This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “The Coffin House”, Robert Aickman, 1941.
This story was written in 1941, read on the BBC in 1976, and finally put into print in 2015.
Aickman liked the term “strange stories” instead of “weird fiction” or “horror fiction”. That seems appropriate for the handful of stories by him I’ve read.
But I have not become an admirer of his, and I thought this story woefully truncated.
The story — it’s brief, around five pages — centers on two members of the Women’s Land Army, Bunty Baines and Jessica Yarrow.
It’s Christmas Day 1941 and they feel overworked and excluded from the festivities of the family they are staying with.
Walking in the rain, they see a dark cabin by the road. Standing in its doorway is
a very large elderly woman with grey hair drawn back in a bun, and strong bony features.
She isn’t very friendly looking, but she tells them “I should come in if I were you.”
Inside the cabin, there is no heat, no Christmas decorations, and a single lamp.
The women are told to take off their coats and sit down. In the room they enter, the only furniture is a carpenter’s bench.
The old woman offers another of her contingent statements that could be a politeness or could be a command: “I should have some tea.”
When the old woman leaves the room, Bunty remarks “I’m dead” and wonders if the woman lives in the cabin all the time. Bunty hopes the woman has got some eggs.
The old woman returns bearing a chipped up and cracked teapot and “genteel penny bazaar knives … serrated and rusty.”
Another command is issued by the old woman: “I should start”.
But the teapot is empty, and the sugar dish is filled with “a discoloured slime”.
It’s all rather unsettling with a hint of insanity enough so that Jessica notes that the old woman’s position will make bolting for the door unworkable. She requests some milk for the tea, and the old woman leaves.
Jessica and Bunty start to leave but wait a bit too long.
The woman returns. But she’s now dressed “in the uniform of an old-fashioned policewoman” like something from “the previous world war”.
“I shouldn’t try any funny business,” she says, looking even larger in her new clothes.
She then proclaims that she is “the only village policemanwoman in England”, a job inherited from her father.
And then she barks for “Mr. Honeyman!”
Honeyman shows up. He’s old and yellow, grey-haired with a black cloth cap and trousers strapped up. He smiles like Mr. Punch which further enhances the air of insanity and menace.
The old woman says “I should have a look. . . . I don’t want to use the darbies.” She holds up two pairs of handcuffs.
Honeyman tells her to take it easy and invites Jessica and Bunty into another room.
In it are two open coffins, complete with “polished and engraved silver plate” on their lids.
And then things seem even more ominous when Honeyman produces a coffin maker’s knife. “There’s only one place I know where you can get them,” he says.
‘Shall I prepare them, Mr. Honeyman?’ enquired the elderly woman.
‘I’m quite agreeable, Hagan,’ said Mr. Honeyman. ‘After all, I only work on Christmas Day.’
Things get weirder when Honeyman brings in some “wheeled object”, “heavily though tastelessly carved”. He says it’s full of live silkworms, “necessary in his business”.
And then he starts unrolling a bale of silk.
Hagan commands, in her peculiar way, the women to “take off your ties”.
Bunty complies, takes off her tie and unbuttons her shirt.
Jessica isn’t so compliant. She goes for Honeyman’s throat and gets his knife. Hagan blows a police whistle, and the storm outside produces a flash of bright lightening and a “screaming, cleaving crash”. Then, again, maybe it’s “not thunder but guns”.
And then we get the last scene.
Jessica wakes up in a hospital bed with a nurse standing over her.
She asks about Bunty.
“I should rest, if I were you,” she’s told. It might be New Year’s Eve since someone is singing “Auld Lang Syne”.
‘Where have I to got to?’
‘You’ll soon learn.’
The woman, Jessica reflected drowsily, must not be a nurse but a sister, as she was middle-aged and wore a dark blue dress buttoned to the chin. She held a hypodermic syringe, larger then Jessica had ever seen; but it appeared to be empty.
And there the story ends. No psychological explanation of the three in the cottage, no hint as to what happened to the other woman, and more terror promise but not suggested enough to be effective. “You’ll soon learn” isn’t enough evocative enough to bring up clear possibilities to the reader’s mind.
The nurse is dressed like Hagan. Is she related? Is this another seemingly crazy woman playing a role that hints of lethality?
Has Jessica been pumped full of something dreadful?
Was it all a fever dream of Jessica? Or is Jessica crazy?
Is Hagan’s policewoman uniform somehow symbolic of a wartime Britain where officialdom has sinisterly co-mingled with domesticity just like Jessica and Bunty find themselves in a stranger’s home at Christmas because they’re in the Woman’s Land Army? Is Hagan berserkly claiming to be the only policewoman in Britain somehow hinting that some Brits have been corrupted by wartime duties?
Is the timing of Christmas symbolic of something?
What did Honeymoon and Hagan intend for the women? Murder? Murder and burial in silk shrouds?
For me, Aickman has gone way past effective ambiguity and insinuation into obscurity.