THE DEEP ONES: "The Hospice" by Robert Aickman
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"The Hospice" by Robert Aickman
Discussion begins on March 19th.
First published in Cold Hand in Mine (1975)
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
Cold Hand in Mine
The Dark Descent
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural
Sorry for the delay in posting! I'll be reading from the Scribners edition of Cold Hand in Mine.
All is definitely not well in this story right from the start, with Maybury getting lost "at the back of beyond" and being attacked by something that might be a cat - although it certainly doesn't act like one. Aickman knows that the reader is probably expecting old dark house tropes when Maybury stumbles upon the hospice, yet the author cunningly proceeds in a different direction, one that gradually becomes more and more skewed. This technique works quite well, and the sense that something dreadful is just about to occur is palpable. The dining room scene, in particular, is a masterpiece of implied threat that remains naggingly vague while still unsettling the reader's nerves.
The turning point into outright menace occurs when Maybury is unable to press the starter on his car. It's not that the car has a mechanical problem; it's just that he can't start it. There is no reason for the vaguely discernible, golem-like Cromie (of the "huge, badly misshapen, yellow hands") to be called, except to intimidate Maybury, who, after this scene, has effectively surrendered to whatever his stay at the hospice will bring.
The idea of the adults being treated like children also contributes to the off-kilter scenario. Perhaps Maybury, "in doubt about his place in the universe", yearns to start over again as a child. I think it's more likely, however, that the hospice is the nightmare of a child dreaming he's a grownup.
I think Lucas must be dead.
I can't accept Kenton's hypothesis of "a child dreaming he's a grownup," because too many of Maybury's preoccupations are characteristically adult. The inability to start the car is one of many dream-like happenings, including the evaporation of the "cat," the eagerness of Cecile Celimena, and Bannard's change of appearance.
A reader might hastily identify the midnight scream as the basis for Falkner's exposition:
"There was an incident here last night. A death. We do not talk about such things. Our guests do not expect it. ... Such things still upset me. ... None the less I must not think about that. My immediate task is to dispose of the body. While the guests are preoccupied. To spare them all knowledge, all pain."But it seems to me that the death about which Falkner must not think is that of Maybury himself, the preoccupied guest -- who then departs in the back of a hearse. Having reached the bus stop, "he should not have to wait long" until his residual consciousness reaches some point at which its individuality is finally exhausted.
In 21st-century American English, "hospice" denotes a facility for palliative care of the dying. Would that have been the common usage for Aickman in the 1970s UK?
This was a terrifically creepy story, with any number of episodes that would stand out on their own as deeply unsettling.
Oh, yes - I agree that Maybury being dead is the best explanation. Still, the forced infantilism in the story is curious. Aickman drops many clues as to others amongst cast of characters being dead, especially in a number of Bannard's cryptic comments, such as "I'm over my first beauty sleep" or "It's bad for me to see things like that. I'm upset by them" as he averts his gaze from Mayard's wound like he doesn't need any reminders of...
I think that Aickman deliberately chose the term "hospice" due to its unsettling incongruity with the place in the story. A hostel, inn, or even a hotel would make sense, but a hospice? It contributes to keeping the reader off-kilter.
The OED defines "hospice" as 1) A house of rest and entertainment for pilgrims, travellers, or strangers, esp. one belonging to a religious order, as those of the monks of St. Bernard and St. Gotthard on the alps, also, generally, a "home" for the destitute or the sick. 2) a hostel for students. 3) A nursing-home for the care of the dying or the incurably ill." Hmmmmmm.....
The forced infantilism seems to be of a piece with the postmortem psychic degeneration to me. It's also a reasonably common nightmare element.
The idea that Lucas is a child dreaming of being an adult is clever, but doesn't seem to hold up under review. Particularly adult (rather than child's-imagination-of-adult) are his reflexive consideration of people's behavior in terms of his business expectations, his appetite for beer and coffee, and his sense of reassurance at the hotel-normalcy of the dormitory part of the hospice.
The emphasis on food and sex (Mulligan and Cecile) suggests that the mission of the hospice is to express and/or exhaust any residual carnal appetites of the deceased, so that they can be released from identity with their bodies. (My immediate task is to dispose of the body. While the guests are preoccupied. To spare them all knowledge, all pain.) When Lucas leaves in the hearse, he is "with the coffin" but not in it, the designs of the hospice having been realized.
As a matter of fact, he had never in his life lost all control, and he was pretty sure by now that. for better or for worse, he was incapable of it.
>7 KentonSem: ETA
Yes, I knew that the third definition was the most recent, but I don't know how recent or how widely-received the denotation has been.
The picture in the hospice on the first-floor landing ("a full-size reproduction of a chieftain in a scarlet tartan by Raeburn") was probably this one ("The Macnab"):
I enjoyed the low-key black humor in the story. Such as, "there had been no question of ingratiation or cuddling up" by the attacking "cat", or at the very end when "one of the undertaker's men said that he should not have to wait long" for a bus. Roommate Bannard provides some unnerving comedy with his odd comments and gestures, too.
Well, that was certainly weird, albeit not exactly what I usually think of as Weird.
I was all the time expecting some horrifying revelation or shocking denoument - Maybury to be next night's dinner or something. The actual end thus took me with a species of surprise.
If Maybury is dead, and the Hospice is some sort of way station in the afterlife, it's curious that Maybury is last in and first out (unless, I guess, there's supposed to be some sort of point here about the corporate cog Maybury being particularly detached from life to start with - but that seems rather too pat).
If they are all dead however, it does add a new light on Cécile's statement she couldn't live without the Hospice. Ex hypothesi, not with it either.
But I think I prefer the idea that Maybury is not in a realm of the dead but one of dream - an un-Dunsanian dreamland for people more prosaic than Kuranes. A reviewer described the events at the Hopsice as being "like a very bad dream", which I think is spot on.
I love this Straub quote from the wikipedia article on Aickman:
From the first I understood that he was a deeply original artist. This in no way implies that I understood Aickman immediately because I didn't. Sometimes I would look up at the end of a story, feeling that the whole thing had just twisted itself inside out and turned into smoke - I had blinked, and missed it all. It took me a little while to learn to accept this experience as valuable in itself and to begin to see how the real oddness of most of Aickman's work is directly related to its psychological, even psychoanalytic, acuity. Unconscious forces move the stories itself, as well as the characters, and what initially looks like a distressing randomness of detail and event is its opposite - everything is necessary, everything is logical, but not at all in a linear way. To pull off this kind of dream-like associativeness, to pack it with the menace that results from a narrative deconstruction of the notion of "ordinary reality", to demonstrate again and again in excellent prose (no dumb experimentation or affectation here) that our lives are literally shaped by what we do not understand about ourselves, requires a talent that yokes together an uncommon literary sensitivity with a lush, almost tropical inventiveness.
Maybe it helps to think of Aickman's world as a mid-twentieth century, middle-class, English "Twin Peaks"?
Whilst the telling of the story is never obscure, and we always know how Maybury is feeling (and experience those feelings ourselves), what actually happened is not clear. I don't think it's even difficult, like Henry James (in his very different way) it's ambiguous and obscure.
I've had a look at a few reviews of this story online, and some people say it's one of the scariest they've ever read, while others lay emphasis on the comedy aspect. There definitely is comedy, albeit a comedy of embarrassment and social awkwardness that seems not just peculiarly English, but specifically of the times when Aickman wrote his stories, the 1960's and 70's.
My thinking about Maybury's behavour is that the Hospice isn't, to him, a Gothic pile. He doesn't enter it on his mettle as if it were Dracula's castle. It should be an ordinary middle-class establishment and he should fit right in (he's himself middle-class enough to have gone to boarding school, although perhaps his current job - that now rather antique term "commercial traveller"? - is one that he feels is beneath him) But no, the rug is pulled out from under him straight away, and his diffidence and his unwillingness to make a fuss merely work to entangle him more deeply.
To my mind, Maybury's infantilisation (or institutionalisation - thinking of that school again) just seems too in tune with the way Englishmen in literary fiction generally behave, for me to go along 100% with paradoxalpha's post mortem theory.
Assuming that he - and all the guests - are alive allows the possibility that the strangely transformed Bannard (shades of Jekyll and Hyde, or an anticipation of David Lynch?) is actually a murderer, specifically a "sex murderer" in the language of the times - and also that the undertaker's parting words may carry an undertone of threat - of course nearly all the words spoken to Maybury are oblique or obscurely threatening, or at least seem so.
Of course it's Maybury's diffidence that got him into trouble in the first place, in his following the works manager's directions against his better judgement.
it's curious that Maybury is last in and first out
That does pose a conundrum for the "dead" theory. What makes Maybury so special? Maybe staying is optional?
Thanks for the Straub quote. Similarly, Neil Gaiman wrote, ""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. Yes, the key vanished – but I don't know if he was holding a key in his hand to begin with."
I thought of Twin Peaks a couple of times while reading this. The vibe is definitely there.
Good point in equating the story's infantilisation with institutionalisation. I think I'll still subscribe to the "dead" theory, though. Even the protagonist's name makes sense if you consider what his status would be after the "bus" picks him up.
>15 KentonSem: That does pose a conundrum for the "dead" theory. What makes Maybury so special? Maybe staying is optional?
I don't see it as a particular complication. If he is in fact dead, then the other "people" in the story may just be decomposing elements of his psyche. The staff are superego fragments, Bannard ("of about Maybury's age") an aspect of his id, etc. Maybury "himself" would just be the ego on its way to full expiration.
May ... bury. Why didn't I catch that?
A very interesting thread, thus far I've elected to follow along without reading the story itself.
1 - Really like the idea of a story taking on a quite different meaning when read in a different cultural context. Not surprising as a general thought, but quite striking in this instance. I'm thinking of housefulofpaper's suggested reading as a middle-class English Twin Peaks, compared to paradoxosalpha's reading as disintegration of Self (whether read psychoanalytically or not). I find each compelling and neither one more "real" than the other, but quite different.
Would love to have a collection of such stories, whether Weird or not, and see how what's on the page filters through different cultural and temporal lenses. Fascinating.
2 - That last summary of >16 paradoxosalpha: puts me in mind of the film Jacob's Ladder, the screenplay to which included an interesting layer of mysticism attributed to Jakob Boehme. "Hell is your soul's unwillingness to let go of it's life on Earth", or something like that.
A strange story indeed.
I'm inclined to think Maybury is dead -- but when was the death? When the "cat" attacks? When Bannard says "None of us knows" how Maybury's wife will get along without him? When he hears the scream? When he refuses the fairly overt sexual invitation of Cecile with no emotion but annoyance?
I agree about the creepy infantilization aspect in the dining room. With the huge meal sizes, I was reminded of the Chinese idea of "hungry ghosts" though I don't think Aickman had that mind though, as >8 paradoxosalpha: suggests, there seems to be an element of unsatisfied desires and fears of the dead here.
There is an element of what I call "social horror" here, stories where following social conventions force a protagonist into a course of action he finds it too impolite to resist -- usually until it's too late. These stories are full of ironic language and menace often implied in dialogue. The only other specific literary examples that come to mind is Thomas Ligotti's "Our Temporary Supervisor" and Ramsey Campbell's "The Winner". And, oddly, I'd put the John Belushi-Dan Ackroyd movie Neighbors in this category.
Here's a coincidence: British publisher Faber & Faber had announced paperback reissues of some Aickman novels and short story collections, and the cover of Cold Hand in Mine illustrates "The Hospice".
Those look nice, although I wish they were HC. So far, only Dark Entries is listed on Amazon.uk. I put in on my wish list.
I'm fortunate enough to have the recent Tartarus Press hardbacks of the story collections (and Aickman's autobiography, The Attempted Rescue) but I'll be buying the novels.
>10 paradoxosalpha: The picture of the McNab reminded me of a visit to Killin in Scotland. The River Dochart flows through the village. As the river approaches the village there is a set of rapids called the Falls of Dochart. Just downstream of the Falls of Dochart there is a bridge. From the bridge there is a gate to a flight of stone steps that gives access to a mid-river island on the downstream side of the crossing. About twenty yards from the steps there is a wall with an arched opening in the middle. On the left-hand side of the opening is a sign. On the sign is displayed the message, “Clan McNab Burial Ground: Keys available from the Tourist Information Centre”.
One of the fascinating points about this story for me is the evocation of a time when it was easier to isolate the main character of a story in readiness for subjecting him or her to some unsettling experiences. It reminded me of my childhood and the simpler time when one set out on a journey with a list of instructions for the journey: follow the B233 for seven miles; take the right turn at the Esso garage; etc…
The last journey I remember making under these conditions was in the 1990s. I was heading for a hotel in Devon (where the cream comes from). The instructions I had for the journey were, fly to Bristol airport; pick up a hire car; drive south towards Exeter; bypass Exeter and head west on the A30 for X miles; take a left onto a B road; about three hundred yards along the B road take a left onto a side road at a junction with a big tree; carry on for three miles and on your right you will see a tree lined lane that leads to the hotel.
It was after 10pm when I arrived at the hotel. The hotel was timber built with an old wooden porch built at the front door. In the porch were raincoats, wellingtons and other paraphernalia of holidays in the country. The only light that was lit was a single bulb in the porch. I was anticipating not being able to get in.
Luckily the rest of my stay at the hotel was not as similar to Maybury’s stay at the hospice as was my journey getting there.
I thought you might be interested to know that a 30-minute radio adaptation of Aickman's story 'Ringing the Changes' is on digital channel BBC Radio 4 Extra at 6:00 pm (British Summer Time) this coming Sunday (29th) - it's repeated at midnight. It dates from 2000 and it written by Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss (one half of The League of Gentlemen).
An off-air recording of an older (1980) adaptation, from Canadian series Nightfall, is readily available on the net.
That story is giving me the creeps!
>24 housefulofpaper: That story is giving me the creeps!
Do not quote me on this, but I think that is what Aickman intended.
>24 housefulofpaper: I have just set an alarm on my phone for "Ringing the Changes". I find that strangely appropriate. Thank you for letting me know about the Sunday broadcast.
>27 housefulofpaper: Oh! Thank you. It had me a bit spooked too. The place would be a great place for a creepy story. It used to be some prince's hunting lodge apparently.
>24 housefulofpaper: I listen to "Ringing the Changes" and enjoyed it. Thank you for letting me know it was on.
I'm glad you enjoyed it, I did too. With a bit of luck I've managed to record it onto my Sky box.
(I've recently found out that this story was dramatised for BBC TV in 1968, in an experimental colour 6-part anthology series - all wiped and gone forever, alas).
Laird Barron recently posted an in-depth essay on "The Hospice" to the Weird Fiction Review:
More on The Hospice:
(I got this from the Aickman Facebook group. Didn't see any Rooskie agents there but you never can tell... https://www.facebook.com/groups/236163389788645/ )
Which reminds me, did you hear about the feller that works down at the livery stable? He lost this year's spelling bee when the final word was 'hospice'...
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