The unsettling Robert Aickman

 

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

The uncanny May Sinclair

 

© Wordsworth Editions

 

Halloween is just ten days away.  In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d repost some old entries about my favourite writers of spooky stories.  I’ll begin with the impeccable May Sinclair, about whom I wrote this piece back in 2014.

 

I’ve just spent a few days reading Uncanny Stories, a collection of supernatural short stories by May Sinclair, a writer, poetess, literary critic and feminist who lived from 1863 to 1946.  During her life, Sinclair was also a suffragette, a volunteer with an ambulance corps that helped wounded soldiers in Flanders during World War I and a member of the Society of Psychical Research.  She was also the first person to use the term ‘stream of consciousness’ when describing the literary device made famous in James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Tragically, her literary career ended in the late 1920s, thanks to the onset of Parkinson’s disease.  By the time of her death a decade-and-a-half later she’d been forgotten by the literary lights she’d once fraternised with, who included the poet Ezra Pound.

 

Uncanny Stories was first published in 1923, a time when the most famous writer of ghost stories in British literature, Montague Rhodes James, was still alive.  I’m a fan of M.R. James, but it annoys me when mainstream literary critics applaud James’s ghostly short stories for their ‘subtlety’ and ‘delicacy’ and ‘understatement’.  If, for example, you’ve read James’s story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you my Lad, whose climax sees a mysterious, primordial thing taking physical form in the linen of the spare bed in the hero’s hotel room, like a self-assembling mummy, you’ll know it isn’t that subtle, delicate or understated.  The story ends with an image that’s terrifyingly in-your-face.  Much of the time, James doesn’t imply his supernatural terrors, as those critics claim he does.  He shows them.

 

However, if you want proper subtlety, delicacy and understatment in your ghost stories, you should read the examples of the genre that May Sinclair pens in this collection.

 

There are ghosts in many of the tales in Uncanny Stories, but usually those ghosts serve to cast light on the psychology of the tales’ living protagonists.   In The Token, the ghost is of a gentle, devoted woman who manifests herself only for as long as it takes her repressed, uptight husband to admit to something he never admitted while she was alive – that he loved her.  Amusingly, Sinclair blames the husband’s problems on his Scottishness.  He “suffers from being Scottish, so that if he has a feeling, he makes it a point of honour to pretend that he hasn’t it.”

 

A dead wife also figures in The Nature of the Evidence, wherein the widowed husband – “one of those bigoted materialists of the nineteenth-century type who believe that consciousness is a purely physiological function, and that when you’re dead, you’re dead” – remarries, not out of love but because he cold-bloodedly recognises his own sexual needs and resolves to satisfy them: “It’s a physical necessity…  I shan’t marry the sort of woman who’ll expect anything more.”  Needless to say, when the ghost of his first wife inconveniently manifests herself, Marston’s rationalism, and his second marriage, take an unexpected hit.

 

In If the Dead Knew the supernatural and psychological tension revolves around a mother-son relationship rather than a husband-wife one.  Meanwhile, The Victim seems for much of its length to be a more traditional story wherein a servant murders his master and then becomes increasingly tormented by the murdered man’s spectre.  But while the ghost in a conventional story would be out for revenge, the ghost here has more complex motives, as are revealed in the story’s unexpected denouement.

 

The Intercessor is the final and most impressive story in the collection, recounting a haunting by a child’s ghost that, gradually, leads the narrator to understand the emotional circumstances of the child’s still-living parents.  The story’s intensity and the unforgiving wildness of its setting – the parents live beyond a field where “(a) wild plum tree stood half-naked on a hillock and pointed at the house”, and the house itself has “a bald gable-end pitched among the ash trees.  It was black grey, like ash bark drenched with rain” – are worthy of Emily Bronte.

 

Not all these tales are about ghosts.  Where their Fire is not Quenched and The Finding of the Absolute both speculate on what the after-life might be like.  In one story the after-life is an idealistic one and in the other it’s positively hideous.  The Flaw in the Crystal is about a female telepath who quietly uses her powers to cure other people of depression and instability.  She’s horrified to discover that the suicidal madness of one of her ‘patients’ is leaking into her own mind and threatening to infect those other people she’s psychically linked with.  The Flaw in the Crystal is the story I found hardest to get through, mainly because of its length.  It’s 50 pages long but could’ve had the same impact with 20 pages less.  Nonetheless, it contains some excellent writing and the scene where the madness begins to corrupt the heroine’s perceptions of the world around her is worthy of H.P. Lovecraft.  The standard of the prose is considerably higher than Lovecraft’s, though.

 

A sad fact of life – and death – is that when people die, they usually leave unfinished business with those around them.  The supernatural aspects of the stories here allow their protagonists, living and dead, a second chance to resolve their business with one another.  Subtle rather than frightening, and not hell-bent on wreaking revenge, the worst that can be said about May Sinclair’s phantoms is that they’re unnerving in their determination to sort things out.

 

From wikipedia.org

Jim Mountfield hears the patter of tiny feet

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

Here’s a plug for another short story by Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym I use for works of horror, supernatural and generally dark fiction, which has been published this month.

 

The story’s called The Four-Legged Friend and it’s featured in Volume 16, Issue 5 of Schlock! Webzine.  It’s set in modern-day Bangkok – well, Bangkok until a couple of months ago, when tourists were still able to go there – and is inspired by a visit I once made to an antiquated surgical museum at one of the city’s hospitals.  My horror writer’s antenna started buzzing (and I started thinking, “Hey, I could use this idea in a story!”) when I noticed how little shrines consisting of flowers, pictures, toys and other knickknacks had been set up around some of the exhibits.  These were in honour of the people who’d donated their bodies, or parts of their bodies, that’d become those exhibits.

 

Surgical museums in the Western world are usually clinical, dispassionate affairs.  With its shrines, however, this one in Bangkok seemed to remind its visitors of two things: that the exhibits had human origins and that there was a spiritual aspect to them too.  What you were looking at in those glass cases once belonged to people who’d had souls.  Indeed, depending on your belief system, you might argue that those souls were still present…

 

As well as being inspired by something I saw in a Thai museum, The Four-Legged Friend is influenced by one of the greatest of all ghost story writers, M.R. James, and in particular by the paranoia that James was able to evoke in stories like Casting the Runes (1911) and Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1904).  James skilfully exploited the basic human fear of being followed.  His characters frequently aren’t just haunted – they’re being hunted.    I should say too that after I finished the story and read it through, I was surprised at how much it reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s masterly, Venice-set novella Don’t Look Now (1971), with the protagonists being tourists, the presence of a child-like apparition and the references to water – some of the action takes place on board Bangkok’s river ferries.

 

A quick word of warning, however, to manage expectations: my story may not be quite as good as M.R. James or Daphne du Maurier!

 

For the rest of June 2020, The Four-Legged Friend can be accessed here.  The main page of Volume 16, Issue 5 of Schlock! Webzine, in which the story appears, is available here.