It took me far longer than it should have, but I have finally read a collection of short stories by Robert Aickman (1914-1981). Though the 1960s and 1970s, he published 48 supernatural tales, some of which are acknowledged as classics, that were collected in 8 volumes. These collections were hard to find until last year, when new editions finally came out. I picked up the first of these, Dark Entries, and devoured it last week.
I was doubly intrigued to read Aickman’s work. Not only is he highly regarded by some of the greatest weird fiction writers of our time such as Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell and Peter Straub, he comes from an impressive lineage: his grandfather is none other than Richard Marsh, the master of the macabre that I’ve obsessively written about many times on this blog.
On this first outing, though, I have to admit that I was a little underwhelmed. There are stories of undeniable brilliance, but an equal number of stories that I found primarily baffling. Let’s summarize each of them…
- The School Friend. Mel is delighted when her childhood friend Sally Tessler moves back into her neighborhood, as it seems that the two of them can rekindle their friendship. After Sally moves back into her late father’s home, however, she becomes aloof and even sickly. Something within the house has an unnatural hold on Sally, and Mel will risk her own sanity when she ventures inside herself.
- Ringing the Changes. Aickman’s most famous story, and a true masterpiece of horror. Newlyweds Gerald and Phrynne plan a honeymoon in the small seaside town of Holihaven, but are immediately put off by the incessant ringing of the town’s church bells. The manager of the hotel explains that it is part of a local festival, but she — and one of the tenants — clearly know more than they are willing to tell. The festival will culminate late at night, and will threaten to destroy the married couple, body and soul.
- Choice of Weapons. At a dinner with a classmate and possible future wife Ann, Fenville spies a curious woman eating alone at a table — and immediately, irrevocably, falls madly in love with her. His obsession consumes him, leaving him on the verge of insanity. Doctor Bermuda suggests an unusual course of treatment, but it is unclear what the cure entails — if it is truly a cure at all.
- The Waiting Room. Edward Pendlebury falls asleep on the late train, and it takes him to the end of the line to Casterton, far beyond where he wanted to be. With no place to stay during the cold night, he manages to convince the porter to let him stay in an old, abandoned waiting room with a terrible secret.
- The View. Carfax, suffering from a work- and love-induced breakdown, seeks a respite from the world on a remote island off of the coast of England. On the ferry-ride over, he meets a lovely and mysterious woman (who he will come to know only as Ariel), who graciously invites him to stay at her expansive villa. Once there, Carfax enjoys a nearly perfect existence, only troubled by a distant landscape that seems to change, impossibly, from day to day.
- Bind Your Hair. Clarinda Hartley has agreed to marry Dudley Carstairs, and she joins him at his family’s country home to celebrate. The welcome party is punctuated by the unexpected appearance by Mrs. Pagani, a curious and hypnotic woman who actually lives in a house in a cemetery. Mrs. Pagani has plans for Clarinda, and Clarinda finds herself drawn into a macabre and dangerous secret.
Of the stories, I found “Ringing the Changes” and “The School Friend” to be absolutely brilliant. “Bind Your Hair” was intriguing and disturbing, though not quite as potent as the aforementioned pair. I personally felt that “The View” and “The Waiting Room” lacked in impact, however, and “Choice of Weapons” was genuinely baffling — I honestly am not quite sure what happened in the story.
That isn’t to say that any of the tales were poorly written — all of them are very atmospheric and filled with beautiful prose. There is a lot for a writer to learn from Aickman’s slow and methodical build-up of tension in a story.
So I enjoyed Dark Entries, albeit not as much as I expected to. It was his first collection of stories, however, and I’m curious to see how his talent develops in later books. I’ve already got The Unsettled Dust on it’s way to me…
I am absolutely not a scientist, and so my comments may come from a different place. But I think that Aickman’s strange stories can be remarkable. Science, I think, is not about what we know, but rather about what we believe we know given our current knowledge. That’s a wholly honorable enterprise, I think, but it’s not certainty. If you like “The School Friend,” the that’s what Aickman does at his best. The answer is not evident, nor certain, and it’s all the more powerful for that. Strangeness and disquiet and wonder are at least as much a part of the human condition as discovering a truth. Those merge in Aickman, and I think you’ll like him particularly for the open-endedness of the best of his stories. It’s great that we know the life cycle of stars; do we know why the universe is here? Aickman at his best makes sure that we never lose sight of the question.
Yes, wonder and mystery without a suitable explanation. At his best–according to my ideals–when the form of a story is there, but you have no idea if you know what really happened or why. He tickles that part of the brain that surrealism–particularly surrealistic comedy tickles. Maybe it helps to have a high tolerance for ambiguity.
Robert, I found what you said interesting. You are, I think, speaking of our worldview given the information we’ve acquired from science? Sort of how some people tend to look at the idea of evolution as a de facto limitation set upon who we are and what we can accomplish. We are only accidents and our feelings are only chemicals etc. If we are *only* accidents, why not be glorious accidents?
I think you portray Aickman’s best work perfectly: one reads a story that to all appearances has a full narrative arc, yet somehow what has happened is not at all clear. “The School Friend” has always struck me as the finest example of that. I love your line about being “glorious accidents” but my own thought was more earthbound. Our age of Big Data privileges “definite” answers and I see increasing impatience with the indefinite and non-quantitative. Science is a magnificent enterprise that often is presented to us as the model of how all real knowledge should be: clear, unambiguous, and set in stone. But when we think that it is science that informs us that over 70% of the universe is made up of something called “dark matter,” about which at this point we know almost nothing, then I think we see why the blog of an accomplished scientist includes a taste for the mysterious in fiction. Aickman loved to quote Sacheverell Sitwell: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.”
I’ve read and re-read Choice of Weapons and I’m still perplexed….
I hope I don’t seem flip or unhelpful when I say that that is the effect Aickman tries to have. I know that there are people who just find the lack of resolution unbearably frustrating (“an exquisitely written nihil” as one commentator wrote of RA’s stories) and there’s nothing wrong with wanting more resolution. But his best stories give one a clear sense that something has happened without being wholly clear what. As I write interminably, I think “The School Friend” is the most perfect example of that, but–not surprisingly–“The Insufficient Answer” is also an excellent specimen, with a title that applies to many Aickman stories. I keep going back to them not because I think I’ll get the answer, but because the power of the insufficient answer is so intriguing.