Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Into The Wood

Into the Wood by Robert Aickman. As appearing in The Wine-Dark Sea collection, Approx. 40 pages.

Approaching the Halloween season, I began harassing friends (as usual), whose opinions I hold in high regard, for horror recommendations. Not what would promise or guarantee the most fright, or shock, or blood and gore. Just what they thought was the apex of the genre. One friend's recommendation was to try Robert Aickman, whose stories fall much more firmly into the category of "strange" than horror. He also recommended that I begin with the short story "Into the Wood" which appears in The Wine-Dark Sea" collection. So, how did it fare? Well, again, it is not what you might think of as "horror". But I can say this...even though I finished reading it a day or two ago, it still hasn't left me, and I don't think it will any time soon.

Margaret Sawyer is a middle-aged Englishwoman, whose husband owns a construction firm. She is seemingly happy, and seemingly relegated to the mundane lifestyle of the housewife of decent means. This all changes when her husband takes a road-building contract in a remote area of Sweden.

On an outdoor excursion with some business associates and their wives, Margaret takes notice of a peculiar lodge in the woods. She is informed that in older times, it was a Kurhus, a sanatorium. Now, however, it seems to be inhabited by rather normal folk. With her husband heading off to Stockholm for more business dealing, Margaret opts to spend some time there, and finds that in fact nothing in there is normal, and, quite possibly, she might not leave there as what she might have termed her normal self.

For, you see, the Kurhus is a care center for insomniacs; true insomniacs, those who, from a certain point on, have never slept. At all. The tendencies and personality traits of these people make them pariahs in normal society. Most peculiar of all, the spend their evenings traversing a labyrinth of paths that surrounds the Kurhus. For what purpose, it is not clear.

A tale of insomniacs. That doesn't sound too chilling, right? So what makes Into the Wood stick with you? Aickman's English mastery, and his ability to weave a layered, intricate, moody tale. From the beginning, we don't find ourselves comfortable in Margaret's English home, and as soon as the narrative shifts to Sweden, the atmosphere becomes gloomy, and barren, just as the panorama is described. It is that same uncomfortable chill that clutches at your chest and doesn't let go. Events that transpire in and around the Kurhus feel insulated by the dense woods around them; isolated, and cut off from normal society. Completely intentional and meaningful.

My personal favorite aspect of Aickman's writing here is his intelligent wit. The best example is seen on the first page. Talking about Margaret's husband's business card (remember he is in construction), it lists his title as "Earth Mover"; even though, "he seemed to have neither the back muscles of Atlas nor the mental leverage of Archimedes". I mean, really, how can you top that.

Aickman uses clever tricks as well to make Margaret a much richer character than her outer appearance would imply. Pay careful attention to any physical cues when he is describing her movements. One good example is when her frustration over how she is supposed to dress leads to an offhand remark about the lack of eroticism in her marriage. You can see that repressed under the English housewife template is a simmering spirit. It makes you wonder; who are the ones that are actually asleep here? And, once one becomes truly awakened, will sleep, in the conventional sense, ever be had again?

The concept of insomnia itself is handled brilliantly. The average person would most likely find nothing wrong with the concept of perpetual wakefulness, but, strip away all these preconceived notions, and consider a lifetime without the respite of rest. It is no big surprise that Aickman can hint that perhaps this truly chronic insomnia may be at the root of legends of vampirism.

There are even some moments that are chilling in the classic sense. Any of the times we find ourselves on the twisting paths around the Kurhus, it taps into rooted fears of the dark, of the unknown, and of being lost.

If you like your horror with a catchy cover, a definable boogeyman, and an ending with a ribbon on it (even a bloody one), well, there's nothing wrong with that. But probably Aickman's work won't be for you. However, I definitely recommend everyone give one or two of his stories a whirl.

And so, I leave you with this line from the story, which seems to sum it up so well:

"Losing one's way was largely an act of intention."

Side Note: Just an odd mention, and I don't know if this appears like this in the British printings. For some reason, after the first few pages, the name of Margaret's husband changes from Harry to Henry. Is this an editorial oversight or a dimensional shift? We may never know.

Score: 9.5/10

No comments:

Post a Comment