In his own, quiet way, Robert Aickman sparked a revolt. Supernatural fiction, for 150 years, seemingly the male preserve of Devil-fearing aristocrats taking brandy and cigars at the club, needed a new, post-Georgian relevance. His three-story contribution to the 1951 anthology We Are For The Dark pointed a way ahead. Another sole tale was added to Cynthia Asquith’s Pan Third Ghost Book four years later. Then 1955 relinquished many shackles. Ginsberg’s ‘HOWL,’ James Dean in film and Chet Baker in jazz each represented a new generation in the Arts as a whole. A generation uninfluenced by those who went before and more motivated by their own self-doubts. Jimmy Porter, balling out the light, drawing room comedies of Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward at
’s London Royal Court, and the parallel writers branded Angry Young Men, were only a year away. Once kitchen sink drama was in, no longer would anyone be available for tennis.
Aickman never invented modern literary horror. Even aged Oxbridge intellectuals like Charles Williams had previously featured quietly credible characters with an inner life. But his stories represented his time. Aickman arrived representing his; and his questioned, portraying no ultimate certainties.
The We Are For The Dark and Third Ghost Book’s admirers had to wait another nine years for this, the first collection under his own name. The comprising six stories vary widely in the theme of self-doubt. In each, the narrator is suffering some undefined illness, turning ambiguous for the reader that narrator’s perception. Thus, a perhaps ‘normal’ experience incrementally unfolds tainted by a feverish magic realism. What precisely is ‘truth’ is left for us to decide.
The opener - ‘The School Friend’ – demands to be re-read on completion, such is its effect of a suddenly disturbed mirror that returns no single reflection. The narrator, Mel, presents her memories of Sally; the most precocious girl of her school next to Mel herself. Mel admits to a personal catastrophe, unimportant enough in her eyes to remain unnamed. As the reader who must rely upon her word to help construct the story, we gradually realise that Mel’s normalcy is anything but normal, based upon the disconcerted perceptions of others around her.
‘Ringing the Changes’ – the sole contribution from that Third Ghost Book – resonates quite literally amongst these later tales. A couple on honeymoon arrive at a small hotel on the coastal
. Everywhere seems deserted apart from its proprietor and her dissolute husband and an equally dissolute military man – the only other guest. Each seem to be drinking themselves into some kind of denial as the unending noise from two churches bells ring out a whole lot more than an innocent evening’s practice. The revelation of why they are ringing and who might be ringing them is one of the great moments in literary horror, related – as so often with Aickman – as an understated afterthought. village of Holihaven
‘Choice of Weapons’ almost returns us to ‘School Friend’ territory in the skewed perception of the protagonist – confused by passion - although this one is ultimately made aware of the fact.
‘The Waiting Room’ is the most conventional tale of the six, featuring a man who misses his last train only to face the spectral consequences of his physical vulnerability.
In ‘The View’ changes of perception are far more covert, where a woman he fantasises over draws him into a world that may, or may not, be of her making. Again, the main character – Carfax – has been ‘very ill’ and, in this case, ordered on holiday ‘under medical advice.’ An amateur artist, he becomes disorientated as the view from the room he’s been assigned seems, each day, to markedly alter.
Finally, ‘Bind Your Hair’ – almost a reversion to contemporary Dennis Wheatley territory - plays out like an exceptional episode of the 1970s’ British anthology TV series, ‘Thriller.’ Only Aickman’s characteristic, slight-of-hand subtlety throughout sets it apart. An unconventional, newly engaged woman is invited by her fiancé to spend a weekend at his parent’s West Country home. Everyone appears warm and friendly until an ulterior motive seems to arise in the form of a late arrival – a second-sight bohemian - who invites the woman to visit her. The woman, to herself, has no intention to comply, but it is only toward the story’s end we wonder to what extent the woman’s decisions were her own.
This is a highly intelligent and all too short collection. Fortunately, its 1966 follow-up – Powers of Darkness – is out next month while Sub Rosa, the third in order of original release from 1968, is already available. Tartarus’s goal is to re-release all eight original collections, which I can only applaud.