Niemandswasser: by Robert Aickman

Robert Aickman's Niemandswasser, the third story in his 1975 collection, Cold Hand in Mine, often reads like a Central Powers take on The Shooting Party. Set shortly before the First World War it follows the mood and movements of Prince 'Elmo' after a doomed love affair. Having failed to kill himself Elmo withdraws to an obscure family castle where he becomes obsessed with stories of a strange creature living in a nearby lake. The fact that the creature is said to inhabit Niemandswasser (No Man's Water) - that part of the lake which is beyond territorial waters - serves only to drive Elmo's now revived deathwish and he sorties alone onto the lake, determined to treat with what he believes to be the mistress of No Man's Water... the rest is history.

Niemandswasser is a monster story only to the extent that Aickman is monstering a war; or more specifically, the attitudes of continental drift that led to war. The story contains a very definite sense of an otherness travelling beneath Europe, leaving its trace along borders and under bodies of water before erupting into France in 1914. It is also to be found in the decadence and purposelessness which seems to inhabit Elmo and the various characters he encounters, all of whom display a carelessness and complacency which cannot be accounted for. There is always something else. And there are intimations of Arthur Machen's The Terror, a novel in which the outraged animal kingdom rises up against mankind's cruelty on the Western Front.

And Niemandswasser ends on a stunning note of war correspondence which makes everything that has gone before seem so Ruritanian as to have been unreal.

Definitely a curio, even by the strange standards of Aickman's stories, Niemandswasser shares themes with the last story in Cold Hand in Mine, The Clock Watcher.

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