Writer and editor Robert Aickman described his fiction as ‘strange stories’, though today most would agree his works exists fully in the weird. At first glance, especially for the uninitiated, his tales would seem to lean to the gothic side of literature, but once readers take the plunge and invest a little time in his worlds, it’s easy to see that there’s really not much of the ‘chain rattling ghosts and haunts’ as there is a sense of unstable turmoil within his characters. This may be because he spent many years editing the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, and it’s easy to see how some would make that kind of association. If you’re willing to spend a little time with his work, you’ll find that the realm of the cosmos he dwelt in was much more ‘inner’, and if there’s ever a place that weird fiction works for the best, it’s when it becomes personal and intimate.
Born in 1914, Aickman published from 1951 until his death in 1981. Winner of the World Fantasy Award for his story ‘Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal’ and the British Fantasy Award for ‘The Stains’, Aickman’s work continues to inspire and influence, capturing the imagination of such writers as Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Brian Evenson, Michael Cisco, John Langan, and Lisa Tuttle. Aickman’s Heir’s, a weird anthology edited by Simon Strantzas, showcases tales inspired by the author, heralding a new generation of weird practitioners for readers eager to capture some of that Aickman style.
Aickman’s work is often considered ‘quiet horror’, which is somewhat of a misnomer, and not completely true. If horror could be gauged in auditory volume alone, Aickman’s stories are best described as hearing a faint static that slowly intensifies until the whispering inside your head becomes too much to bear. Realization that the horrible voices you hear are actually your own only send you deeper into the void. While he doesn’t step into the graphic visceral territory of violence and gore, his stories often achieve powerful reactions without spilling a single drop of blood. When he does have a need for blood, we are more interested in his character’s reaction to the experience than the scene’s inherent shock value. Readers fearing his work may be too ‘cerebral’ or difficult to understand should rest easy knowing that though they may not come away from his stories with a firm grasp of everything that happened, they will find themselves pleasantly disturbed and relishing the lingering images reverberating inside their heads for a long time.
Aickman’s first collection, Dark Entries: Curious and Macabre Ghost Stories, feature several tales that challenge the notion of exactly what a ghost story is. ‘The School Friend’ dives into this headfirst, introducing us to a concept of ‘ghost story’ that relies more on the psychological than the spectral. Upon reading this tale, savvy readers will immediately notice a sense of familiarity of the tone, especially those acquainted with the works of Peter Straub. Aickman takes his time setting the stage, letting us get to know his characters before creaking the door open. We find ourselves wondering if it is a person or a place that can truly be haunted, and if so, which is the more haunted. The question remains unanswered; Aickman refuses to spoon-feed readers, and the effect lingers on the mind. There’s a certain persistence with Aickman’s characters, this desire to know, as though no matter how perilous the situation, their very life depends on knowing the truth. Sometimes they pursue this quite aggressively, and ‘The School Friend’ is a great example of what happens when you stick your nose where it doesn’t belong. You often find more than you cared to know, and what you find will echo in your mind forever.
‘Ringing the Changes’ rides on the heels of gothic, then tramples the tropes over the gravel by the story’s end. Gerald and Phrynne are vacationing in Holihaven, and find themselves more than annoyed by the constant ringing of the church bells. Aickman captures the grating tolls by showing us how his characters feel about the bells, and how they interact with one another and the townsfolk. Feeling their holiday is ruined, the couple soon discover that there’s a reason for the bells, and they are unable to leave until the reason takes its course. It is here that Aickman really shines, building on paranoia and perception, putting us in the action with a guided confusion that is extremely unsettling. Aickman doesn’t rely on spectral or ethereal ghosts with this story, or with many of his tales, as the undead here are corporeal. Once the reader realizes what they just witnessed within the story, the gothic undertones become much more appreciated.
‘The View’ uses perception in a much different way and still manages to effectively tie temporal space and time to a character without knocking the reader over the head with heavy-handed pseudo-science. Carfax becomes smitten by a beautiful young woman. He chases her, and finds himself coming to stay with her in her strange house. Carfax soon discovers things are not as they seem, as his view is never the same from his room. Sometimes we come face to face with the unexplainable, and while we may wonder exactly who or what is haunted here, the real question is more about how we deal with the experience. Carfax becomes determined to discover the secret, knowing the answer leads to madness. Aickman’s influence on Michael Cisco is evident here, as the view is forever changing, and eventually, it will change you as well.
Aickman dabbles with a little folk horror in ‘Bind Your Hair’, of course providing his own spin on the genre. We find ourselves traveling the countryside, off the beaten path, venturing in areas best left unfound. Clarinda Hartley meets the strange Mrs. Pagani, who extends the young lady an invitation to pay her a visit whenever she wants. Aickman’s characters are often fish-out-of-water, too curious for their own good, and determined to act on their compulsions. Clarinda is one such character, who is determined to see Mrs. Pagani, especially after the locals wave her off as just an eccentric old lady no one really knows anything about. As Clarinda sneaks across the country, eventually leaving the known paths, she finds herself thrust into the unknown, unable to turn away. The imagery is quite disturbing as Aickman leads us down that darkened trail, holding us by the hand to show us what we least expected. The experience is frightening and unforgettable.
Cold Hand in Mind is another excellent collection of Aickman’s showcasing some of his best and most well-known stories. Originally released in 1975, and more recently by Faber & Faber in 2014, here we find the excellent story, ‘The Swords’. A traveling salesman looking for adventure stumbles upon a ragged town carnival, where everything is gritty and nasty. There he finds a side show that becomes an obsession: Men pay money to stab a woman with swords. Aickman rides the edge of real and surreal in most of his tales, and this one is no different. Though firmly grounded, the surreal becomes matter-of-fact, which gives him plenty of space to show us what happens to people when they confront the strange. The salesman leaves the show only to find himself dining with the young woman and her barker the next day. An arrangement is made for a private show. Things turn quite amorous for the young man right before they become quite out of hand. The cold reality, often as cold as the desolate cosmos, leaves the man shaken with confusion and a longing he knows he’ll never quite fulfill.
Forty-eight stories and two novels—one of which is soon to be rereleased—showcase the immense power of Robert Aickman, one of the premier weird fiction writers. By planting his feet firmly in reality, Aickman’s stories are stark reminders that weird things happen to us all, and we rarely escape unscathed by the world we’ve made for ourselves. Faber & Faber have released four of his collections recently, so finding Aickman’s tales should be as easy as going to your favorite bookstore, either brick and mortar or online. No excuses, if you’re looking for weird, ‘strange’ stories, the fiction of Robert Aickman should be your spot of tea. Please join us next month as we dial up the modern master of weird fiction, Laird Barron.