This week’s weird story being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Can Be”, Gahan Wilson, 1967.
Yes, the famous cartoonist Gahan Wilson wrote fiction, and this was published in one of his usual venues, Playboy magazine.
It’s an interesting story because it is quite explicitly a takeoff on Lewis Carrol’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” right down to several quotes from it. And Gahan finds, underneath a poem usefully held to be just a fun story, some sinister notes.
Our narrator is Phil. He’s been in the entertainment business for a long time as a public relations man and agent. Now he works for an actor, “Good old, mean old Carl”. Carl likes everyone in his circle to be as hard drinking as he is.
The story opens with Phil describing a party of five on the beach as bugs sullying the perfect picture of the blue sky, a contamination, something God should step on.
The five are on the seashore for a picnic. It was the idea of another of Carl’s circle, the shrewish Mandie, perhaps a cure for the hangover of the previous night.
Horace is married to Mandie. She frequently humiliates him as does his children. And then who suggested the ides have been partying the night before. Then there’s the always unhappy Irene who has attempted suicide several times.
Irene’s not the only one who is sick of life. Still, she seems the only one Phil really cares for. He describes Carl’s dead eyes, says he was possibly “born dead”.
Then the Walrus and the Carpenter show up, not literally, but two people whose dress and gait very much remind Phil of the poem – which he will allude to several times in the story. When Phil remarks on their similarity to Carroll’s figures, Carl, the only one who recognizes the reference, agrees.
They are a genial pair. Officially, their names are, respectively, Edward Farr and George Tweedy, and Farr does most of the talking.
Indeed, they are quite genial, quite winning in their ways. Phil warms to the Walrus’ smile even though he notes he has long been immune, because of his showbiz connections, to the charms of smiles or, for that matter, Carl’s frequent emotional manipulations.
Carl awes Phil by being genuinely friendly to the pair and offering them a drink and more boozing follows. Irene seems genuinely happy under the charms of the pair. Horace and Mandie act like new lovers.
But, as time goes by, Phil remembers what happened to the oysters who went with the pair. He remembers the end of the poem describing a “lifeless earth”, “bareness and desolation”.
The pair invites the picnickers to follow them to a party.
Suddenly, Phil is not so charmed.
He won’t join the others and says to the pair, again referencing the poem, that the pair only needs four.
He asks Irene not to go. They kiss, but she goes anyway.
After a while, Phil, still thinking of the poem, runs after his companions under the “Pure blue, impersonal” sky.
He finds the group all dead along with the other “oysters” before them. Irene’s chest has been ripped open. As in the poem, the pair, not finding any firewood, ate their “oysters” raw.
The story ends with Phil running away across a “vast, smooth, empty and remote” shore, perhaps symbolic of an inner desolation.
So why, besides Phil being surplus to the poem’s requirements, doesn’t Phil go with the party?
He is possibly spared not just because he knows the poem but because, at the beginning of the story, he tastes some Spam which brings back his time as a soldier in Italy during WWII, and it reminds him how many of his plans have gone unfulfilled. He has a connection to life unlike the rest of Carl’s miserable circle. There is also a suggestion that the Walrus and the Carpenter take the party into sort of another dimension, a dimension externally lifeless to match the inner deadness of the other picnickers.