sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2014-01-05 01:56 am

That's at the end. You'll be there soon

Courtesy of [ profile] ashlyme: The Cicerones (2002). I have not read the original story by Robert Aickman, but it reminds me once again that I should know more of his work than "The Stains," much as I love it. This one is an even more indirect narrative, barely more than a suggestive sketch of encounters, but it chills.

Mark Gatiss looks terrible in a pencil moustache, but it suits his English traveler1 with his Brylcreemed hair and his spotted scarf, his Baedeker and his insistence on getting into the Cathedral of Saint Bavon in time to see its famous painting of Lazarus. The time is unspecified, as is the setting—perhaps mid-century, as perhaps somewhere in Central Europe. (The sign on the cathedral door appears to be written in Czech.) Patrick Leigh Fermor might have walked through this country on his way to Constantinople, but he would have known at least a few words of the language and he wouldn't have treated an ancient sacred place as just one more box to tick on his tourist's progress. He would have said a prayer for the young couple on the train (her so heavily pregnant, fingers running a constant rosary). Gatiss' traveler doesn't know what to do with people. His small talk is evasive and unconvincing, his smile an embarrassed grimace. We're not so sure he knows what to do with art, either.

In fact, we're not sure about much in this story, which is why it works. In a conventional tale of the supernatural, each of the cicerones of Saint Bavon's would reflect or challenge something about the man they purport to guide, but nothing here is direct, only unsettling. A slim young gentleman with dove-colored gloves and the local accent discomfits the traveler by referring to the cathedral as "holy, holy, holy," an expression of the numinous that echoes like a threat. A brash American youth in a T-shirt as tight as Stanley Kowalski's whisks the dropcloth off a painting he didn't want to see—the bloody martyrdom of a saint—but his provocative assessment of the traveler is even worse. A silent altar boy with the red mouth and dark brows of a fairy tale points him toward a clock, which is made of stone. And at last an English boy dressed in the same oddly bright, rich garments as the altar boy and the heavy, faceless figure the traveler saw or thought he saw slumped in the pulpit like an optical illusion or a late delivery from the Cadaver Synod emerges from behind a catacomb door carved caveat intra muros tacet desine fata deum flecti and offers at last to show the traveler some of the treasures of the cathedral he came to see: "Would you like to see one of the other bishops? There might not be another chance." The traveler, who lives by his timetable, who was so impatient with the cathedral's inconvenient hours, cannot refuse. Turning back would acknowledge a wasted day, even when every instinct of the horror genre screams at him to get out before God knows what. And so deeper he goes into the crypt, led by his insistent, insouciant, unexplained countryman. We are encouraged to expect a nasty shock: some whiplash turn, some appropriate punishment for an unimaginative art-seeker. High in the hollow-lit stained glass of the chapel, we saw a blood-red devil with wasp wings, seizing a pale human figure by the arms and neck. But the sudden stop of his story is even more unsettling. The more you try to make the different pieces of strangeness fit together, the more it diffuses. I have my theories about some of what the traveler walked into, but I cannot make all of it cohere and I don't want to. It's a mood, not a moral. It's thirteen minutes of your time. Surely you can spare that. The cathedral is not yet closed.

1. The character is credited as "John Trant," but I do not believe he is ever addressed by name onscreen. I assume it's a holdover from the original story.

[identity profile] 2014-01-05 09:08 am (UTC)(link)
That was strange.

I can make nothing of St. Bavon, patron of falconry.

Was that child a boy bishop? They were often chosen on the Feast of Holy Innocents, and the overturning of church hierarchy goes back to Saturnalia: inversion and the slaughter of children.

What does the clock say? I can decipher it in part, but can't fit it all together.

Thank you.


[identity profile] 2014-01-05 09:50 am (UTC)(link)
Oh good, someone has filmed some Robert Aickman. I have not read the story in question, but it doesn't matter because all Robert Aickman is like that, unless it's even more elliptical. You get the sense of there being a pattern and a meaning, but there isn't enough shown to explain it, and in trying to make sense of it you can drive yourself thoroughly nuts. And all the details are disquieting and the less sense they make the more they stick in the memory. His stories are more like real nightmares than they are anything else, the kind of nightmare where you wake and are forever unable to explain just what was so terrible about the blue teacup. Every resolution is too much and not enough.

I wish I had one single idea how he did it. In daily life he devoted himself passionately to the conservation and restoration of Britain's inland waterway systems and canals, which helps nothing.

[identity profile] 2014-01-05 10:09 am (UTC)(link)
...forever unable to explain just what was so terrible about the blue teacup...



[identity profile] 2014-01-05 02:37 pm (UTC)(link)
Perhaps it was really the Note?

(switching authors, I know)

[identity profile] 2014-01-05 09:45 pm (UTC)(link)
I've long wanted a film (actually it'd probably have to be a tv series) of Lud-in-the-Mist, but I can't imagine any producer accepting the pitch for it. Especially since Nat needs to be played by somebody like Philip Seymour Hoffman.

[identity profile] 2014-01-05 10:21 am (UTC)(link)
That windowsill would be terrific (in all senses) in a film.


[identity profile] 2014-01-05 10:06 am (UTC)(link)
Aickman's Twitter feed, with which I cannot cope in any way.

(He died in 1981, not that that's remotely relevant.)

[identity profile] 2014-01-05 10:15 am (UTC)(link)

The thing is, it's not all quotations from Aickman's writings, which would, God help us, be bad enough. I was skimming it on that assumption and drew up with a screeching halt at negotium perambulans in tenebris, which is by E. F. Benson, thank you. Nothing in the corpus of horror is safe from Robert Aickman's Twitter.

[identity profile] 2014-01-05 10:42 am (UTC)(link)

(The Twitter feed, of course, crashed my computer the first time I tried to post an entry linking it. What was I even expecting.)

I have Cold Hand in Mine, but, while it produces a profound sense of anomie, confusion, and incapacity to deal, it only contains two of the really great ones ('The Hospice' and 'The Same Dog'). The reprint collection The Wine-Dark Sea is a good bet.

On an individual level, the stories that are best/worst, at least for me, are 'The Trains', 'The View', 'Ringing the Changes', the two I mentioned above, 'The Wine-Dark Sea', and 'Hand in Glove'.

[identity profile] 2014-01-05 10:16 am (UTC)(link)
I believe the phrase you are looking for is 'right out'. That is right out. Is what that is.

[identity profile] 2014-01-05 12:48 pm (UTC)(link)
That Twitter feed. Yes. Disturbed now.

Rush, you mentioned Aickman's work with the Inland Waterways Association; I've always found it curious that it never seemed to emerge in his stories.
Edited 2014-01-05 12:48 (UTC)

[identity profile] 2014-01-05 10:18 am (UTC)(link)
I love that we're all awake. A triangular convention. Insomniac souls.


[identity profile] 2014-01-05 12:40 pm (UTC)(link)
I'm so glad you liked this! It's a pretty faithful adaptation - the English child is androgynous in the original; Trant sees rather more butchered, painted saints. There's a little more made of that reliquary. (And my God, I've just discovered HTV adapted four more Aickman stories in the eighties, including "The Trains". Criminally, they don't seem to be available.)

*It's a mood, not a moral.*

That's as good a summation of Aickman as any I've heard. And I love the thought of the Cadaver Synod.

Since Rush made a few recommendations, I'll add a couple more: The Swords, The Hospice, and The Inner Room. Oh, and Ravissante, which still creeps me out after several readings.

[identity profile] 2014-01-06 05:58 am (UTC)(link)
The Hospice you can find in the Vandermeers' Weird anthology; Inner Room and Ravissante appear in The Wine-Dark Sea and also in Sub Rosa; I'm not sure what anthology I read The Swords in.

Thanks for the link to Ringing The Changes!

Also, apparently Aickman claims in a story note to The Cicerones that its events happened to *him* "almost precisely".

[identity profile] 2014-01-05 11:24 pm (UTC)(link)
On consideration, the thing I like best about the film version of The Cicerones, beyond the starkly hieratic, terrifying imagery of the thing-with-a-mundane-explanation-but-not towards the beginning, is that they have correctly gotten the sense that there are no right answers. It's not just that everything is based on some system of referents that we (and the protagonist) don't have that's terrifying, it's that there is a sense that the system is navigable, that there are expectations and things that one should do and not do, but it's impossible to find out what they are (except that I am fairly sure that if the traveler had either prayed for the young couple or waited till the cathedral opened he would have been just fine, and I am also sure, as things are, that he wasn't).

Once the question 'Did you notice the hair?' is asked, nothing can be said that would help. Both 'no' and 'yes' feel equally damning, because the correct answer, whatever it is, must be as irrelevantly relevant as the question itself. The thing I can think of that seems closest to right would be 'Hallelujah', but even that is based on having seen later things and feels as though it would be sucking up to whatever is going on. In order to give the right answer one would have to know, and we don't and we can't, and the genius of Aickman is that this gives us that sinking feeling of the dream-test one hasn't prepared for, and the stakes are clearly more than life.

Sometimes an Aickman protagonist does come out of this sort of thing okay, but it's just as clearly blind luck, a case in which the natural responses the person makes happen to fit into the unknown and unknowable and probably unnatural system, which is just as creepy or even creepier than the other way around. The classic example of this for me is 'Bind Your Hair', in which everything the protagonist does is just as mysteriously right as everything the traveler in 'The Cicerones' is wrong, and I do not feel any better at all about the upshot, even though it is almost certainly objectively better.

... apparently I have Feelings about Robert Aickman. This is confusing, as prior to your making this post I would have said that I did not have any feelings as I do not understand his work at all. BECAUSE I DON'T. ONE CANNOT. THAT IS A GREAT DEAL OF THE POINT.

[identity profile] 2014-01-06 09:16 am (UTC)(link)
The scarecrow-corpse-clothes thing gave me an instant flash of the sparagmos from Pasolini's Medea. I think someone, possibly Aickman and possibly the film director and probably both, is working with very old imagery there and very deep associations. Images of rending, in all the saints, and the one quotation from the story-text I've found online is about "a saint carrying his skin". I think more and more that the traveler is being put in the position of a year-king, made votary of a particularly inexplicable god, which may or may not still be the Christian one... "Are you married?" "I'm sure I shall be." And he is, but we don't know enough about it all to see what grows, next spring...

If Robert Aickman said, as mentioned in another comment to this entry, that the events of this story literally happened to him, then he's talking about his own wedding, I think: previous self torn willing/unwilling into shards and something new coming after. Marrying doesn't take everyone that way, but he was married in the days when there was a sharper division between single and husband as states. It's still a sharper division than one expects, as you know, when everyone has spent a lot of time making sure we can all have sex and cohabitate beforehand; it must to earlier generations have been, on occasion, like the end of the world.

[identity profile] 2014-01-06 03:16 am (UTC)(link)
Wow, that is beautifully creepy. I really like the way that the first cicerone's recitation of "holy, holy, holy" passes from speech to singing (and I wonder if it's a reference to the hymn).