Tag Archives: ghost story (novel/film)

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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9. The Otherworldly Girls of Ghost Stories

It would seem decidedly un-gallant to say of a woman that she has a perfect face for the supernatural or macabre. (“The way you look, you ought to be in horror movies…”) And yet there are a number of highly striking actresses to whom this description applies. One could say it, and purely in tribute, of Barbara Steele, or of Grace Zabriskie, or even of Michelle Pfeiffer; and most certainly it is true of Alice Krige.
South African-born Krige has done a good deal to suggest that her glacial, fine-boned, well-bred looks are not quite of this earth through her performances as, inter alia, a cat-beast in Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers, as an alien queen in one of the many Star Trek spin-offs, and in the movie of the videogame Silent Hill. Naturally, it is of great significance around this parish that she played Mary Shelley in Ivan Passer’s film about the events at Villa Diodati in 1816, Haunted Summer. But I’d say Krige’s finest hour remains her dual performance as Eva Galli/Alma Mobley in John Irvin’s film of “Peter Straub’s terrifying bestselling novel” Ghost Story.
I’ve never read the Straub novel but having lately become aware of how much intriguing plot/theme material is in it – material that the movie naturally didn’t have time to dwell on – I’m convinced I must crack it open one day. But from childhood I still remember the movie fondly, and Krige’s performance especially.
The movie plot focuses on a quartet of New England codgers who call themselves ‘The Chowder Club’ and convene regularly in a wainscoted sitting room to drink brandy and tell each other blood-chilling tales. But these old boys (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) share an awful secret from their salad days, when they were complicit in the terrible death of a young woman – Eva Galli – on whom they were all sweet but who was, it turned out, vastly out of their league in terms of her formidable qualities. The audience approves, therefore, as Eva quite rightly returns from a watery grave to plague the old men who did her in.
It is a trope of the horror/fantasy genre that a woman can appear in superficially pleasing form yet be not what she seems, or else exactly what one might fear – a wraith or a devil, veiling a threat or playing some wicked game, having risen from the tomb or crossed into this world from some Other. The reader may have gathered by now that this is a trope I have been happy to pass along (like a virus?) through The Possessions of Doctor Forrest.
In Ghost Story, sure enough, one by one the Chowder Club start to drop, as flies to a wanton girl. Fairbanks’ son Craig Wasson is supposed to fight off the threat, but he is rather compromised, having already been seduced by a manifestation of Eva (that is, ‘Alma’) before he was aware of her unholy provenance. The allure is obvious, of course: there can be something terribly appealing about someone who’s a bit different, a bit special – and then something terribly unappealing too. You could get a nasty nip… And both as 1920s’ Eva and 1980s’ Eva, Krige is so wispily lovely that one comes to dread her sudden and drastic reversions to the form of a rotted corpse nearly as much as her victims do.
I daresay you can find the entirety of Ghost Story to watch online if you look hard enough… The trailer below is of the top-drawer kind that they don’t make anymore, and is possibly slightly better than the actual film…

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