It's one of those tales that keeps you pondering while causing a subtle touch of eeriness.
It perhaps delivers that kind of imaginary fear Stephen King dubs "the terror" in Danse Macabre. That's the feeling that comes not when a machete is raised but when, as King notes, a tingling wisp of breath tickles the back of your neck. You turn around to find no one there.
I'm speaking of "The Hospice," a tale by the late Robert Aickman, British purveyor of horror without definition.
It should come as no surprise to me. I read "The Swords" in Cold Hand in Mine years ago, and its final lines have lingered with me ever since, proving the collections epigram: "In the end, it's the mystery that lasts and not its explanation."
It's a thought not unlike Kelly Link's answer to the first question on her FAQ. Why don't your stories have endings? With an ending, you might find satisfaction. With a question, a mystery, you keep pondering.
I've done that with "The Swords" since about 1978. I may not have as many years left in me to ponder, but I'll mull "The Hospice" for a while thanks to Jared Sandman aka @JaredSandman.
I shared a "favorite short stories" post with the Twitterverse, and we got into a "that story reminds me of this story" conversation.
He mentioned a Joseph Payne Brennan story I'd cited from Shadows 7 made him think of "The Hospice" found in the hefty Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural.
Happily I owned that volume, so I pulled it out and read the Aickman tale.
It's strange and ambiguous, of course. A British traveling salesman named Maybury is forced by an associate to take one of those short cuts that never work out.
Lost and low on gas, he happens upo the hospice of the title and opts to stay the night. It's no run of the mill road side rest stop, but it's not Hostel either.
Before long, Maybury's sitting for a meal and discovering the staff's not happy when you don't clean your plate even though they're delivering substantial portions. Coffee they're short on, however.
Things only get stranger. There's no phone for Maybury to call his wife when he determines he'll have to stay the night, and when he stays over, rooming with a longtime resident, he hears mysterious cries in the night and experiences other eeriness. Was that his roommate that returned after a wee hours departure or someone else?
The reader can make an obvious choice about the hospice and about Maybury's fate, especially since there's deep symbolic suggestion in the final scene, but Aickman does not connect the dots.
He leaves it all for the reader to contemplate, just as he does the meaning in "The Swords." That resonates and delivers a little more satisfaction than an ax murder.