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.
All of Aickman’s tales (he wrote 48 in all) include some kind of supernatural element. ‘Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal’ is a vampire story, ‘Ringing the Changes’ is a zombie story, others feature ghostly visitants of various kinds. But that in itself is not what is strange about them. The characters are strange. The events are strange. The scenarios are strange. It’s hard to convey the special, unsettling atmosphere of Aickman’s work to anyone who isn’t acquainted with it; but let me try.
His stories tend to centre on a protagonist who is a loner, somewhat detached from the world, often rather a fussy, finicky person who stumbles upon some weird set-up involving dubious, mysterious and not-quite-human people. In ‘The Swords’, for example, a young travelling salesman comes across a seedy little fair in Wolverhampton. Inside a tent is a young woman sitting on a chair on a stage. Beside her is a pile of swords, ‘stacked criss-cross like cheese straws’. The men in the tent take it in turns to kiss her and then drive a sword into her body. Which draws no blood. The protagonist leaves hastily before it’s his turn; but later he encounters the girl and her manager in town and they offer him a private show . . .
Or there’s ‘The Cicerones’, featuring a tourist, Trant, who visits a cathedral in Belgium. The cathedral is nearly empty. Trant looks at various gruesome depictions of martyrdoms in side-chapels. He sees a terrifying-looking figure standing in the pulpit, which turns out to be an optical illusion; another visitor laughs with him about it, then says ‘Holy, holy, holy’ (Trant is almost sure that’s what he said) and wanders off. An American tourist with a peculiar manner appears and makes some enigmatic comments about martyrdom. Then an odd, self-possessed child appears and offers to take Trant to the crypt . . .
Certain motifs recur: several stories feature odd, knowing children, whose sex can’t easily be determined. Strangers appear and are either oddly talkative or oddly silent. Fog, mist, twilight and overcast skies feature strongly, as do dim yellow lights glimmering from windows. So do sounds heard from other rooms: full-on screams and shrieks, or sometimes more ambiguous noises.
Aickman uses a wide variety of settings – an island in Finland, a flat in a London square, a village in Northamptonshire, a tour through eighteenth-century Italy – and in all of them he vividly conveys the sheer physicality of the place: the weather, the light, the texture and feel of surfaces, the furnishings of houses or the configuration of natural features. And there is a heavy emphasis on the banal, the ordinariness of things, which makes the strangeness feel even stranger. The swords, for example, in the story of that name have nothing gleaming or glamorous about them: ‘The blades were a dull grey, and the hilts were made of some black stuff, possibly plastic. They looked thoroughly mass-produced and industrial.’
Events in Aickman’s stories are entirely unpredictable; yet when they occur, one feels they were somehow inevitable. One simple but effective trick he often uses is to describe something slightly strange – someone’s unconventional appearance, an unexplained noise – and then observe that the main character was ‘badly frightened’. But why? You begin to feel uneasy yourself. Did you miss something? And as the story proceeds, of course, you realize that the character was quite right to be frightened; in fact they weren’t frightened enough. There are gaps in the narrative, leaving the reader to piece together the full horror. The endings are frequently inconclusive, leaving one with a sense that there is an explanation just out of reach. Aickman’s characters don’t usually come to sticky ends, though sometimes they do. More often they survive, but are psychologically damaged by their experiences.
Aickman has a distinctive writing style: precise, mannered, even pedantic. There are touches of erudition – the occasional Latin tag, allusions to art and music, references to Shakespeare, Goethe, Homer, epigraphs from Strindberg or Céline. If all this makes him sound a stuffy writer, well, he’s not. His stories are long – often near novella length – but compulsively readable. Commit to the first page of a Robert Aickman story and you are pulled, dragged into it.
One gets a strong sense of a personality, and indeed his real-life character seems to have been not too different from his literary persona. Like many of his protagonists, he seems to have been something of a loner; certainly not without friends, but he saw them on his own terms, when he wished, and seldom allowed them to meet one another.
Four collections of his strange stories were brought out by Faber in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of his birth – Dark Entries, Cold Hand in Mine, The Unsettled Dust and The Wine-Dark Sea – and each includes an afterword by a close friend. All agree that although he could be extremely charming he could also be very difficult. There was undoubtedly something aloof and élitist about him: in one of his Fontana introductions he bemoans the increasing uniformity and social equality of the modern world. One of his characters, in the story ‘Meeting Mr Millar’, observes that ‘change of its nature is for the worse’. It was no doubt his love of the past that drove his work as a conservationist; he was one of the founder-members of the Inland Waterways Association and was an effective and energetic campaigner, though, characteristically, he later fell out with his co-founder, Tom Rolt.
One of his favourite pastimes with friends was to read aloud his latest stories – which, considering that some of them are as many as 70 pages long, might be thought to be pushing the claims of friendship a bit far. His first book, published in 1951, was a collection of stories with Elizabeth Jane Howard. They had a brief relationship, which Elizabeth ended; Aickman seems never to have got over this. He kept a photo of her by his bed; and many years later, when he knew she was coming to visit him as he lay dying, he asked to be shaved so he could look smart for her. He died in 1981, having refused conventional treatment for cancer and opted for homeopathy instead.
I don’t know whether I would have liked him as a person, and I am fairly sure he would not have liked me; but it was his difficult, proud, prickly, fastidious, solitary nature that enabled him to produce these marvellously strange stories. During his lifetime his writing was highly regarded by the literary establishment but was not widely known outside it. He certainly never made much money, probably because of his uncompromising refusal to write more commercially. But his writing has endured and his reputation is growing.
It’s not easy to find literary comparisons for his work. The obvious one would be with the great writer of ghost stories M. R. James: both are erudite, both are skilled at creating atmosphere and supplying the telling scary detail. But Aickman was annoyed by the comparison. In his introduction to The Fourth Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories he argued that there was an off-putting, donnish detachment in James’s storytelling (although he exempted ‘A School Story’ and included it in the volume). Certainly Aickman writes through his characters, not about them as James did, and his stories are of a very different kind. A closer comparison might be with Franz Kafka, whose dreamlike logic Aickman’s writing shares. But really Aickman’s work is sui generis. If you don’t know his strange stories, you must try them. And if you do, they bear rereading exceptionally well.
© Brandon Robshaw 2015, Slightly Foxed Issue 475