Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I must confess that I haven't read much by Gahan Wilson, which considering the quality of his writing is a terrible admission, but in my opinion The Sea Was Wet As Wet Can Be - first published in 1967 - is an almost perfect short story.

Chilling, clever, poignant and touching, it is as story about how we can sometimes lose ourselves, merely existing rather than living, about how the fear of being alone can lead us to make wrong decisions, about how the incongruously inane can suddenly become terrifying.

And it's about vampires. Sort of.

Taking his inspiration from Lewis Carroll's 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' Gahan Wilson paints a remarkable picture of a group of people who's fractured lives are as expertly portrayed as anything in say, The Great Gatsby or The Beautiful and the Damned. In fact, most of these characters and their cruel hedonism would not have been out of place in the Jazz Age or cavorting around as Bright Young Things with an undercurrent of self-loathing never far from the surface.

“I felt we made an embarrassing contrast to the open serenity of the scene around us. The pure blue of the sky was unmarked by a single cloud or bird, and nothing stirred on the vast stretch of beach except ourselves. The sea, sparkling under the freshness of the early morning sun, looked invitingly clean. I wanted to wade into it and wash myself, but I was afraid I would contaminate it. We are a contamination here, I thought. We're like a group of sticky bugs crawling in an ugly little crowd over polished marble. If I were God and looked down and saw us, lugging our baskets and our silly, bright blankets, I would step on us and squash us with my foot.”
Not-so-fresh from an all night party, Phil and his companions decide to extend the revels and propose a beach picnic, urged on – or ordered to – by “Good old, mean old Carl.” the “greatest little drink pourer in the world. He used drinks like other types of sadists used whips. He kept beating you with them until you dropped or sobbed or went mad.”

Oddly and ironically, if any of the characters here most resemble the common view of the vampire it would be Carl. Leader, employer and chief torturer of the group “On the surface, with his eyes, with his face, with the handling of his entire body, Carl was a master of animation and expression. From sympathetic, heartfelt warmth, all the way to icy rage, and on every stop in-between, Carl was completely convincing. But only on the surface. Once you got to know Carl, and it took a while, you realized that none of it was really happening. That was because Carl had died, or been killed, long ago. Possibly in childhood. Possibly he had been born dead. So, under the actor's warmth and rage, the eyes were always the eyes of a corpse.”

Such is the accuracy and vividness of Gahan Wilson's writing that he creates living, breathing characters with a few sentences - “ Irene was particularly sensitive about seeing people alone because being alone had several times nearly produced fatal results for her. Being alone and taking pills to end the being alone.” “He was tall and bald and he had a huge Adam's apple and, like myself, he worked for Carl. I would have felt sorrier for Horace than I did if I hadn't had a sneaky suspicion that he was really happier when grovelling.” - and a large part of the fascination of “The Sea Was Wet...” comes from watching these poor, damaged creatures flail around.
But a simple examination of damaged lives, no matter how expertly done, isn't the be all and end all of this particular story.
“They were far away, barely bigger than two dots, but you could tell there was something odd about them even then...I watched the two approaching figures. The one was tall and bulky, and he moved with a peculiar, swaying gait. The other was short and hunched into himself, and he walked in a fretful, zigzag line beside his towering companion...
We sat quietly and watched them coming closer. The nearer they got, the odder they looked. "For heaven's sake!" said Irene. "The little one's wearing a square hat!"
"I think it's made of paper," said Mandie, squinting, "folded newspaper."
"Will you look at the moustache on the big bastard?" asked Carl. "I don't think I've ever seen a bigger bush in my life."
"They remind me of something," I said. The others turned to look at me.
The Walrus and the Carpenter …
"They remind me of the Walrus and the Carpenter," I said.”

And it is with this bravura twist that “The Sea Was Wet As Wet Can Be” becomes something utterly different, fascinating and frightening. For you see, the resemblance of the two newcomers to Lewis Carroll's oyster-hunting philosophers may not be entirely coincidental.

Weaving the text of Carroll's poem throughout the rest of the narrative, what begins as a friendly chat and drink on the beach soon changes into something darker despite (or rather precisely because of) the words on the page.
"Be that as it may," said the Walrus, patting the Carpenter on the flat top of his paper hat, "this is Edward Farr, and I am George Tweedy, both at your service. We are, uhm, both a trifle drunk, I'm afraid."
“Then the big one smiled, and everything was changed.... The smile of the Walrus did what a smile hasn't done for me in years—it melted my heart. I use the cornball phrase very much on purpose. When I saw his smile, I knew I could trust him; I felt in my marrow that he was gentle and sweet and had nothing but the best intentions. His resemblance to the Walrus in the poem ceased being vaguely chilling and became warmly comical. I loved him as I had loved the teddy bear of my childhood.”

Even a passing familiarity with the original poem will probably hint at the ending of “The Sea Was Wet...”
"I would have sworn you were looking for oysters," said Carl.
Again, Tweedy appeared startled.
"O Oysters, come and walk with us!" The Walrus did beseech …
"Oysters?" he asked. "Oh, no, we've got the oysters. All we lack is the means to cook 'em."
" 'Course we could always use a few more," said Farr, looking at his companion.
"I suppose we could, at that," said Tweedy thoughtfully.

I won't give the game away any more than I already have other than to say that the denouement of “The Sea Was Wet...” is as perfectly formed as every other aspect of the story and that the sense of desolation that Gahan Wilson creates, both in his characters and the landscape that surrounds them, is almost palpable. Not a pleasant read, perhaps, but a memorable one nevertheless,

Do yourself a kindness and read this brilliant short story, which you can find here (as long as this link is still working)

1 comment:

  1. Classic story, Jim. Read it in the Playboy Book of Horror many moons ago, and more than any other tale in that volume- which was damned good- that one's stayed with me.