Tag Archives: scotland

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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35. Doctor Forrest interview with Richard T Kelly for Book Cafe (BBC Radio Scotland)

For another six days – until the sands of the hourglass are run and time expired – you will be able to follow this link to listen to my conversation with Clare English about The Possessions of Doctor Forrest, in the course of which I read a short extract from the start of the novel. My segment gets underway at 00:36:20 – but I must say The Book Cafe is a wonderful show, and the whole episode is worth your time. For sure I was very pleased to be invited back, having talked to Clare about Crusaders back in 2008. She is a consummate host of this sort of diverse literary talk-fest – to wit, it was nice for me to follow on from a fine discussion with Owen Dudley Edwards in respect of the lately uncovered early manuscript of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – and I daresay the chat up at the front of the show about gender identity in writing, featuring the excellent Stuart Kelly, is germane to Doctor Forrest too…

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34. ‘Gothic tale ticks all the dark boxes’: The Scotsman on Possessions of Doctor Forrest

Jim Ferguson wrote a gratifying review of Doctor Forrest in The Scotsman last weekend, which kindly made note of my connection to Edinburgh through my past work c. 1998-2001 as a programme consultant to the city’s celebrated Film Festival. Ferguson went on to propose that a screen adaptation of the novel would be something to savour (or, in the nicest possible way, to shudder at… ‘one to watch from behind the sofa cushions.’) I also liked his reference to the ‘prosperous Metro-Scot commmunity in London’, which was/is certainly a subject of interest to me, and a smart way to put it too. A close reading of the novel for sure, and since the reviewer found in it ‘a strong sense of place’, ‘sharply observed dialogue’ and (the vital ingredient) ‘spine-chilling terror‘, then I trust in this case it did its work…

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30. Five-star praise for The Possessions of Doctor Forrest in The List (Scotland)

I’m pleased to report a really thoughtful and very positive review in The List, where the reviewer is so gracious as to acknowledge my previous novel too:

‘Take three respected Scottish doctors, now all living comfortably in suburban London. Make one of their number suddenly disappear and you have the beginnings of a very satisfying thriller … It’s all marshalled with a real feel for pace, character and that gap where metafiction meets the gothic novel. The Possessions of Doctor Forrest is a big departure from the epic sweep of [Kelly’s] debut novel Crusaders, but is no less impressive in its desire to reshape a
genre.’
Paul Dale, The List *****

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