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Strange, Stranger, Strangest

The dark and elegant stories of Robert Aickman

According to the late great short story writer Robert Aickman, the problem with our excessively modern world is not that it is strange, but that it is not strange enough. Overabundant with routine jobs and dull expectations, it simply never delights or surprises. Noisy, self-regulating machines drive us places we don’t want to go and make us do things we don’t want to do; the too-big cities are filled with boring people mindlessly feeding their faces, bringing forth more babies, and growing relentlessly older until they die; and in the ticky-tacky suburbs, even our most intimate homes and gardens start to feel predictable and over-rehearsed. Except, perhaps, when we dream. 

The problem, of course, is what to do when we wake up.

Born in North London in 1914, Aickman went on to write several dozen great short stories that are always (unlike the modern world he despised) unique, elegant, sui generis, and continually absorbing. An unashamed elitist and reactionary who preferred visiting National Trust estates to speaking on telephones, Aickman lived his life mostly alone, avoiding modernism to such an extent that he even refused chemotherapy when his cancer was diagnosed in 1979 and died two years later in London’s Royal Homeopathic Hospital. Best known in his lifetime as a conservationist, he co-founded the Inland Waterways Association in 1946, which restored the extensive, largely Industrial Age canal system throughout Great Britain so successfully that it operates today for pleasure-cruising and tourism. And this desire to preserve what was ancient and fragile about his country extended well beyond his fascination with national monuments. He possessed an intellectual fascination for anything old and unexplained, such as haunted houses and psychic research. And when he couldn’t bear to live in the overbearingly normal world, he rigorously surprised and delighted himself (and readers) with his darkling visions of the abnormal.

When the story ends, it takes you with it.

In his acceptance letter for the World Fantasy Award in 1976 (one of the few honors Aickman received during his lifetime), he wrote: 

I believe that at the time of the Industrial and French Revol­utions (I am not commenting upon the American one!), mankind took a wrong turning. The beliefs that one day, by application of reason and the scientific method, everything will be known, and every problem and unhappiness solved, seem to me to have led to a situation where, first, we are in imminent danger of destroy­ing the whole world.

Like some of his more famous contemporaries—Evelyn Waugh, say, or Aldous Huxley—Aickman yearned for those pre-industrial times before the democratic rabble began making all their poorly educated and unreasonable demands; and while his political prejudices didn’t yield what some of his contemporaries considered a satisfactory person (one of his closest friends recalled him as being incapable of any “real commitment to anyone”), they inspired him to explore narrative ideas that were always idiosyncratic, funny, disturbing, and unpredictable. No two Aickman stories are alike; and no single story is like any other story written by anybody else.

The most dangerous forces in an Aickman story often emerge from common and unremarkable spaces: tacky carnival tents, rural church-yards, the rough scrim of bushes at the far end of a brick-walled back garden, the human rabble who visit their dead relatives in decaying cemeteries, or remote (and often unnamable) foreign holiday isles. And while supernatural events may often occur in Aickman stories—at other times they only seem to occur, and at still other times they don’t occur at all. In a “typical” Aickman story (if there is such a thing), the plausible, implausible, and impossible join together in intricate, always-shifting patterns; they don’t draw readers into clever plots and narrative arcs but assemble around them as a series of what seem at first unrelated images, events and intimations until, before they know it, the structure is finished, and the doors and windows all slam shut. Reading an Aickman story feels a bit like being Montresor in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” When the story ends, it takes you with it.

In one of the most peculiar literary autobiographies ever published, The Attempted Rescue (1966), Aickman describes his vision of human nature—much of which he learned from watching his elderly father, who he called “one of the oddest men I ever knew.” “With most people,” Aickman wrote, “it seems to me, one can, in time and after experience of the person, discern and distinguish between the true entity, almost always kind and even idealistic, though often a little child-like, and a Shadow which influences for the worse all the person’s actions and opinions, and does what it can to spoil the person’s life. The nature of this Shadow differs from person to person as widely as people differ. . . . ” In Aickman’s conception of human life, each person’s “true entity” is locked up in a sort of endless Jekyll-and-Hyde dance, in which their worst aspects are often exchanging places with their best; which, for Aickman, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Better to live one’s life, Aickman concludes in discussing his family tree (featuring a grandfather, Richard Marsh, who wrote The Beetle, an 1897 Victorian horror novel that outsold Dracula), with a “healthy repudiation of the probable.”

In Aickman’s world, parapsychology is often no more than a flight from all those qualities that make up our psychology.

In “Into the Wood,” one of Aickman’s most uncategorizable stories (which is saying something, by the way), his protagonist—like many Aickman protagonists—seeks an escape from her dull marriage while visiting the remote forests of Sweden, where she comes across a home for insomniacs, who spend their nights wearing convoluted pathways through the trees.[*]  Attracted by these meandering, pointless sojourners who ritually explore the nothingness of their long nights, Margaret decides that the best way to live often means simply obliterating the life you already know, and begins to seek her own escape from that endlessly noisy “clanging of pans” that characterizes her world. “One had to dispel practicality,” she decides. “Then something else could be heard—if one was lucky, if the sun was shining, if the paths were well made, if one wore the right garments: and if one made no attempt at definition or popularization.” In Aickman’s world, parapsychology is often no more than a flight from all those qualities that make up our psychology. And people often need to listen hard to hear any song worth hearing outside the clamor of their lives.

If Aickman was often mislabeled a writer of ghost stories, it was at least partly his fault. In the 60s and 70s he edited what is now a collectible paperback series of “Great Ghost Stories” for Fontana, and in six of the first eight volumes, he included original stories of his own (perhaps because he found it difficult to publish them anywhere else). In most of those great early stories, there isn’t an ectoplasm in sight—but simply flashes of what Aickman called “rare sensations.” In “The Swords,” for example, a sexually shy young salesman visits a carnival show in which men take turns puncturing a pretty young woman’s body with sharp blades; later, for ten quid, the salesman buys a night with her at his motel, where her body proves pliable in other, even more unsettling ways. She’s not a specter; she doesn’t fade away into the ether or communicate with the dead; she only suffers from an ashen quality that leaves the young man wondering about other noises he hears taking place in other rooms down the hall. And in “The Inner Room,” a small girl receives for her birthday a large antique doll house populated by gray-haired dolls whose faces are turned away from all the windows; years later, the now adult woman finds herself driving up to a similar, full-sized house on a dark road late at night; she knocks, the front door opens, and she finally meets the various old women she has been living with (in dreams) all her life. Most of Aickman’s stories don’t end with a revelation, or an explanation of what has happened; instead, they simply suggest the possibility of a greater meaning that resides beyond the ugly world we know. If we look hard enough, we might even discover a road to get there on our own.           

Aickman published several collections before he discovered a modifier that suited his work better than “macabre” or “horror,” and with his fourth collection, Sub Rosa, in 1968, he settled on the subtitle: Strange Tales. For Aickman, this did the trick creatively—even though it didn’t make it any easier for him to find regular markets. (In America, Edward L. Ferman’s The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction led the way in providing an outlet for Aickman’s best and most uncategorizable stories, such as “The Hospice” or “Ringing the Changes.”) But Aickman intrepidly carried on writing a few great stories every year and collecting them in hardback every few years. Meanwhile, a small number of devoted readers kept the books, and Aickman’s reputation, alive. As Aickman wrote in an introduction to one of the Fontana anthologies, his aesthetic was largely explained by the German word: “Ehrfurcht, or reverence for what one cannot understand. If there is one thing that modern man needs more than anything else, it is that.” In other words, it was better to write stories that couldn’t be explained—but, if they were composed beautifully enough, and your readers were attentive enough, they might at the very least be understood.

While the term “strange” is certainly more adequate than most of the other words applied to Aickman’s work, it doesn’t communicate how effectively these brilliant stories are constructed. In fact, it suggests they might simply be “weird” or “surrealistic,” like too much bad fiction these days. But while each story keeps the reader on the wrong foot with little shifts of location—often from dream to reality and back again—each story concludes with a small revelation that makes perfect sense: Aickman was the master of that last, elegant sentence that brings all his discordant images and events together in one bright flash. In fact, his stories are so successful as stories that it’s hard to read any of them without wanting to latch onto the first person you meet and tell them the same story all over again. (I know this for a fact, since I’ve been driving my wife crazy doing this all week.) For example, there’s “The Fetch,” one of Aickman’s closest-to-certifiable ghost stories, about a young man who grows up in a fallen aristocratic Scottish family which possesses its own ancient emissary to the posthumous world; whenever someone in the family dies, this damp and slightly drippy young woman enters their home to take them away—but only if someone invites her in; and for some reason that the narrator never quite understands (until it’s too late) people keep inviting her in. In one scene, the narrator is descending in a cage-elevator when he sees this “fetch” ascending to meet his young wife in another cage-elevator—a scene I’ll never forget, nor would I want to. Then there’s “The Stains,” one of Aickman’s last stories, in which a young widower meets an attractive girl in the woods collecting lichen for her mysterious, over-controlling father. They fall in love, they flee, and wherever they go, lichen-like stains appear on walls and doors and lumps of fungi assemble in neglected shopping bags. Until the angry father comes looking for them in their damp stone shelter.

Aickman’s stories languished, out of print, until Tartarus Press published a limited, collected edition in 1999. This small, Yorkshire-based publisher has subsequently reprinted all of his collections as beautiful hardbacks. In recent years Faber has reissued four of Aickman’s best collections (including my favorite, The Wine-Dark Sea (1988), as affordable paperbacks. Now the New York Review of Books has published its own mix-tape of stories not available in the Faber volumes (including four new stories recently discovered by Tartarus Press).

These stories largely focus on the far more terrifying regions where men and women try (and fail) to live with one another.

Compulsory Games provides a relatively domestic perspective on Aickman’s horrific universe. While many Aickman stories take place out in the remote woods and moors of mossy Britain, these stories largely focus on the far more terrifying regions where men and women try (and fail) to live with one another. In the title story, a young married couple get drawn into the orbit of a lonely, middle-aged woman who works for the civil service (watch out! “Lonely middle-aged civil servant” is practically an Aickman paradigm of terror!) And in “Marriage,” a young man finds himself involved with two different flat-mates—one named Helen Black, who loves to go to modern theater (uh oh), and another named Ellen Brown (equally uh-oh—she drops her aitches!) who just likes to have wild sex anywhere she can drag him. Unfortunately, whenever the protagonist is with one woman, the other keeps showing up, and vice versa. Until it’s impossible to tell them apart, or which one is doing him the most damage.

Okay, I’ll stop. It’s hard not to recount these stories that have given me so much pleasure over the last few months. For while the stories are often disturbing, elegiac or even sad, and just as often very funny, they are nothing like the conventional horror-ish stories of Clive Barker or Stephen King. There are no pin-cushion faces looming up out of the shadows, or perambulating corpses emerging from the cellar, or even any flying It-like eyeballs; in fact, it is rare to encounter any image that is actually grisly or unpleasant since, even at his darkest, Aickman’s stories never lose sight of the elegant phrase, or the bright little shift of perspective.

Anyway, why be scared by lovely fictions? It is impossible to imagine into existence any nightmares uglier than the ones that fill our newspapers and social media feeds, as the world continually reminds us.

[*]  Correction: This article has been revised to reflect that Aickman’s protagonist in “Into the Wood” visits Sweden, not Switzerland.