The Delicate Ghosts of Robert Aickman

If you were to assemble all the living writers of Weird Fiction who admire the work of Robert Aickman (1914-1981), you’d pretty much have to rent a large hall. His stature and influence have been acknowledged by compatriots such as Peter Straub–who hailed Aickman as “this century’s most profound writer of what we call horror stories” and Michael Cisco and Steve Rasnic Tem. (These latter two authors, along with myself, Jack Haringa and Simon Strantzas conducted a panel on Aickman at Necronomicon 2017, during which we all gushed our admiration for the Master’s work.) No mean hand at ghost stories in his own right, the late Russell Kirk wrote, “Of all the authors of uncanny tales, Aickman is the best ever…His tales literally haunt me; his plots and his turns of phrase run through my head at the most unlikely moments.” Critic John Clute aligns with Straub, dubbing Aickman “perhaps the finest writer of the ghost story in the second half of the 20th century.”

The man himself was a perplexing, odd chap, somewhat standoffish, reclusive and prickly, but paradoxically a valued friend and conversationalist, prideful in his braininess. A nice capsule portrait of Aickman can be found in Gary William Crawford’s Robert Aickman: An Introduction. Here we learn such tidbits as the fact that when his wife Ray was preparing to leave their unhappy union, she still felt tender enough to arrange for a private secretary who could shepherd Aickman through each day, catering to a genius who “never cooked a meal, or even prepared tea.” His main passion aside from literature, to which he came relatively late, was the Inland Waterways Association that he helped to first convene, dedicated to the preservation of England’s canal system. (Thus he remains perhaps to only author of fantastika to have a Memorial Lock named after him.)

Aickman’s large achievement rests, ironically, on a fairly small corpus of work. Scholar and critic S. T. Joshi makes it out to be forty-eight tales and two novels, one published posthumously. It’s not, perhaps, a surprise that Aickman was precise in his analysis of the kind of fiction he wrote. Joshi quotes Aickman in his study The Modern Weird Tale: “The ghost story” Aickman asserted ” draws upon the unconscious mind, in the manner of poetry… it need offer neither logic nor moral… it is an art form of altogether exceptional delicacy and subtlety.” And, he went on to insist, there are few high-quality examples of this highly refined sort of tale.

Readers and critics have long puzzled over exactly how to quantify and codify the ungraspable attractions of Aickman’s tales, and the manner in which he achieves his various effects of ambiguity, eerieness and multivalent possibilities, as well as his powerful yoking-together of the mundane with the outré. In the end, no better case for his charms probably exists than can be achieved by thrusting a volume of Aickman into the hands of someone and saying, “Go read!”

The new gathering from New York Review of Books Classics, Compulsory Games, is a good starting point, albeit not perfect, since it lacks many of Aickman’s best efforts. Editor Victoria Nelson was contractually constrained from including any stories from Aickman’s extant collections Dark Entries; Cold Hand in Mine; The Wine-Dark Sea; and The Unsettled Dust. Thus she misses out on many of the recognized gems from his oeuvre. But given this limited remit, she has put together a compelling collection of fifteen lesser-known tales.

Her erudite and passionate introduction offers a nice bite-sized biography of the man, and also lays out a handy roadmap of “some defining features of Aickman country.” She identifies the relevant milestones and themes as 1) distortions of time and space; 2) inversions and blendings of the natural and the supernatural; 3) the societal roles of men and women; 4) the pull of the erotic; and 5) a preference for mordant, acidic humor. With this spectral Baedecker in hand, we can make our pilgrimage through these tales and cite a few peaks and valleys, battlefields and ruins, haunted precincts and foreboding avenues.

Opening with the title story, we are immediately privy to the kind of awkward intimacies among humans that Aickman loved to portray. Often his characters are all fumbles and faux pas, as if they are aliens inside human suits, unfamiliar with the controls. A couple, Colin and Grace, take pity on a lonely boring neighbor, Eileen. But soon Grace is improbably seduced away by the woman, the pair of renegades take up flying lessons, and before you can say “Ballardian menace,” Colin is being hunted through the streets by the shadow of the women’s small plane, “absorbing and dissolving and slaying.” “Hand in Glove” finds Millicent–fresh off her breakup with Nigel–and her peremptory pal Winifred on a country picnic. But the landscape soon turns rank. “It’s the damp,” said Millicent. “Everything’s so terribly damp.” (Aickman loved evoking fetid soil and misshapen trees and civilization’s detritus, conjuring up the blasted environment out of Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland.) And so after an unpleasant pastoral interval, Millicent is forced to confront a very unsettling late-night visit from Nigel.

In “Marriage,” two women, friends, named Helen Black and Ellen Brown, fasten upon a virginal Mama’s boy named Laming Gatestead and soon have him enmeshed in a Kubrickian Eyes Wide Shut scenario. “Now he felt unequal even to drinking tea. He was a haunted man.” Thank goodness for his domestic resources that offer a blighted dead-end refuge. One of several relatively slight tales here, “Le Miroir,” finds a sixteen-year-old girl granted her independence in Paris, to study art. But in a kind of inverted riff on The Picture of Dorian Gray, she becomes victim of an accelerated chronology captured in a mirror’s frame.

In George MacDonald’s “Phantastes,” the protagonist awakes to find the wash basin in his bedroom generating a river that flows out and becomes a stream across his transmogrified living carpet. Likewise, in Aickman’s “No Time Is Passing,” Delbert Catlow discovers a heretofore unknown river at the edge of his property and embarks upon it on a series of Carrollian adventures. “The boat at Delbert’s feet looked charming and tempting… Unfortunately his watch had stopped.” He seems to return home safe to loving wife–but is the foundation of their reality still firm? Almost Dunsanian in conceit and treatment, “Raising the Wind” is another small gem, wherein two becalmed bargemen find a magical means of propulsion which is not totally amenable to direction.

The sprawling and ineluctably cumulative “Residents Only” has something of the feel of “The Great Wall of China” by Kafka (a writer with whom Aickman shares certain allegiances and strategies), insofar as both stories are parables of empire and entropy. Aickman’s chosen vehicle is a great foreboding cemetery whose caretakers all go more or less bonkers, and whose malign influence permeates existence. “Within the cemetery, the holes in the earth were widening into dikes, which ran with wetness and decomposition.” Aickman’s typical eye for satire finds developers eager to bulldoze the place and render it into a housing estate, as if one could picnic comfortably on the rim of a black hole.

At an otherwise tepid party, a suburban succubus named Vera entices Ronnie, the pal of the narrator, into a morbid tryst. “His head turned a trifle towards me; but there was no expression on his face, other than a paralyzed glare.” After this incident, Ronnie reemerges, transmogrified, to seduce away Clarinda, our hero’s girl, and her fate is most unkind.

Exiting this vividly intuitive yet rigorously formulated labyrinth of frustrated desires and derangements of the senses, of existential dread and numbly accepted confirmations of preternatural forebodings, the reader has a better sense of Aickman’s tropes and tactics. Quotidian boredoms are transmogrified into supernatural prisons, and every potential opening for expansion of the soul–new lovers, new houses, new rivers, new hikes–becomes a double-edged sword of entrapment. One grins and bears it, only because there is no other option. Perhaps the narrator of “The Strangers” best sums up Aickman’s goal: to create “the distinctive lucidity of nightmare…the nightmare lucidity that destroys the safeguard barriers of time, place, and all things like them, that anticipate death.”

 

A bevy of fine writers who have internalized Aickman’s worldview and strategies have congregated, under the masterful leadership of editor Simon Strantzas, himself a distinguished fantasist, between the covers of Aickman’s Heirs. But as Strantzas avows in his introduction, these writers have no interest in mere pastiches of Aickman, but only in carrying forward his aesthetic aspirations and methodologies. Perhaps brief highlights from these fifteen fervid fantasies will convey their craftsmanship and allure.

Brian Evenson’s “Seaside Town” features the hapless male and domineering woman teamup so prominent in Aickman. In an odd French beach resort, Mr. Hovell finds himself accosted by nude sunbathers and dead horses until a certain mental breakdown occurs. Bizarre artworks populate Richard Gavin’s “Neithernor,” and lead to the estrangement of an engaged couple. The formal politesse found in Aickman’s fiction clings to John Howard’s “Least Light, Most Night,” and serves here to conceal some pagan rituals. In “Camp,” by David Nickle, a gay couple, newly married, make the mistake of venturing to a remote lake for their honeymoon. Leaving is not so easy.

A chance meeting between an unemployed Polish tradesman, expatriated to the UK, and an elderly woman–in “A Delicate Craft” by D.P. Watt–results in hasty wishes going awry. A ghost town named Manfield has a habit of capturing those who spend too much time there: “[In] Manfield there was grass carpeting what had once been the sidewalk, vines crawling up Ram’s Head Tavern, rabbits nesting in the seats of long-gone drivers.” So we learn in Nadia Bulkin’s “Seven Minutes in Heaven.” Never volunteer to clean out the apartment of a deceased friend of the family. Especially if you have unresolved issues with a dead man. This is the lesson of Michael Cisco’s “Infestations.”

Can the subtle traps of a leisure park and a bad marriage ever be escaped? Reading “The Dying Season” by Lydia E. Rucker will convey the vital answer. A newly widowed elderly man finds his body undergoing uncanny changes in Michael Wehunt’s “A Discreet Music.” These changes are also reflected in the reawakening of old yearnings for another man. Most “modern” and gritty of this suite is John Langan’s “Underground Economy,” which tracks the misfortunes of a stripper named Nikki, who has to provide lap dances for a quintet of fellows “seven feet tall, three feet and change wide…[and] four hundred pounds [each].”

With “Vault of Heaven,” Helen Marshall conjures up another excellent writer, Graham Joyce, whose tales are akin to Aickman’s. In Greece our archaeologist hero meets a woman named Pelagia and learns of ancient curses imposed in the name of beauty. In the country home named Birchlands, two brothers live in close companionship. But then one leaves for boarding school and returns–as something else. So goes the eerie narrative of Malcolm Devlin’s “Two Brothers.” Another close friendship, marked by the inexplicable, is tracked from youth to adulthood in the manner of classic Stephen King by Daniel Mills in “The Lake.” Nina Allan, in “Change of Scene,” employs Aickman’s patented yoking of disparate frenemies as she gives us the holiday doings of Phrynne and Iris, both widowed and ambivalent about their status.

To cap the book comes what is, when all is said and done, my favorite piece: Lisa Tuttle’s “The Book That Finds You.” Tuttle conjures up an avatar for Aickman–one J. W. Archibald–and then, with the deftness of the bibliophile fantasies of John Crowley or Jo Walton, weaves Archibald’s imaginary career into the life of the female narrator, who bears some small likeness to Tuttle herself. The story has a gentle gravitas and nostalgia which beautifully sets off the true gruesomeness of its ending–involving a deed which shows the narrator to be no saintly, innocent fangirl herself.

Ultimately, these stories, striking and accomplished as they certainly are, serve mainly to underscore the uniqueness of Aickman’s tales, which originated from a mind shaped by an ethos and environment now as effectively extinct as Babylon or Byzantium. The cloistered, regimented, channeled milieu against which Aickman’s stories rebelled has been replaced today by a lawless, unfettered, chaotic climate whose daily banal horrors do not encourage the subtle frissons that Aickman sought to evoke. Reading Aickman, we make the journey back to an era where conditions were paradoxically more settled yet more primal, allowing a writer the security to plumb the subconscious more deeply, without worrying overmuch about the stupid terrors that mere humanity could concoct.

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