An otherwise totally dissimilar horror writer, Nathan Ballingrud, has remarked that “horror fiction should harshly interrogate everything that makes us feel content.” If “Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen” or “Never Visit Venice” are Aickman’s warning notes to himself, they could hardly be more stark. Like the protagonist Grigg in the title story, “he had been corrupted by the very different life to which he had been so long accustomed, and much though he normally disliked it. He doubted whether by now he was capable of redemption from that commonplace existence, even by enchantment.”
”Into the Woods,” the final story and in a sense the most upbeat, resolves this dilemma in the most nearly positive manner, and shows how right Aickman was to style himself a writer of strange stories rather than overt horror fiction. There’s nothing alarming in the gradual departure of the heroine Margaret from ordinary walks of life into a new twilit realm of insomnia via the way station of the enigmatic Kurhus, but a lot that is very cryptic, evocative, profound. If you want to see what all the excitement of the Aickman centenary is all about, this is a very good place to start. Only expect the unexpected.
TeleRead rating: 4 out of 5