Curiouser and Curiouser

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A man is driving home at night, somewhere in the West Midlands. He gets lost in a sprawling, anonymous suburb, and his car is low on petrol. Then he chances upon a hotel where he is welcomed in and shown to the dining-room. The place is uncomfortably hot, with thick carpets and curtains. He is served a huge bowl of thick soup followed by an enormous bowl of macaroni cheese, and after that a gigantic pile of turkey accompanied by five different vegetables. When he is unable to finish it, the waitress responds by flying into a rage and flinging his plate to the floor. The manager appears to smooth things over – and as the man is led from the dining-room, he observes that one of the diners has his ankle fettered to an iron rail under the table . . .

Welcome to the strange world of Robert Aickman (this story, ‘The Hospice’, goes on to get much stranger). I first encountered his work as a teenager in the 1970s, when I discovered the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories; Aickman edited the first eight volumes of this series, writing the introduction to each one and usually including one of his own stories. His selections formed a marvellous introduction to the ghost-story canon with tales by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, L. P. Hartley, Ambrose Bierce, M. R. James, Saki, Oliver Onions and Edgar Allan Poe among others. Yet Robert Aickman’s own stories were always among the best, and unlike anyone else’s. It wasn’t always clear that they were ghost stories; in fact he himself preferred the term ‘strange stories’, and I can’t think of a better label.

Then, in the late Seventies, I was browsing in my local library and came upon a volume of his stories, Cold Hand in Mine (and isn’t that a brilliant title?). It gave me a peculiar sense of satisfaction to see that he existed outside the Fontana series. There were eight stories included, five of which I had never seen before. I took it home and devoured it.

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