Monday, 8 August 2011

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman, Tartarus Press

There are three main effect-responses a writer wishes to provoke from the reader.
  In no particular order, these can be reduced to 1/ the heart, 2/ the gut, and 3/ the head.  If we take it as an interchangeable list, we can vary the order for various authors.  The final order very much depending upon a writer’s individual approach.
  Hold on, you say; surely, the author isn’t in charge of the response?  What matters is the reader and his reaction to the material?  You think?  I would argue that a competent writer is very much in control of a reader’s response.
I mean, when was the last time ‘War and Peace’ was bought by anyone anticipating knockabout comedy?  Or a James Kelman novel purchased for its solid Jackie Collins-type situations?
  So long as Genres exist for authors to write in – whatever that genre may be – then emotional response will always be their priority.
  The Horror genre might be one easiest to highlight by example, since it exists to provoke the more extreme reactions.  One author specialising in sensationalist pulp-horror, let us say Shaun Hutson, will try to instil a visceral, churning feeling mingled with black humour.  His order of priority of effect-response can be thus;

1/ Gut
2/ Heart
3/ Head.

Graham Masterson – less knowingly witty - might be closer to

1/ Heart
2/ Gut
3/ Head.

While Clive Barker, I would consider

1/ Head
2/ Gut
3/ Heart.

This doesn’t mean these writers lack what isn’t uppermost in the list; merely that one intended effect-response is prioritised over the other as the best means to tell their tales their own way.  Move away from straight horror, towards a less easily definable genre, and this list still applies.
  By this token, there is little doubt that Robert Aickman is a Head, first, heart, second, and gut, third, man.  Here lies an issue, at least, if not a problem.   Even as ‘strange’ rather than horror fiction, the gut reaction to a tale should never be as low as third inconsideration.  An accusation could be levelled that this may not have been the writer’s intention and, again, is more a problem for myself as anticipating reader.  I don’t believe that.  As an issue, I suspect it lies at the heart of Aickman’s detractors.
  ‘Cold Hand in Mine’ – newly reissued by quality independent, Tartarus Press – is a case in point.  As Phil Baker concedes in the latest of their, always excellent, Introductions, “Aickman’s stories are often over-plotted…”  I’ll say.  There is little doubt he pulls this off in most of the tales in the first three books.  There, they work because – however puzzling - the pay-offs never leave us hanging without considered cause.  Here, the climactic results are mixed and a lot more uncertain.
  ‘Meeting Mr. Millar’ promises much, being this collection’s longest narrative, but ultimately pulls its punch.  The Mr. Millar of the title is landlord to the narrator staying in his digs; to the latter he appears as absent in personality as in presence.  He also drinks too much and brings home strange women at night.  This marks him down as someone sinister – apparently.
  Believe me: passed experience has warned me to always approach Aickman with intellectual respect and rigour, knowing it to be a mistake ever to take his narrators’ statements at face value.  Yet, even with this mindset, this tale fails to deliver.  Based on his descriptions, there is no justification whatsoever in ‘Meeting Mr. Millar’s narrator feeling especially freaked by his landlord.  Millar makes shallow, distracted conversation and keeps dubious company at night.  I hesitate to ask; so what?  The narrator’s paranoid overreaction is puzzling, a possible covert source not even hinted at elsewhere in the text.  In trying to provoke a likeminded reaction in the reader, I wonder if Aickman was trying too hard in the preliminaries; the over-plotting Baker refers to.  Personally, I have met far more inexplicable characters in bed-sit land than Millar.
  ‘The Clock Watcher’ is interesting as an intellectual exercise of making stationary objects harrowing, but we are presented only with other cameo characters vaguely paranoid perceptions of various clocks, with no uniting factor even hinted at.  Is Ursula’s own paranoia justified or based upon something else?  Unfortunately, too much is left to chance, unexplained.
So, in this case, we are told too little to care.
  Aickman is on far stronger, and, perhaps, safer territory here in his more conventional storytelling.  Fortunately, his gift for originality isn’t consequently forsaken.  ‘The Swords’ is an intriguing take on unfettered sadism as a competitive circus game.
  ‘Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal,’ the most conventional entry here, is, nevertheless, a beautifully wrought tale of mutating vampirism from the victim’s point of view.  It perhaps feels a less original take on the sub-genre today than on the collection’s original release in 1975, but no less enjoyable for that.
  ‘The Hospice’ - easily my favourite in the collection – is a disquieting tale of a man who has lost his way who – suddenly injured - takes refuge in a care facility.  I later pondered that the whole tale might be based around the infected narrator simply misreading ‘hostel,’ or even ‘hospital,’ as ‘hospice,’ his terror stemming from that misled assumption about its staff and residents; but to criticise further on that would be churlish.
  ‘The Same Dog’ is almost unique in the Aickman oeuvre in actually foregrounding its pay-off in the title.  Still, it is a neatly dour tale of unrequited love meeting physical danger.
  The remaining stories, ‘The Real Road to the Church’ and ‘Niemandswasser,’ remind us where Aickman’s real strength lies; when dispensing with the pay-off entirely to concentrate on the poetry, gradually larding with likely clues, earlier, in the text.  It is here where I care more about his characters, his burgeoning heart compensating for the lack of gut.


  1. To your criticism regarding the low ranking of 'gut' in the make-up of his stories Aickman might have objected that they are much closer to poetry than to horror (a point he never tired of stressing). And in poetry the gut reaction proceeds predominantly from the texture, not the text, much less the plot. That is to say that in Aickman, the gut is involved from the first sentence, only in a much subtler way than any horror writer could hope to achieve.

  2. Thanks for your considered comment, polecat. As soon as I began that piece, I realised the subject probably justified a whole series, which is why it spun out into my longest blog thus far. I was, perhaps inexpertly, trying to communicate that sometimes (and ONLY sometimes) I find the presence of the poetry overly prioritised next to those emotional triggers any fiction writer - whatever the genre - utilises to successfully hold the reader. True, some are, and have to be, a lot more subtle than others, but RA's rather damp squib (as opposed to his earlier books intriguingly ambiguous)endings in certain stories, I find disappointing. I still broadly adore his work, though, and no doubt will go on doing so.

  3. Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal is the one of the best vampire stories I have read. But then I'm not big on vampire stories. With Aickman it's the journey not the destination. As a fledgling weird fiction writer he was a real eye-opener for me.

  4. "The journey not the destination" - spot on again. Although, there's at least one tale in 'Sub Rosa' with a cop-out ending that makes little sense beyond a cack-handed attempt at straight horror. Aickman's always at his best when he keeps his own unique focus.

    Otherwise, my apologies to polecat, who was, in truth, my first commenter. (It's been a long time...).