There are several ways to strain against convention within the fairly constricted and classical structure of the horror or weird tale. You can bend it, like a spoon or a spine, by contorting the plot and expectations of the reader, introducing new themes and setting up reversals. Generic convention becomes a funhouse. The second way is through a heightening of the language, bringing a poetic sensibility to established stories. This latter path is the most frequent in contemporary weird literature and, sadly, the least stimulating and successful. Whether it is through the popularity of Creative Writing courses or the crossbreeding of genre with literary fiction, more genre prose writers now write well crafted sentences punctuated with deft similes. But too often it is as if they learned to write sentences, but not stories. The sentences act as meticulous, ornamented arcades guiding one through a building which is either nonexistent or entirely unconvincing. (This appears to happen often when literary writers venture into genre, happily thinking if they merely construct a series of ‘muscular’ and unassailable sentences that they will conquer the dark continent of horror, SF, or fantasy – or all of them at once.)
While this may be prevalent now in the world of genre fiction, there are of course numerous instances from the past. A more interesting failure of this variety that I’d like to focus on today is J.N. Allan’s “The Aquarist,” first published in London Magazine in 1981. London appears to be a literature and art magazine whose fictional focus is primarily lit-fic. Allan was a one-time contributor who appears to have published nothing else, and is possibly the pseudonym of another established editor and/or writer.
Like many stories that take the second path to the rejuvenation of old forms, there is little in the way of plot but there are a hell of a lot of pristine, cut-glass sentences. Allan describes a moray eel devouring an octopus:
After swallowing this wriggling arm the moray repeated the action, until the octopus was left with no arms; just the immobile bag of its body, like a pudding tipped out of its mould.
Aside from an impertinent semi-colon, that is a decent sentence.
The basic story is an old one: a mentally ill man kills his wife and her new lover, then the police come. The getting there is quite unusual with Allan, but I do wish they had decided to work more along the lines of Bob Leman’s “The Pilgrimmage of Clifford M,” which is written in basic prose but provides a heady revisionary working of the vampire tale that is a joy to read. If Allan had combined these two tendencies, “The Aquarist” could have been one of the best weird tales of the 80’s. Instead it is a just a curio piece, a worthwhile specimen of failure.
In this old-hat piece, the mentally ill man (and of course he is mentally ill; they’re all dangerous, right?) is an aquarium enthusiast who spends much of his time in a dark room studying and adoring his collection of octopuses. His wife Thelma openly carries on an affair with a man named Frank. Neither of the two seem to believe that the narrator (who is unnamed, of course, it wouldn’t be properly literary if he wasn’t) is cognizant enough to recognize their relationship for what it is. Our aquarist is obsessed with these two aspects of his life and the reader listens to his detached voice as it mumbles surgical sentences in which these two fixations merge into one. When spying on Frank and Thelma making out in the kitchen, his mind goes to a very bizarre place:
Thelma is always ovo-vivaparous at times like these, like my fish, Frank laying his tongue inside her head and letting it develop like an egg and hatch inside its mother. Thelma smiles as wrinkles like stretch-marks crisscross her skin and slowly but surely the lower rays of her tail fin begin to elongate and splay. Thelma inducing a kind of mouth-brooding. Her distensible mouth engulfing the head of this brooding male.
The most hallucinatory moment of the tale comes when he witnesses Frank and Thelma having sex in the bedroom (is it his bedroom anymore?). I will quote it in full because it is rather close to marvelous as it violently combines and reconstitutes species and sexual practices in a stunningly misanthropic portrait that would be clinical if it weren’t so batshit. It’s like pornography written by an alien biologist observing humans:
Through the keyhole I can see both of them now. With my eye at the keyhole I can hear the hiss and slap of their bliss, as my small bones creak and slip inside my head, my forehead creased on the handle I dare not twist. In the corner of my eye I can see the octopuses as well; I watch them mating in the aquarium, I watch the male extend his hectoctolyzed arm and touch the female very gently with its tip. Eventually he succeeds in placing the tip of his arm loaded with spermatophores inside the female, inside her bag-like form, impregnating the darker jellyfish fixed at the centre of a mass of tangled arms. The photophores round the rims of her eyes give off a blue light with a pearly sheen as I watch them; their eyes like great semi-circular canals set deep within their heads. It is with a sense of unreality that I return my gaze to the key hole, a black slit like the wound from a knife; it is with a sense of unreality that I gaze at the object my wife’s fingers have revealed. It is unmistakably a plant bud of some sort, a strange corsage with involved and involuted folds of pale blue and bloody pink that seems to expand, that seems to exude a thin sanguineous fluid, making me shudder when I see its internal structure full of nerve-like filaments with a core that suggests cartilage.
And that right there is pretty much what the story has to offer. The techniques Allan employs to convey the narrator’s mental deterioration are for the most part as old as the tale itself. A number of conjunctions like “as if” are thrown out haphazardly to allow the writer room to engage in flights of fantasy – it was as if the patterns in the carpet turned into squid-arms, it was as if the blender were speaking to me in the timid orange voices of carrots, it was as if the suit were eating the curling iron, it was as if the writer tediously wanted every sentence to burst out at the reader like a jack-in-the-box, and so on. The narrator observes things without understanding their import, subject and object become confused, repeating figures such as “a black slit like the wound from a knife” pop up throughout to act as connective tissue to involve the reader in the dislocation and confusion of wife and self into octopus. The resulting murder of the cheaters and the arrival of the police are the triumphal high points of cliche defeating technique.
It is a story that has no heart and is written like an exercise, as clinical and inevitable as its narrator. At its core “The Aquarist” is a dense block of prose that fails to hide the fact that the plot is hackneyed and predictable from the beginning. The florid prose withers under such severe literary conditions and becomes more of a weedy emptiness than a buxom garden. The unity and consistency of the theme with its underlings of simile and metaphor are not powerful enough to make up for the lack of ingenuity. The imagination is restricted entirely to overworked prose techniques, leaving the tale incongruous, like a massive set of arms and shoulders balancing atop a pair of scrawny, wobbling legs. It is a curio piece and a brain-dulling failure, but one worth investigating for its sheer strangeness and its value as a study in why technique cannot always overcome worn ideas. And, certainly its greatest strength, it is very quotable. It can be found in The Penguin Book of Horror Stories.