Editor’s Note: Greetings, dear reader! I am so excited to introduce Stories For Ghosts’ latest contributing writer, David Tobin! David is a longtime horror fan, especially when it comes to horror literature. As such, he thought it would be appropriate to introduce you to Robert Aickman, an incredibly gifted yet underrated writer of strange fiction. Glad to have you, David!
Robert Aickman is the genius of nightmare. His stories create a voiceless dread, feeding on characters and images that are endlessly disturbing. Sooner or later, reading him, you just want to wake up from what feels more and more like a very bad dream:
I caught hold of her left arm by putting both my hands round her wrist, and tried to lug her up toward me, so that I could feel her thrown against me, and could cover her neck and front with kisses, if only she could make me want to … I gave this great, bad-tempered, disappointed pull … She came up towards me and then fell back again with a sort of wail. I was still holding on to her hand and wrist … What had happened was that I had pulled her left hand and wrist right off.“The Swords” (1975) From Cold Hand In Mine
Aickman (1914 – 1981) was an odd duck. He wrote what he called “strange tales,” published in the U.K. over four decades. He was also an art critic and preservationist who co-founded the influential Inland Waterways Association, dedicated to preserving and restoring England’s long-abandoned canal system. He liked old things and old cities:
He was appalled by the surmise that the gondolier, strong as he was, had been somehow swept from the boat, while the two of them had been lost in passion and the spell of the night. Gently, he put out his hand and drew
awayher black hood. Then, in the solitude of the sea and against the rising wind, he screamed out loud. Inside the black hood was a white skull; and an instantaneous throwing back of her entire black cloak, revealed inside it only an entire white skeleton.
“Never Visit Venice” (1968) from THE WINE-DARK SEA
Most horror fans have never heard of him. But esteemed horror writers have been honoring him for a long time. Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Ramsey Campbell, Gahan Wilson, Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub – they’ve all supplied blurbs and introductions over the years. There was even a sort of mini-revival: Faber & Faber has reissued some of his short-story collections; in 2011 screenwriter Jeremy Dyson put together an excellent 28-minute BBC Radio appreciation called “The Unsettled Dust: The Strange Stories of Robert Aickman”; and there is a 53-minute 2016 documentary on YouTube well worth watching.
“The Trains” (1951) is the story that introduced me to Aickmanesque dread. Two proper British ladies – friends who have already grown a bit annoyed with each other – are on a hiking tour somewhere in the high, hilly moorlands of northern England. They get lost, both geographically and psychologically. By the end of the tale, trapped in a manor that at first seemed hospitable enough, they are subjected to something far worse:
The woman, approaching the cheap little bedroom chair on which Margaret’s clothes lay tumbled where she had dropped them, picked up Margaret’s tie, and held it between her two hands twelve inches or so apart … Margaret’s heel struck Mimi’s open rucksack, dropped there by its casual owner, hitherto forgotten or unnoticed … Margaret stooped. Three seconds later her adversary was lying back downwards on the floor, bleeding darkly and excessively in the gloom, Mimi’s robust camping knife through her rather thick white throat. “Comes from Sweden, dear,” Mimi had said. “Not allowed to sell them here.”“The Trains” (1975), from The Wine-Dark Sea
Aickman is maddeningly difficult to write about because of what he writes about. I have cheated, really, by quoting from three stories for the shock value of three scenes, simply to get your attention. The cumulative effect of his narratives is much more unnerving than the visceral jolt of shock. They land you in a world of ordinary people living unremarkable lives that, for emotional and psychological reasons not easily comprehended, become vague, off kilter, and, finally, unspeakable.
This is not to say that Aickman doesn’t know how to scare the crap out of you in more straightforward ways. Take, for example, “Ringing the Changes” (1964), the story of a honeymoon gone awkwardly, then hideously wrong. Newlyweds Gerald and Phrynne, “a girl twenty-four years younger than himself,” arrive in the dreary coastal town of Holihaven. On their first night, inexplicably, church bells and town bells, more and more of them, begin to clang and boom. The tolling doesn’t stop. The racket grows intolerable. Gerald strikes up a conversation in the shabby hotel with an old townsman, the Commandant:
“They can hardly go on practicing all night,” Gerald said. But now it was fear that hushed his voice.
“Practicing!” The Commandant’s scorn flickered coldly through the overheated room.
“They’re ringing to wake the dead.”
A tremor of wind in the flue momentarily drew on the already roaring fire. Gerald had turned very pale.
“That’s a figure of speech,” he said, hardly to be heard.
“Not in Holihaven.” The Commandant’s gaze had returned to the fire.“Ringing the Changes” (1964) from Dark Entries
The sights and sounds and smells that follow could have served as unholy inspiration for George Romero, Robert Kirkman, and all the hordes to come.
“In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation” is the epigraph he chose (from British author Sacheverell Sitwell) for one of his short-story collections.
Robert Aickman’s strange tales are built to last.