"Aickman at his best was this century's most profound writer of what we call horror stories and he, with greater accuracy, called strange stories." -- Peter Straub, "Introduction" to The Wine-Dark Sea
This is my first exposure to Robert Aickman's work, so I can't corroborate the truth of Straub's claim. But I can say the man's good, really good. Sure, the quality of these eight stories is uneven. "Into the Wood" is perfection. "The Trains", "Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen", and "The Inner Room" aren't far behind. "The Wine-Dark Sea" is gorgeous, and "The Fetch" is beautifully written. Heck, even my two least favorite stories in this collection--"Never Visit Venice" and "Growing Boys"--are worthy reads. It's in "Growing Boys" that Aickman uncorks my favorite description of someone we're supposed to find lacking: "Phineas, seeping tiredly over the settee at the end of the day's absence, was like an immensely long anchovy, always with the same expression at the end of it." Priceless. My main complaint with "Never Visit Venice" and "Growing Boys" is that Aickman reacts curmudgeonly about "those crazy kids these days" and modernity in general. There's a current of Steppenwolf
-like cultural elitism running through some of the stories. To Aickman's credit, even the bitterness is depicted flawlessly.
If you want splatter-punk, look elsewhere. (I'll let a certain scene in "Growing Boys" slide.) Aickman's not your guy. His works are subtle. You might not even notice when the tension begins to build, but suddenly your general sense of unease becomes full blown anxiety. "The Trains" offers the perfect example of tension building to a boiling point. I loved "The Trains" damn near as much as I did "Into the Wood".
With subtlety, Aickman pairs mystery. He refuses to fill in the blanks for readers. I never knew exactly what had just happened. The intentional obscurity frustrated the crap out of me at first. Now I'm a convert to Aickman's way of spinning a really weird tale.
Recommended highly for literary horror fans who don't mind having secrets kept from them. Thanks to the Literary Darkness group for pointing me toward this one!