From the Independent
Six days before Halloween, here’s another reposting of an old blog entry about one of my favourite writers of macabre fiction. This time it’s Robert Aickman, about whom I wrote this piece in 2015.
Over the years I’ve learned to be sceptical of the publicity blurbs adorning the covers of new paperback books, which usually assure potential buyers that the book in question is an absolute page-turner and can’t be put down. However, the blurb on the cover of The Wine-Dark Sea, a collection of short stories by Robert Aickman that was originally published in 1988 and republished in 2014, is bang on the money. It contains a comment by Neil Gaiman, no less, who says of the author: “Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully.”
That’s as good a description as any of the feeling I get when reading Aickman. You’re aware that he’s going to perform a trick involving some literary sleight-of-hand. You don’t know what the trick’s going to be, or when he’s going to do it. Afterwards, you’re not even sure if the trick has been performed, or what the point of it was. Then you mull it over. And most of the time, you decide: Wow! That was impressive!
I’ve added ‘most of the time’, though, as a disclaimer to that last sentence. Because, very occasionally, my reaction to an Aickman story has been different: What a load of bollocks!
I first came across Aickman’s work in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when his stories cropped up in horror anthologies such as The Far Reaches of Fear (1976), New Terrors (1980) and Dark Forces (1980). Although in those collections they rubbed shoulders with some grisly items, Aickman’s stories didn’t fit comfortably with the ‘horror’ label. And the claim that some people made about him, that he was actually a ‘ghost’ story writer in the mould of M.R. James, didn’t convince either. Aickman liked to describe his stories as ‘strange’ ones and ‘strange’ is the adjective I’d attach to them too.
It wasn’t just his fiction that seemed out-of-place. Aickman himself seemed out-of-place in post-war Britain, being a man of old-fashioned views and erudite – some would say ‘elitist’ – tastes. He was a conservationist who co-founded the Inland Waterways Association and battled to prevent Britain’s no-longer-in-commercial-use canal system from being filled in; a political conservative; and a connoisseur of ballet, opera, classical music and highbrow theatre. I imagine that by the 1970s, when the UK’s political and cultural landscape was one of Labour governments and frequent industrial action by trade unions, glam rock and bubble-gum pop music, platform heels and loon pants, and cheap, cheerful and massively popular television sitcoms like Man about the House (1973-76) and On the Buses (1969-73), he was not a particularly happy bunny.
Inevitably, this sense of alienation appears in his fiction. His stories feature a lot of discontented middle-aged men (or women) who are set in their ways and don’t do a good job coping with a changing, modern world that seems diametrically opposed to their ways.
I found much of Aickman’s work baffling when, as a teenager, I first encountered it. However, I was impressed by his contribution to New Terrors, a 55-page story called The Stains. It tells the tale of Stephen, a widowed civil servant, who meets a mysterious, wild-seeming, almost dryad-like girl called Nell whilst rambling on some remote moors. Stephen becomes infatuated with Nell, with the result that he takes early retirement from his job, abandons his ties with the ‘civilised’ world and attempts to live with her in an empty, tumbledown house on the moors. Yet the story is no New Age male fantasy. Aickman steers it in a darker direction. Nell seems to embody the natural world, but nature soon intrudes on her relationship with Stephen in a more grotesque way. As their romance progresses, Stephen notices weird moulds, fungi and lichen spreading across the walls and furniture around him. There are even hints that these agents of decay have manifested themselves on his flesh too, which I suppose makes the story an example of what would later be known as ‘body horror’.
The Stains is regarded as one of Aickman’s most autobiographical stories. Many people see in Stephen’s unpleasantly doomed relationship with Nell a metaphor for Aickman’s love affair with the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard. After being involved with him, and then with Laurie Lee and Arthur Koestler, Howard married Kingsley Amis in 1965. Aickman, whose obsession with Howard was described by one friend as a ‘mental aberration’, must have found the thought that she’d chosen the increasingly boorish Amis over him hard to stomach. Incidentally, like several of Aickman’s stories, The Stains shows that he wasn’t afraid to infuse his work – no matter how fuddy-duddy the characters – with a strong dose of the erotic.
© Berkley Books
My teenage self was sufficiently curious to seek out more of Aickman’s work and I located two collections of his short stories, Dark Entries (1964) and Cold Hand in Mine (1975). Predictably, some of those stories bewildered me, and a few irritated me; but several, like The Stains, have haunted me ever since. By the way, I wonder if a young Peter Murphy got his goth-y hands on the earlier collection and was so impressed by it that he pinched its title for the Bauhaus song Dark Entries, their second single, which they released in 1980.
One story I remember well is The Swords, in which a young travelling salesman goes to bed with a strangely blank woman whom he encounters at a seedy carnival sideshow. Again, this allows Aickman to serve up some disquieting body horror at the story’s close. Also memorable is The Hospice, a Kafka-esque tale of a motorist getting lost at night and asking for shelter at the titular institution. Inside the hospice, he notices odd things about how the inmates are cared for. For instance, in the dining room, he sees that one patient is discreetly shackled to the floor.
And in the award-winning Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal, Aickman tackles one of the commonest tropes in horror fiction in one of its most traditional settings. This purports to be a series of diary entries written by a young woman in 1815 who’s accompanying her parents on a tour of central Europe. She becomes excited when she discovers that they’re in the same neighbourhood as her secret hero, Lord Byron, who lives there ‘in riot and wickedness’. And she soon encounters her own personal Lord Bryon in the form of a mysterious gentleman attending a local contessa’s party. His ‘skin is somewhat pallid’, his nose is ‘aquiline and commanding’ and, most suspiciously of all, his mouth is ‘scarlet’. You can guess where this is heading.
Aickman’s approach to telling creepy stories was subtle, mannered and leisurely. Often, his stories needed a lot of build-up before they reached their denouements. By the start of the 1980s, this seemed anachronistic. The British tradition of horror fiction had been subtle, mannered and leisurely once, in the days of M.R. James and E.F. Benson, but it’d experienced a punk-rock moment in the mid-1970s when James Herbert unleashed a slew of bestselling horror novels like The Rats (1974) and The Fog (1975) that were unapologetically in your face with gore and violence. And a little later, in the 1980s, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series (1984-85) would pioneer a style of horror-writing that was in equal parts perverse, visionary and wildly gruesome.
So when I read in 1981 that Aickman had died of cancer – which, in his typically obstinate way, he’d refused to have any conventional medical treatment for, preferring instead to rely on dubious ‘homeopathic’ cures – I assumed, sadly, that his work would soon be out of fashion, out of print and out of readers’ memories.
© Mandarin-Reed Books
Years later, I stumbled across a copy of a posthumously-published collection by him called The Unsettled Dust (1990). It contained one or two stories that annoyed me, but generally I greatly enjoyed it. By now I knew what to expect from Aickman and was mature enough to appreciate his elegant prose, his subtle build-up of suspense, his oddball but well-drawn characters and his moments of utter strangeness. Admittedly, I sometimes wasn’t sure what happened at the stories’ ends. And even after thinking about them carefully, I still wasn’t sure. But what the hell? With Aickman, the pleasure was in getting there.
I particularly liked the title story, in which an official stays at a stately home whilst negotiating the transfer of the house’s running from the hands of its aristocratic inhabitants into the hands of the National Trust. He discovers a peculiar room deep inside the house where, like in a giant snow globe, huge patches of dust are continually and spectrally floating through the air. This illustrates another of Aickman’s abilities, to convincingly weave into his stories scenes and incidents that are totally outlandish. So sober is the tone of everything else going on that you readily accept these mad bits as parts of the narrative.
Nonetheless, it seemed appropriate that I found The Unsettled Dust in a rack of second-hand books in a corner of a small antiques shop in a village in rural County Suffolk – an obscure place to find an obscure book by an obscure writer.
But, happily, I was wrong. Recent years have seen a revival of interest in Robert Aickman, which reached a peak in 2014, the centenary of his year of birth, when Faber & Faber republished The Wine-Dark Sea, Dark Entries, Cold Hand in Mind and The Unsettled Dust. His work has been championed by Neil Gaiman; by Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith of the influentially bizarre television show The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002, 2017); and by Dame Edna Everage herself (or himself), Barry Humphries, who in addition to being a comedian and actor is a committed bibliophile with a library of 25,000 books. And the Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph have all printed articles about him lately.
I’ve just finished reading The Wine-Dark Sea and it’s possibly my favourite Aickman collection yet. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, though. This being Aickman, there has to be at least one story that gets on my wick. In this case the offender is Growing Boys, a satiric fantasy about a woman who has to deal with two sons growing at a supernatural rate, to a supernatural size, and becoming criminal psychopaths. An ineffectual police force, an ineffectual school system and an ineffectual father (more interested in running for parliament as a Liberal Party candidate) do nothing to stop them. Aickman uses the story to bemoan the delinquency of the younger generation and the inadequacy of Britain’s post-war institutions. It’s reactionary but, much worse, it isn’t funny.
On the other hand, my favourite story here is The Inner Room. It’s about a haunted doll’s house, which is a staple of many scary stories, most famously one written by M.R. James called – surprise! – The Haunted Dolls House. Aickman, however, treats the subject with dark humour. The story’s climax is unexpectedly and phantasmagorically weird, meanwhile, and reminds me a little of the work of Angela Carter.
Elsewhere, both Never Visit Venice and Your Tiny Hand is Frozen suggest Aickman taking two of his modern-day bugbears and transforming his indignation at them into horror stories. Never Visit Venice lays into mass tourism. Its hero is so disappointed in how the city of the title has been degraded by sightseers that, unwisely, he ends up taking a ride in an infernal gondola that seems to have been punted out through the gates of hell. Your Tiny Hand is Frozen features an unsociable man who becomes addicted to his telephone, through which he communicates with a strange woman who may or may not really exist. Telephones were becoming increasingly widespread at the time the story was written, presumably to Aickman’s discomfort. It’s just as well that he didn’t live to see the situation today when smartphones have practically taken over the world.
Incidentally, so in vogue is Aickman now that there’s even a Facebook page and Twitter account devoted to him. Robert Aickman with a presence on 21st-century social media? I’m sure he would have loved that. Not.
© Faber & Faber