This succinct interview with me is from The List (Issue 686, 9 August 2011), and was written up by Brian Donaldson:
Give us five words to describe The Possessions of Doctor Forrest
The ones I’d borrow from reviews would be ‘gothic’, ‘gripping’, ‘spine chilling’ and ‘seductive’.
Which author should be more famous than they are now?
James Lasdun has a fine reputation, but everyone ought to read his superb stories in the 2009 collection It’s Beginning To Hurt. Lasdun has a masterly way of leading his characters from innocence to experience, and his prose shines (and cuts) like a diamond.
What do you love about book festivals?
Meeting and talking to readers; that’s what book festivals are all about, a refreshing antidote to what writers spend the rest of their time doing …
What was the last book you read?
The Unsettled Dust by Robert Aickman, one of the finest writers of the supernatural. Without fuss, Aickman’s stories conjure a recognisable world that feels wholly foursquare; until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a personal hell, and the protagonist is walking toward death as if in a dream.
Which dead author do you wish was still alive today?
To speak of a writer who went before his time: Gordon Burn was a superb stylist, a keenly questing mind, and a true northerner, who brought real artistry to bear on raw (sometimes terrifying) true-life subject matter, be it politics or poverty, football or serial murder. Whenever there’s a controversial story in the news now, I always think, ‘What would Gordon have made of this?’
13 Aug (with Kevin MacNeil), 10.15am, £10 (£8).
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…’