Friday, 5 June 2015

The Strangers and Other Writings by Robert Aickman, Tartarus Press

(Pan is back after six months absence with something of a bang: a review of a volume featuring Robert Aickman's ninth collection of short fiction, the first of three parts of an essay on Pan himself by Mark Andresen ((whoever he is...)) – inspired by the eagerly-awaited Soliloquy for Pan anthology from Egaeus Press, to be reviewed at a later date - and a new 'Albertine's Wooers.' A veritable box of literary Ferrero Rocher...)

* * *

Featuring the first original short fiction collection of Aickman in three decades, 'The Strangers and Other Writings' is the single most important release of the year by an independent publisher. From a modest, but still entertaining, start, it only grows in interest as the author matures.
  'The Case of Wallingford's Tiger' is a slight, datedly witty tale on the fate of a sick tiger, kept as a domestic pet, now a.w.o.l. along with its owner. If the fate of each is already guessed, then it can be assumed the plot is not its strength. This lies in the encroaching sense of menace and the contrived social mores and otherwise unrevealed motives of Wallingford himself; “a solitary man, having no previous friend or acquaintance in the place (who) found the exact level of entertainment for the district, and took trouble to maintain his establishment exactly at that level, neither above nor below it.” Aickman's trademark cool precision is, here, in 1936, aged 22, already in place.
  'The Whistler' is a peek into the delusional, self-abnegating id of a serial killer from the time-forgotten sanctity of his armchair. An intriguing early glimpse into a more blatantly dark Aickman but, as his friend Heather Smith notes, its ending leaves dissatisfaction and confusion. He seems either to have lost interest or inspiration to take him beyond a meditation.
  'A Disciple of Plato,' is a thoroughly satisfying reflection by an infamous roue and seducer in 18th century Rome, posing as a 'philosopher,' meeting his paradoxical match in a woman en route to the convent. 'The Coffin House' feels like a superior first draft for a Sixties-era horror magazine in that the basic story is in place, only lacking its fleshed-out detail. In 'The Flying Anglo-Dutchman' entropy and neglect of the past would become themes of perennial import to Aickman, already defined and neatly compacted in this lovely, reflective tale.
  'The Strangers' is the longest, most satisfying tale and surely not out-of-place had it appeared alongside those in 'Cold Hand in Mine' or 'Tales of Love and Death.' For here, everything we know of his approach is by now in place. Aickman's unreliable narrators, initially conventional, harbour that nascent soulless detachment. The – usually male - narrator is a remote, dysfunctional, matter-of-fact observer with no apparent belief in the ghostly fate he is faced with but seems unable to acknowledge. The cumulative effect from these contrasting entries is that the infamous sense of displacement and remoteness of objective feeling, far from a writerly affectation, may, after all, have been the author's own.
  In 'The Fully-Conducted Tour,' a BBC Radio 4 'Morning Story' from 1976, the narrator recalls a last holiday in Tuscany, twenty years before, in service of his ailing wife. Seeking a lone tour in respect of her, needful of a day to herself, he finds one conducted to a Gothic-style villa by a beautiful guide who singles him out, seeming to offer special treatment – and a warning.
  The title tale, 'A Disciple of Plato' and 'The Flying Anglo-Dutchman' are this collection's revelatory jewels and worth the purchase for these alone. The essays taking up it's second half are revelatory in other ways; I'd assumed Aickman, in belief, something of a right-wing, Church of England-type paternalist. The personally insightful essays show us a man more a libertarian and enthusiast and are to be recommended. I, for one, would want to read more.
  It's always interesting to compare and contrast the birth of a writer's early style with that developed in his or her maturer work. 'The Stranger and Other Writings' reveal blueprint snapshots of the dry wit and cool ambiguity rife in Aickman's best work.

* * *

Pan and the Peak Experience
Why the English uncanny defrocked the priestly hero

A poster recently blogging on a thread devoted to neo-paganism, argued that paganism itself began when ancient men and women looked around – and began to ask 'why?' This is perhaps the simplest starting point on defining its neo-pagan sub-topic. It avoids unending backtracking that remains – to this day – open-ended conjecture on countless public forums. 'Why' is also a question writers have been asking since at least the dawn of the Renaissance – one, I will argue, that found its answer in our time; specifically citable to those authors of the uncanny, working at the turn of the 20th century.

  Patricia Merivale's reflection how, in so many Pan-related tales, 'one should not meddle frivoulously with matters too mysteriously important for one's limited understanding,' ('Pan the Goat-God,' 1969, p. 171) held true for most 'supernatural' authors, to the start of our period and beyond. Yet, for some, the adherence to such condescending paternalism was crumbling. Personal experience was fast becoming a literary norm – thanks to the rises in popularity of biography and the journalist's literary profile. As Gothic horror's commercial star began to develop, branching off into its subtler sub-genre of the uncanny, the former Biblical deference – the starting point of most narrative voices – branched off with it. This much is clear. Less obvious is the 'why' consequent of this development and how it manifested itself in the newer authorial voices.

  The move away from Christian adherence was not, of course, peculiar to genre authors. Yet, there is little doubt it was their more commercial work, which guiltlessly enabled the move away with the figure of Pan, their enabler. Filtering through to fiction and its many genres, so they began to legitimise the non-Christian voice.
  In the Edwardian era, Freud's new dream theories may have found an interested audience but not, as yet, ways for it to respond. In the previous century-and-a-half, an open, considered and objective 'why?' had taken something of a backseat in popular fiction. Then, chances to question Biblical doctrine were too often guiltily submerged beneath the populist demands of Gothic melodrama; where a fatal 'warning to the curious' inevitably became, for the protaganist, a good deed punished. Of course, in the Gothic this device was primarily used to elicit the kind of extreme response from the reader that ensured the purchase of an author's – and so his publisher's – next release. Yet, its lasting appeal could also have a dubious honour for an author, placing him indelibly in the Establishment literary canon; as much a curse as a blessing, depending on the individual author's world view. 

 It might then be wondered why a pre-Christian figure like the Greek god Pan re-captured imaginations in the restlessly pragmatic modern age of the early 20th century, with some renewed relevance. The answer may lie in what could, so far, only be half-articulated by that generation's most open minds. Specifically, intense, subjective awakenings of inner freedom and heightened joy; subsequently defined as 'peak experiences.'
  My Collins Dictionary defines a peak experience as 'a state of extreme euphoria or ecstasy, often attributed to religious or mystical causes.' Yet, the evidence reveals it is both so much more, and so much less, than this. Experiences, anecdotal and personal, have each shown one need not be shackled by either cause. As E. Hoffman noted, discussing the American psychologist who coined the term: 'Maslow found it incredible that some of his undergraduates at Brandeis University unknowingly described their peak-experiences in language of rapture similar to those of famous spiritual teachers, East and West. The implication was clear: we needn't be great religious mystics or even practitioners to undergo an unforgettable epiphany during daily living.' Instead, “the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one's daily life, in one's neighbours, friends, and family, in one's backyard.” (2011).

  Neither time, concern for the future, nor regret of the past encumbers those precious moments of bliss, of being in-the-now. Whether one sits on a bench looking out at a setting sun of a summer evening, a subtle change of mind to mellow mindfulness during what had been anticipated as a tough, unexpected job, or just after a moment of total stillness, a peak experience can arise. Few of us don't have them. But certain authors, in the 20th century's formative years, were openly owning them as something entirely personal and apart – and good.

Recognising the symptoms of this Pan fad isn't difficult. The problem lies in finding the precise cause; the trigger that spawned the courage to liberate the self above the Christian stricture, without us having to reach all the way back through classical history. The role played by Pan's libido, the major aspect of the god, cannot be overstated. For some of the new generation of writers, the figure was a useful metaphor. Those needing to express their sexuality beyond the next ambiguous hint, found in His manifestation a means for its briefly glimpsed expression. Atheists drew upon His qualities of illicit liberation (e.g. DH Lawrence and Forrest Reid). For those agnostic, or otherwise spiritual, was renewed respect for the 'origins of species.' (e.g. Algernon Blackwood and Walter de la Mare). Each felt emboldened to expound upon the new pragmatism, overriding the former, more passive, aesthete's love of beauty.

  For Pan was becoming the fantastical manifestation of a renewed awareness; of nature and her relationship to the self...

...Even the savage cannot fail to perceive how intimately his own life is bound up with the life of nature and how the same processes, which freeze the stream and strip the earth of vegetation, menace him with extinction.” (Frazer, 'The Golden Bough,' 1906).

When we reflect how often the Church has skilfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted up on a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis...” (ibid.)

...the next stage in the writer's awakening self-awareness.

  When these quotes first saw light in 'The Golden Bough,' non-theist self-awareness in the literature of the uncanny had barely progressed since E.T.A. Hoffmann's excitable boy protagonist of 'The Sand Man' almost a century before. In Britain at least, the ubiquitous priestly narrator ensured any such sinful self-indulgences were swiftly quashed by the climax. (An oxymoron in most cases). Yet, by this year, things were finally changing. Rather than the occasional rebellious release from a small publisher with the sole aim of sparking notoriety and shock, by now the voice of the uncommitted, guiltless narrator was a symptom of what was coalescing into, if not a single movement, then a scattered series of experiential cliques; adepts across all aspects of the Arts.

(Part 2 of this essay continues in the next 'Pan Review')

* * *


Two notable ebook releases: 'These are tales that echoes tell...' In A Season Of Dead Weather (Smashwords Edition) by Mark Fuller Dillon while Rebecca Lloyd 'channels Roald Dahl's wit and flair for the unexpected' in View From Endless Street (WiDO Publishing). Adam S. Cantwell channels Kafka and Borges in his wonderfully-titled debut, Bastards of the Absolute (Egaeus Press). The pathologically prolific Rhys Hughes's most recent collections of surrealist wit, Orpheus On The Underground (Tartarus Press) and Bone Idle In The Charnel House (Hippocampus Press) each prove ubiquity is no underminer of quality. While new talent champion David Longhorn's Supernatural Tales reaches no. 29.


  1. Thanks for the review of The Strangers, which I've read and blogged about myself. You're possibly more charitable than me to some of the earlier stories, but I can't get over how good the title story is, to have been unpublished for so long...

  2. BlueHost is definitely the best web-hosting provider for any hosting plans you might require.