Friday, July 31, 2015

Aickman's Hospice

I am a big fan of creepy stories. No, I’m not into Stephen King or Dean Koontz or their choleric forerunners: Lovecraft and (alas often) Poe among them. I will take M.R. James though, even though he sits uneasily on the fence between baroque excess and darker understatement. But how not to love “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”? I’ll take Stoker too (yes, yes, Dracula, but read The Squaw). Among my all-time favorites, however, are the more nuanced but nevertheless not unusual suspects; say Ambrose Bierce’s "The Boarded Window," W.W. Jacobs’s "The Monkey’s Paw," H.H. Munro’s "Shredni Vashtar," or that great eerie masterpiece by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. I’ll also take The Little Stranger, a chilling novel by Sarah Waters.

So it was with interest that I recently picked up a reissue of Robert Aickman’s oddly described “strange stories,” this one a collection called Cold Hand in Mine. I liked the description “strange stories.” I loved the title of the collection. I was intrigued by Neil Gaiman’s blurb on the cover: “Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I'm not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully.” And to top it all off, I was coming to Calcutta, which along with London is one of the two best places in the world for reading “strange stories.” After all, it was in Calcutta that I was introduced to the bhuter golpo or ghost story — and both British colonial and “indigenous” versions (especially the kind located in railway stations or run-down mansions just outside Calcutta) still give me a most delicious case of the creeps.

Aickman was an interesting guy. He was a founder of the Inland Waterways Association, which oversaw the rejuvenation of the inland canal system in England. You can read more about him here. I had heard of him because he had edited the first eight volumes of the Fontana Book of Great Ghost StoriesHis stories have been largely out of print, and now they have been reissued.

So there I was, reading Aickman, and I was hooked. Delightfully creepy and yes, decidedly strange. I was so happy that I logged into my Amazon account and bought a Kindle version of The Wine-Dark Sea, another collection of his stories. Aickman clearly had fun writing these, I thought, as I most happily careened from one strange story to another. I put up a Facebook link to Cold Hand in Mine, and continued to read. All the stories are perfectly readable, most are truly downright weird, and some of the weird ones are really excellent.

Then I ran into "The Hospice."


This was a different experience altogether.

I read it at 1 am a couple of nights ago. Last night I woke up at 3 in the morning and read it again. Then I pretended to go back to sleep, but whom was I kidding?

Here’s how I felt reading Hospice. Imagine crouching on the floor in a corner before an unchained Doberman. You can hear it growl, but you cannot see it; you are blindfolded. You are forced to caress its silken flanks as you wait and flinch, flinch and wait. (My irate dog-lover friends, you can substitute the furry weight of a tarantula placed in your open palm, its legs sliding through your fingers.)  If some equivalent of these images does not come to you as you read Hospice, I will eat the only hat I have.

Not that there are any tarantulas or Dobermans to be seen in Hospice. It’s just that a man named Maybury happens to be lost, driving home from his office somewhere in the West Midlands. Something feral bites him in the leg as he gets out to ineptly look for directions in the growing dusk. He gets back in, drives on, sees a sign for the Hospice, with its promise of “good food and some accommodation.” So far —- except possibly for that bite — it could the start of a million horror stories. But the dread here comes a-creeping, (always) namelessly and (for a while) quite soundlessly, but above all strangely.

The Waiting Room,  1959, by George Tooker, Smithsonian American Art Museum
In fact, the two closest connections I feel to Hospice have nothing directly to do with the horror genre. The first is almost a methodological connection to surrealist painting, perhaps one of those day-night canvases that so unnerve you, by Magritte. Or perhaps it’s something waiting to happen behind one of the distant arches in a Di Chirico painting. It reminds me most of all of The Waiting Room, by George Tooker. There is a backward loop here again to the short story: Tooker's work features on the cover of Alberto Manguel’s wonderful edited collection, Black Water.

My second connection is to one of my great favorite modern novels, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. This book was largely panned when it first appeared, but this, in my opinion, is his greatest work. The entire book is an endless, labyrinthine, slightly nauseating dream. Hospice could be a terrifying chapter in Ishiguro’s book. (It would be, unquestionably, its most terrifying chapter.)

Ah, but what befalls our protagonist, the somewhat irritable and slightly apprehensive Maybury? Nothing really, to begin with. He enters the hospice, and settles down for dinner. There appears to be great interest in feeding the guests very well. The main course is an “enormous pile” of turkey, “steaming slightly, and also seeping slightly with a colourless, oily fluid.” ("Ew!" says my niece Rohini.) He does observe, quite inadvertently, that the other guests appeared to be “one and all eating as if their lives depended on it.” And then, of course, Maybury must stay the night. It will be a strange night.

The horror short story genre notwithstanding, The Hospice perhaps best brings to mind the great British horror film Dead of Night. Like Hospice, Dead of Night invokes the growing nightmare of being shut up in a weird house with odd people. But the resemblance ends there. The sheer subliminal horror of Hospice shares neither the ornate excesses of Dead of Night nor the slick recursion of its ending. (That magnificently self-referential ending, as it so happens, inspired a theory of the universe). Along with its protagonist, the story will let you off, disheveled, scared and out of breath, on an eerily familiar street under a grey sky, wondering just how you got there and with the feeling of half-awake relief that a nightmare has just ended. Or has it.

Robert Aickman, "The Hospice," in Cold Hand in Minereissued 2014.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Calcutta Time

It's 4.30 in the morning in Calcutta, and I can't sleep.

I can't sleep for a good reason, which is that my few days here are invariably tinged with some jetlag, accentuated by the need to get work done in New York when the Americans are up and about. But this strange late-night early-morning transition has always been part of my life in Calcutta. As a college student, such transitional experiences --- followed by bunking the morning classes --- were an invariable part of my routine. Often it was nerdy: I still associate Lagrangean multipliers with a faint whiff of candle or kerosene. Sometimes friends stayed over, so I associate those nights with the tail-end of intense conversations. Sometimes there was a book. (Recently I found my battered screenplay --- with photos! --- of La Dolce Vita and understood why Anita Ekberg is also associated with humid Calcutta nights.) But it was always half-magical, and if you've done the same (or perhaps even if you haven't), you will understand what I mean.

Now, almost 40 years later, does it feel the same? Not really. For one thing, I can't light a cigarette automatically at 4 am. Or I can, but shouldn't. I can't walk out into the little balcony I was lucky to have, in an isolated part of the house, to smell the night. I don't have any beautiful Scandinavian women, or screenplays with them inside. I do have email and Google and that irritating Facebook, and I'm not a Luddite. But something's missing; no, not missing: mixed-up.

At these times, if I have nothing else to do, I think about what Calcutta means to me now. I'm usually here on work, and to see Ma. I see friends. We go drinking in The Other Room or Olipub. If it's winter, I go to Presidency or Jadavpur or the ISI and participate in a conference or two. I wander around bookstores where you can still get a particular mix of Wodehouse, Christie, Robbins, MacLean or Blyton that you will find nowhere in the world. (I don't read any of this stuff anymore, but I did and it's all part of that same vanishing feeling.) I like to eat chicken-anda rolls at the Triangular Park, and I like to see my cousins and assorted mashis and pishis. And most of all, I love being at home and listening to sounds coming from the kitchen, to a medley of familiar voices that come and go, and the eternal roar of the cricket commentary in another room. Or if it's night, listening to the occasional truck rumble by (God, this building actually shakes) and something rustling in the leaves outside in a faintly sinister way.

It's 5 am. I'm making editorial decisions at the American Economic Review. I'm sending an email about student admissions at NYU. I'm writing a letter for someone's tenure decision. I posted something on Facebook. I'm preparing a talk. I text the kids. I'm staring at the screen of this laptop. Yet part of me is suspended way, way back in time. There's my sepia Chaplin poster staring at me, there's the little metal ashtray with a million crooked cigarette butts in it. There's A4 sheets with my scrawly class notes and --- wonder of wonders! --- carbon paper. There's a setting moon, the banana tree, the musty smells and muffled sounds, and the faintest glow of early dawn.  And it's all braided together by the koel starting up, as she always does at this time of year.