from Cold Hand in Mine
by Robert Aickman
When a young man working as a traveling salesman happens upon a shabby tent on the edge of a small fair, he finds a bizarre and life-altering show already in progress.
My Reaction (with SPOILERS):
The subtitle of this collection is "strange stories", and you couldn't ask for more accuracy. Strange, indeed!
The author provides no outright explanation or summing up of the weird events described in this story (and which I won't bother detailing). I expected the revelation that "Madonna" is a mannequin of some sort-- a dummy-- a life-size doll stuffed with sawdust or somesuch. A lifeless thing that has been spelled or built into a faithful imitation of a woman. Something that can be ordered around without back-talk, wounded without bleeding, dressed up (or undressed) and used with no risk of recrimination. Maybe that's what we're meant to infer, but it's left entirely up to us to draw what conclusions we will. No tidy ending, here.
(Incidentally, "Madonna" reminds me very much of certain characters in a Swedish drama that Donald and I have been watching-- Äkta Människor (Real Humans). The program is set in an alternate reality in which "hubots"-- extremely lifelike and highly functioning robots that look and sound like humans-- exist alongside the "real humans", fulfilling their every wish on command. Of course, there are complications...)
Apart from the bizarre sideshow and the narrator's even stranger private interactions with "Madonna" (can't help it; must put her name in quotation marks; blame it on Madonna the singer), the most striking thing in the story is the constant and unfailing undercurrent-- no, it's not subtle enough to be an undercurrent-- flood of sordid details. The world of this story is filthy-- both literally and figuratively. From the uncle who sends his young nephew to stay in seamy hotels (possibly run by said uncle's former "lady friends") to the description of our narrator vomiting into an old-fashioned, flowered washstand basin, it's one nasty image or insinuation after another. (The one exception that comes to mind is the "roundabout"-- carousel-- which is "pretty... with snow-queen and icing sugar effects in the centre; and different colored sleighs going round", run by an equally pretty girl.) Otherwise, the world is "dingy", "off-color", "chipped", "broken or defective", and populated almost completely by the vulgar and the unsavory.
Curious about other readers' interpretations of the story-- and I haven't found much, so far, at least partially because I'm avoiding spoilers for the rest of the collection-- I came across a horror cinema blogger's thoughts on the subject. He describes "The Swords" as "a
melancholy but pointed social criticism of the way men use and violate
women as if they were bloodless, fleshy objects. It illustrates how this
attitude is enculturated through communal forces, and also how such an
attitude's grim results-- loveless, violent, queasy, and crushingly
lonely-- may dispirit or shame a young male like the story's
protagonist, but only for a brief beginner's moment: 'After the first
six women, say, or seven, or eight,' the narrator tells us, 'the rest
come much of a muchness.'"
Interesting take... Unsettling oddity of a story.