36. Robert Aickman’s ordinary ghosts

Is Robert Aickman the twentieth century’s ‘most profound writer of what we call horror stories and he, with greater accuracy, preferred to call strange stories’? Such is the opinion of Peter Straub, author of Ghost Story, voiced in a discerning introduction to Aickman’s collection The Wine Dark Sea. If you accept Aickman’s self-classification within the ‘strange’ then you might say he’s in a league of his own, and I’d be partial to that argument. (It would make him rather akin to Poe, who seems to me the only true contender in the field of ‘tales of mystery and imagination.’) But Horror is obviously the most compelling genre label that exists on the dark/unnatural side of literary endeavour, and it might be simplest and most useful to the cause of Aickman’s renown if we just said that, yes, Robert Aickman was the best horror writer of the last hundred years.
I only read Aickman for the first time in 2010 on the happy occasion of becoming the publisher of some of his work through my function at the Faber Finds imprint. But what a blessed discovery! Doctor Forrest was already at the presses by the time I read The Wine Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust, so I don’t have to own up to any express hommages; but the fact is that so elegantly and comprehensively did Aickman encompass all the strengths and complexities of the horror story that it’s hard to see how any subsequent practitioner in the form could stand anywhere but in his shadow. His construction of tales is immaculate. True, there is probably a typical Aickman protagonist, usually if not always a man, who does not fit so well with others, somewhat alone and neurotic to a degree – but that neurosis is carefully made and subtly conveyed to the reader. Aickman’s management of terror is masterly, because he seems always to proceed from a realism where detail accumulates without fuss, the recognisable material world seems wholly foursquare – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and the protagonist is proceeding toward death as if in a dream. For all Aickman’s seeming austerity many of his stories also have a strong erotic current: there is, again, something dreamlike to how quickly in Aickman an attraction can proceed to a physical expression, and yet he also creates a sense of dread whenever skin touches skin – as if desire (and the female) are forms of trap, varieties of doom. If that is the sort of theme that rightly causes us to think of horror as a little reactionary and neurotic in itself, then all one can say is that Aickman executes it always with great panache.
‘The Stains’, from The Unsettled Dust, is only one story to which I would bend the knee in respect of Doctor Forrest. This account of a widower’s falling in love with (and plunging to his doom through) an appealing young woman (who is in fact some kind of dryad) effortlessly achieves the sort of effect I have strived for in the chapter of Forrest entitled ‘A Mermaid’s Tale.’ And ‘The Fetch’ from The Wine Dark Sea seems to me a significant contribution to the great tradition of Scottish Gothic, with its confessional protagonist who rightly judges himself ‘a haunted man’ and its grim faceless wraith, ‘the old carlin’ who emerges from the sea to augur a death in the family. When said haunted man finally finds himself caged in his family home, watching the carlin watching him from a perch outdoors up high on a broken wall, he reflects that ‘such levitations are said to be not uncommon in the remoter parts of Scotland’; while the reader nods and thinks ‘Aye, not uncommon indeed…’

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6 responses to “36. Robert Aickman’s ordinary ghosts

  1. Johan Herrenberg

    I like your post. I am, just like you, exploring Aickman’s work for the first time and in a systematic fashion (using the 2-volume Tartarus edition), and I am hugely impressed. Being an author myself (Dutch), though not of the weird genre, I can admire Aickman’s impeccable and elegant style and the expert story-telling from the inside as it were, as a colleague. A great writer!

  2. I too, an Aickman virgin, spent January and February of this year luxuriating in the three-volume Faber Finds editions of his work. That his work had been out of print for so long is an injustice, and bewildering, really. With his neurotic protagonists and existential dread he puts me in mind of an english H. P. Lovecraft: but much more subtle, and sexy (one of the things that impressed me was that “strong erotic current” you mention ). It’s hard for me to pick a favourite story, because his work is so consistently strong (I even liked “Growing Boys”, which seems to cop a bit of flak on the interwebs).

    • Thanks for the comment Brian. You’re right, it’s strange he’s not more famous, but then he has a lot of famous fans. And I can’t believe we won’t see filmings of his work in the coming years. There is something very English about that eroticism in his work, I think – it certainly becomes more noticeable the more one reads of him. And yes, so many fine stories – I struggled a bit through ‘Growing Boys’, but it’s great that he penned the odd off-kilter entry in the oeuvre, if only to get his fanbase arguing among themselves…

  3. Robert

    I had the good luck to encounter Aickman back in the 1980s, in my mid-20s. Without knowing it, I had read a story by him (“The Inner Room”) years before, and a woman I was ineffectually courting was an Aickman fan herself. She subsequently sort of broke my heart (thus making me an Aickman protagonist), but she also put Aickman on my radar and when _The Wine-Dark Sea_ appeared, I knew I had to get it. I also knew back in 1999 that I had to bite the bullet and get the Tartarus _Collected Strange Stories_ (though I hadn’t bargained on all the typos). At his best, Aickman’s work is pure genius, though, for my money, his best stories are the ones with female protagonists. At the top of my list is “The School Friend,” followed by “Into the Woods” and “The Inner Room.”

    I too initially struggled with “Growing Boys,” which seemed an oddly crude grotesque compared to the exceptional subtlety of his best work. But when I started to think about it as a parable of a woman feeling wholly trapped–even consumed–by her marriage and being a mother, it became much more satisfying . Aickman clearly had a fear of women (I can’t think of any happy heterosexual relationship in his stories, though, of course, many seem to start quite promisingly). But I also have the sense that he’s quite good at writing from a female perspective. “Growing Boys” strikes me as the comic flip-side of “Into the Wood,” and both are highly sympathetic to women who feel smothered by domesticity.

    And, very belatedly, thanks, Richard, for so warm an appreciation of Aickman’s art; it’s a pleasure to read!

    • Dear Robert – many thanks for this very interesting and felt response. Keep an eye out in 2014, which is the centenary of Aickman’s birth. There will be some notable markings of the anniversary, and I hope to have a hand in one or two myself. Best, Richard

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