Sunday, 8 September 2013

Building a Spooky Library - Robert Aickman

See this book? It is, for my money, a Litmus test of literary tastes. If you don't like the stories in Cold Hand in Mine, you should probably give up on Robert Aickman. It's very unlikely that you will enjoy anything else he wrote.

I first came across this collection in the Robinson paperback edition, which I borrowed from the library. I was only vaguely aware of Aickman - at that time (the late Seventies) I was an avid science-fiction reader who was vaguely 'getting into horror'. I had yet to read M.R. James or discover the tradition of the literary ghost story. Machen and Blackwood were known to me only as people mentioned by Lovecraft in his famous essay, 'Supernatural Horror in Literature'. So I was in the odd position of coming to Aickman fresh, so to speak, with virtually no knowledge of the genre.

I was baffled and intrigued by the stories in CHIM. The first story, 'The Swords', is a tale of sexual awakening gone seriously wrong, or so I thought. The setting of post-war (or perhaps pre-war) Britain, with its shabbiness, unfriendliness and general air of tat made me oddly cheerful. Even living in the Seventies was better than this! And the story's shocking climax, followed by a menacing coda, were truly impressive.

633331Other first-rate stories here include 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal', 'The Hospice', 'The Same Dog', and 'The Clock Watcher'. All have the authentic nightmarish quality that I came to associate with Aickman - incomprehensible things described in rather cool prose. It was only later that I discovered his penchant for exorcising bad dreams by crafting them into stories. This made perfect sense in retrospect.

For some, the refusal to conform to traditional plot logic must make such stories unbearable, rather like being told a series of jokes you don't 'get'. And some of Aickman's stories simply don't work that well. But I think that, calculating his hit/miss ratio, he was as least as successful as any of the more readily comprehensible greats in the genre.

And not all of his stories resist interpretation - 'Ringing the Changes' is quite straightforward about what's happening and (more or less) why. Just as some dreams make more sense than others, so some of Aickman's strange tales are less baffling than, say, 'Two Doctors' by M.R. James. And there is for some a genuine pleasure in reading good writing regardless of formal conventions like twist, pay-off, plot logic etc. Indeed, some scientists think reading a story that doesn't follow conventional storytelling conventions might be good for the brain.

He was right to describe his fiction as strange stories. He was that supposedly un-English thing, a visionary, and when an English writer is a visionary he simply can't be kept in any prefabricated genre box. I defy the average horror fan to read 'The Stains', 'Ravissante', 'Bind Your Hair', 'The School Friend', or 'Ringing the Changes' and not find them disturbing. But Aickman wasn't simply a horror writer, as stories like 'The View' and 'The Houses of the Russians' make clear.

357728If you decide that you do like Aickman, you are arguably spoiled for choice. If you want excellent editions that will last a lifetime, Tartarus Press is publishing all his original collections. You could also plump for the two-volume Collected Stories from Tartarus. This is undoubtedly the high road for the bibliophile, but also the pricey one. For a reader who simply want to put Aickman on the shelf and in perspective, cheaper book club editions or paperbacks might make more sense. Painted Devils, The Wine Dark Sea, and The Unsettled Dust are all excellent, as of course is Cold Hand in Mine.

Opinions on Aickman are many and varied, but he was an immensely influential writer and editor. In his latter capacity he must have influenced at least one generation of readers, and many authors. Like all editors he was idiosyncratic, but the Fontana Great Ghost Stories paperbacks certainly represent a major achievement in the post-war genre. You can find a good discussion of their contents here.


Anonymous said...

Hello Dave,

Thank you for this post. Even though I'm past my novice stage of reading Aickman, it's still intriguing to read such reviews.

By the way, it reminded me that I haven't yet watched the "Cicerones" short. Probably will do it right now - I've been putting it off for months for fear of being disappointed) And I hope the "Night Voices" series will be available someday.

Thanks again for the great blog!



James Everington said...

Aickman is one if my absolute favourites, a huge influence and writer if so many great stories: Into The Wood possibly being my favourite, although really it's folly to pick just one Aickman as a favourite.

And the good thing is, because some of his books are still so expensive, I still have some unread Aickman to look forward to reading in my life. As well as rereading the rest, of course.

Great post. Feel the urge to go and read him again now.

valdemar said...

Thanks! Marina, I recommend 'The Cicerones' as a very good attempt at an Aickman adaptation. TV is of course a literal medium that allows little ambiguity, but this short film does a very good job of conveying the essence of the story.

James, I'm glad I've inspired you to reread RA. I agree about the cost of editions - it seems unfair that there is no quality paperback Collected Stories, but you can't have everything.

knobgobbler said...

Despite being a horror fan for most of my life I've only recently started reading Aickman. I seem to have had him confused with some similar-named splatterpunk author.
His stories are some of the most dream-like I've read... the external logic falls away I'm left to wander without handholds or assurances.
They're heavy hitters though, I find I can only read them in isolated sittings... not in a run. About one a month gives me time to chew and taste and digest.

valdemar said...

In case anyone hasn't heard it, this is the link to a BBC radio prog on Aickman by Jeremy 'League of Gentlemen' Dyson.