Robert Aickman’s “Strange Stories” - Anticipations of the Boom - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Robert Aickman’s “Strange Stories”
Anticipations of the Boom
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

The work of British writer Robert Aickman (1914—1981) is more than a little odd, and his own ascent from relative obscurity to (deserved) celebrity as perhaps the leading writer of weird fiction in his time is odder still. Aickman introduced himself in a curious manner with the volume We Are for the Dark (1951), which contained three stories by him and three by Elizabeth Jane Howard, none of which were signed, so that for years it was uncertain who wrote what. It was more than a decade before Aickman published his next volume of tales, Dark Entries (1964), and it was only with the publication of Cold Hand in Mine (1975) that he began acquiring an audience in the United States. Along the way he also published a poignant autobiography, The Attempted Rescue (1966), as well as a sensitive novel about lesbianism, The Late Breakfasters (1964); but he will be remembered for the fifty or so weird tales, many of them novelettes, that he wrote during the last three decades of his life.

Aickman himself referred to his tales as “strange stories,” and that is perhaps the best description that can be made of them. Surprisingly few involve the supernatural in any concrete or clear-cut manner, and many appear to focus merely on the progressively odd behaviour of the characters he puts on stage; but this is sufficient to create a pervasive and at times highly disturbing sense of the weird. Aickman, however, is frequently guilty of excessive obscurity, even in regard to the bare events of his tales, let alone their broader philosophical or aesthetic foci; and this obscurity—which in some cases might more charitably be referred to as engaging ambiguity—is a direct result of his pronounced views on the purpose of “ghost stories.”

These views are enunciated in the various introductions to the first eight volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1964—72), which he edited. The central statement occurs in the second volume:

In my Introduction to the first Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, I tried to define what seem to me the basic facts about the genre. I pointed out that the ghost story must be distinguished both from the mere horror story and from the scientific extravaganza. I suggested that the ghost story draws upon the unconscious mind, in the manner of poetry; that it need offer neither logic nor moral; that it is an art form of altogether exceptional delicacy and subtlety; and that, not surprisingly, there are only about thirty or forty first-class specimens in the whole of western literature. [F2, 7]

The rationale for these utterances is purportedly found in the first volume, but in many ways his reasoning there is flawed or insufficient. His distinction between what he calls the “mere horror story” (which he refers to as “purely sadistic; it depends entirely upon power to shock” [F1, 7]) and science fiction is valid enough; but the emphasis on the unconscious, and on the lack of “logic” and “moral,” are more problematic. I have frequently quoted the comment by L. P. Hartley from the introduction to The Third Ghost Book (1955) that, for the weird writer, “Chaos is not enough. Even ghosts must have rules and obey them” (viii). Aickman’s emphasis on Freudian notions of the unconscious led him to this extreme view that a story need not make sense even on the level of plot to be effective. What I believe has happened is that Aickman used the weird tale to tap into his own unconscious, in such a way that the characters and events became symbols that carried much meaning for him, but that are not always capable of conveying that same meaning—or any meaning—for his readers.

Many of the central issues that Aickman addressed in his work can be found in a careful reading of The Attempted Rescue, where he details both the events and the emotions that dominated the first forty years of his life. He wrote relatively little during this period, but these events and emotions clearly became the focus of the weird tales he eventually did write. (Aickman wrote a second autobiography, The River Runs Uphill [1986], covering the later stages of his life, but it deals almost entirely with his valuable work to save Britain’s inland waterways.)

One of the central issues in his life was travel. As he writes in The Attempted Rescue: “Travel, the art of travel, is the great impersonal passion of my life, though personal also, because I need a perfect companion, and cannot make art without” (89). It quickly becomes apparent that many of Aickman’s tales rely on a character’s travel from the familiar to the unusual to trigger the weird. “The Trains” is representative: two young women are hiking in the north of England, and when their map proves to be inaccurate and is finally destroyed in the rain, the event symbolically portrays their entry into the bizarre. Even a tale like “No Stronger Than a Flower,” although it begins with a married couple in their apartment, veers into the strange when the wife seeks out a beauty shop whose “address was in a street, and indeed a part of the town, which were outside her restricted topography” (Unsettled Dust 98). The celebrated tale “The Wine-Dark Sea” evokes Greece with remarkable immediacy, while “The Houses of the Russians” is set in a remote area of Finland.

Perhaps Aickman’s most successful and powerful weird tale, “Ringing the Changes,” can be considered here. This tale also features another of Aickman’s most powerful autobiographical elements—sex. With notable candour he admitted in his autobiography that “For years I suffered unspeakable agonies from sex frustration” (156), and many of his best tales rely on sexual tension for their effectiveness. In “Ringing the Changes” a newly married couple comes to an obscure coastal town in England for their honeymoon, where the husband, Gerald, feels increasingly disturbed by the odd milieu. When, one night, all the churches appear to be ringing their bells at the same time, Gerald asks an old pensioner what is the significance of the act; he is told: “They’re ringing to wake the dead” (Painted Devils 102). There follows a simple but harrowing discussion:

“I don’t believe in the resurrection of the body,” said Gerald. As the hour grew later, the bells grew louder. “Not of the body.”

“What other kind of resurrection is possible? Everything else is only theory. You can’t even imagine it. No one can.” (Painted Devils 102)

The entire tale—especially its conclusion, where the dead are only heard in the dark, never seen—achieves a remarkable sense of cumulative suspense and intensity.

The sexual frustration that Aickman spoke of is conveyed powerfully in a number of tales, not the least curious of which is “Letters to the Postman.” Here a young postman, Robin Breeze, hears that a woman, Rosetta Fearon, is living alone in a house that never receives any mail. One day he receives a note from her: “Something strange has happened to me. I find that I am married to someone I do not know. A man, I mean. His name is Paul. He is kind to me, and in a way I am happy, but I feel I should keep in touch. Just occasional little messages. Do you mind? Nothing more, for God’s sake. That you must promise me. Write to me that you promise” (Intrusions 188—89). As the tale advances—and, indeed, concludes—we scarcely know whether to believe any part of this bizarre missive: Is Rosetta merely teasing the postman, or is she insane, or has she in fact married a stranger? It need hardly be emphasised that nothing even remotely supernatural occurs in this narrative—and yet it is the epitome of Aickman’s “strange stories.”

Other stories of sexual tension are equally odd. “Ravissante” deals with the peculiar encounter of a man and the widow of a painter whom he admires; at one point, his fondling of her clothes manifestly symbolises his sexual desire for her. Then there is “The Swords,” perhaps a trifle more straightforward than many of Aickman’s other tales. In a curious exhibit at a fair, a woman lies on a chair while the master of ceremonies invites members of the audience—all male—to take a sword and plunge it into her body. They do so, first reluctantly, then more eagerly, as they see that the swords seem to have no appreciable effect aside from making a horrible hissing sound as they enter her flesh. The symbolism of the act, I trust, need not be belaboured. In the story “Marriage” a man appears to be attracted to two women who are roommates, Helen Black and Ellen Brown; their similarity of names ultimately suggests that they are merely alternate facets of a single personality.

Another key element in Aickman’s temperament is his distaste for modernity—an element that also fuses with his nostalgia for aristocracy or, at least, for old-world courtesy. Throughout his life Aickman expressed disdain for the era in which he lived, with its increasing scientific rationalism (Aickman himself was, mortifyingly, on occasion inclined toward belief in occultism, although this mercifully makes little appearance in his fiction) and, more pertinently, its abandonment of the belief and practice of life as a fine art. “I believe that magnificence, elegance, and charm are the things that matter most in daily life” (15), he wrote in The Attempted Rescue, adding that he developed a nostalgia for pre-1914 England: “Of course it was a world for the few, but almost all good things are for the few, and almost everything is depreciated when too many people have it” (26). Let it pass that Aickman himself never experienced that world, since he was born in 1914; his nostalgia is no less real and plangent for all that.

Two stories highlight this phase of Aickman’s thinking. “Growing Boys” begins as a half-comical treatment of two rambunctious fifteen-year-old sons (presumably twins) who do little but eat and storm in and out of the house; but the tale takes a grimmer turn when a policeman informs the boys’ mother that they have committed serious crimes such as assault and rape. It becomes evident that the boys are symbols for the increasing violence and chaos of contemporary society, a view emphasised by the later remark: “Those two are like children of the future” (TLD 37—38); and still later, “they were passing unnoticed amidst the freaks and zanies that people urban and suburban areas in the later part of the twentieth century” (TLD 45).

Then there is the almost indescribable “Meeting Mr Millar.” When an impoverished writer is forced to move into a cheap flat and take up work for a pornography publisher, he comes upon a large apartment below him that is apparently occupied by a company that does not seem to do much actual business. The writer hears “endless giggling, shouting, and banging of doors” (CHM 196); the employees’ conversation, which he occasionally overhears, “was always of unbelievable commonplaceness or banality” (CHM 198). Finally the writer has a peculiar encounter with Mr Millar, evidently the head of the company: rarely has such a colourless character inspired such vague terror. Later another tenant makes the following suggestion: “It just struck me for one moment that you might have seen into the future. All these people slavishly doing nothing. It’ll be exactly like that one day, you know, if we go on as we are. For a moment it all sounded to me like a vision of 40 years on—if as much” (CHM 225). But whatever the value or relevance of this sociological analysis, the tale itself engenders such a sense of bizarrerie that it must rank among Aickman’s finest.

One cannot leave Aickman’s work without taking note of the oddly disturbing story “The Hospice.” A man named Maybury is compelled to stop at a roadside inn where, among other bizarre details, all the other diners, seated at a long table, are elderly individuals who are eating “as if their lives depended on it” (CHM 132). Later Maybury notices that one of the old men has his leg chained to a rail beneath the table. The succession of individually peculiar incidents somehow becomes cumulatively horrible, culminating in Maybury’s being forced to leave the establishment in a hearse.

For all the occasionally frustrating obscurity of some of Aickman’s tales, his work overall is one of the most accomplished in the history of weird fiction: with a prose style of impeccable grace and fluency, an ability to engender the weird through incidents of seeming innocuousness and even banality, and—in his best work—a skill at creating an inexorable and increasingly potent atmosphere of strangeness, Aickman stands head and shoulders above most of his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors in the sheer artistry of his work. His actual place in the history of weird fiction is difficult to specify, largely because his work was for all practical purposes ignored and overlooked until just prior to and after his death; but his influence on Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, and a few other literary artists is undeniable. His work may perhaps be caviare for the general, but he is worth seeking out for the subtly distinctive chills he offers.