Gahan Wilson’s “The Sea Was Wet As Wet Could Be” follows a different tune than the other weird tales in this collection — his twisted, singsong Lewis Carroll references form the background to a story of the indifference of a barren universe.
Wilson is famous as a cartoonist for the New Yorker whose grotesque caricatures satirize aspects of American life. He brings a similar sensibility to this story, which is a disturbing retelling of the episode of the Carpenter and the Walrus from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
The narrator, Phil, is a veteran of World War II who binge drinks with a group of friends at a beach picnic. Carl only ever seems truly happy when drunk and driving others to drink, and Irene has taken pills to end her life before. They and their other friends Mandy and Horace are a depressed, cynical lot. However, when they spot two figures walking on the beach who resemble cartoon silhouettes of the Walrus and the Carpenter from the John Tennial illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, Phil is unsettled by their uncanny appearance, yet feels nostalgic and genuinely happy for the first time in years at meeting these childhood “friends.”
In John Clute’s prescriptive structure for a horror story, the silhouettes of the figures on the beach are the initial Sighting of the terror. The Thickening consists of Phil’s increasing awareness that he is in a trap the full nature of which he is not aware. He gradually realizes he has become imprisoned in Tweedle-Dum’s “Walrus and the Carpenter” story, which describes a stretch of beach in a way that could ambivalently suggest a pleasant day or “a lifeless earth”:
“The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead –
There were no birds to fly.”
Carroll’s absurdist children’s poetry inspires the story’s vision. Phil’s meeting the Walrus and the Carpenter is, at first, like meeting a childhood friend — a nostalgic encounter holding memories of a simpler time, a childhood before the war. However, that happiness is a deception, only surface; there are darker forces are at play beneath.
The Walrus and the Carpenter, who go by the names Tweedy and Farr, are hungry for oysters. Tennial’s illustration depicts the talking oysters that flock to them as having tiny stick-figure legs, making them seem all too human for a group of mollusks-to-be-eaten. If Carroll’s poem is the key to divining Tweedy and Farr’s true intentions, the oysters’ anthropomorphism could serve as a warning they are not looking to shuck and shell oysters but people instead.
This is indeed what happens. Phil’s friends are filled with a happiness they have never known and decide to walk off with Farr and Tweedy to a party where they can forget their troubles (and perhaps their trauma). Phil knows something is not right and tries to ask Irene to stay. However, she sees in her eyes that she isn’t there anymore, that the only antidote to her pain is to walk off with them or take pills. To adopt an oyster metaphor, she is essentially a shell of her former self. Phil lets her leave but does not join her.
Later, she is shucked and eaten. Phil finds her dead on the sand, where “the spray from the huge wound in her chest seemed to have traveled mainly downward and to the right.” As Phil’s detached description suggests, she has been eaten alive by Farr and Tweedy. Neither she nor any of his friends answer his calls. However, to quote Lewis Carroll “this was scarcely odd, because / They’d eaten every one.”
What I find so remarkable about this story is not just the creepy way Lewis Carroll’s childish verses become twisted into something outright disturbing, but the way Wilson creates a senses that Phil is existentially trapped. Not only is he imprisoned in a world where the Carpenter and the Walrus poem carries more weight than reality itself, but this sense of imprisonment is only a reflection of the existential imprisonment in which humanity finds itself in the universe.
Wilson, a satirist, expresses the view that humanity is a pollution upon this barren earth and that the universe is indifferent to our suffering. The only relief is death. This is why his characters drink and why Irene walks off. In a sense, we are all trapped in Lewis Carroll poem, an absurd universe that, for all its fun and childish appearances, conceals a deep void of emptiness beneath it.
Wilson’s story, which can be interpreted as something of a tribute to the fellow illustrator John Tennial, is indeed as grotesque as any of his New Yorker cartoons.
Don’t look now, but next week I will be reading and commenting on Daphne du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” (1971).