Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
2014 marks the centenary of the birth of Robert Aickman, an author who once encountered demands that you read more of his output – particularly his fiction, which comprises several collections of ‘strange stories’ and two short novels. To celebrate his centenary, Faber have reprinted four volumes of his stories complete with new introductions, afterwords and glorious cover art by Tim McDonagh, appearing monthly from June through to September. His novels can be found in the Faber Finds list. A nice touch to the four volumes of short stories are the Afterwords, in the form of pieces by friends and colleagues – Aickman remembered. These are fascinating vignettes of a complex man in themselves. For more biographical detail, I’ve compiled a Five Fascinating Facts feature in our BookBuzz section.
I was completely ignorant of Aickman, or so I thought, until I read his stories – some of which were definitely familiar. I assume this was mostly through their inclusion in various anthologies of ghost and horror stories that I had read, for, unlike many other writers in this genre, his stories have rarely been adapted for TV and radio. Having now read the first two volumes of reprints, I can see how they have been so influential to other authors like Neil Gaiman and the creators of TV’s The League of Gentlemen: Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson and Reece Shearsmith – Royston Vasey is definitely an Aickman kind of place!
Aickman eschewed the more familiar categorisations of ghost or horror stories for his tales. There are ghosts, and there is horror, but there is also a lot of strangeness – and his preferred classification was ‘strange’.
It starts off well with a menacing little tale called The School Friend. You know how strained it can be when you meet an old classmate after several years? This is what happens to Mel when Sally returns to the town after the death of her father…
For the first time in months, if not years, I wondered about Sally.
Three days later she appeared without warning at my parents’ front door. It was I who opened it.
Never was the word hallo said with more foreboding, only then to be compounded further:
…all she said was, ‘Anyway I’m still glad you’re living here.’
‘Can’t say I am. But why in particular?’
‘Silly Mel! Because I’m going to live here too.’
Yup, it’s your worst nightmare, forced into a friendship with someone you didn’t know very well just because of a shared history and proximity. Aickman characterises the two girls well, and I enjoyed this assured start.
The second strange tale is one of his most celebrated. Ringing the Changes is narrated by a middle-aged man with a much younger wife. They’d had to delay their honeymoon until October when they were able to get away. Gerald books a hotel at a village on the East Anglian coast – The Bell, and when they eventually reach it, it soon becomes obvious that they’ve picked the wrong night to belatedly celebrate their nuptials…
In Choice of Weapons, a man abandons his date in a posh restaurant for a mysterious femme fatale with whom he falls in love across a crowded room. The Waiting Room is a classic short ghost story about missing a train, while The View is about the eye being deceived by what it expects. Finally in Bind Your Hair, a young man takes his girlfriend home to meet the family.
I enjoyed them all very much. Time wise, this collection all sit quite happily somewhere between the 1920s and 1950s. There’s that slightly clipped and arch feel to the dialogue, if they were a film they’d be in black and white and always full of swirling mists.
In The Swords, a travelling salesman visits a sideshow at a dingy little fair. Paying his two bob to enter the tent, he sees a sick-looking dressed up woman lying on a dias and a pile of worryingly industrial looking swords – it becomes clear what the show is about when the barker pipes up:
‘And now, gentlemen, which of you is going to be the first?’
Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal is a Gothic fantasy set in the Europe of Byron and Shelley which won Aickman The World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1975. It comprises entries from a young lady’s diary as she accompanies her parents on the Italian leg of their Grand Tour.
In The Hospice, a businessman gets lost on his way home, and running out of petrol stops at a sort of hotel in the middle of nowhere. Persuaded to stay for dinner in a distinctly weird dining room in which some of the diners are shackled to their chairs, he gets fed gigantic portions. When full up after just the first course, the waitress tries to persuade him to eat more:
‘It’s turkey tonight,’ said the woman. ‘You know how turkey just slips down you?’
Guess what I had for dinner just before reading this? Gulp!
Aickman’s strength is in taking an ordinary situation then stressing his characters just enough to induce full-blown paranoia in his innocent narrators. All of the stories are narrated in the first person by their main character, recounting their awful experiences. Most of the horror is all in the mind; not for him the excesses of the most gory of slasher novels … just the odd touches – a drop of blood here, that creature there, not forgetting the zombies and …
There’s no room in the short story format for extended battles against demons, the undead and the like. You either beguile the reader before hitting them with the strangeness bigtime, or immerse them in atmosphere from the start. Likewise, there are two types of endings: relief, whether the protagonist perishes or gets away or, more likely – a continued unease. Aickman can do all of these.
I hope I’ve convinced you that these are wonderful and strange stories indeed. I’m so glad to have discovered Aickman and I shall savour the other stories in this series with great pleasure.
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors and is a bit of a convert to this kind of short story.
Read Annabel’s Five Fascinating Facts about… Robert Aickman here.
Robert Aickman, Dark Entries (Faber, London, 2014) 978-0571311774, Paperback, 238 pages.
Robert Aickman, Cold Hand in Mine (Faber, London, 2014) 978-0571311743, Paperback, 356 pages.