I first learned about Robert Aickman (1914 – 1981) in the September 2014 edition (Issue 148) of Rue Morgue, and since then I have learned that this author had the respect of many in his cohort (from the same time and contemporary) but not nearly their level of visibility. He’s been virtually an unknown, so far; but within months of what would have been his 100th birthday, Rue Morgue asked us, “But, what about Robert Aickman?” And the response is, “Boy, that man could write some strange stories.”
And that’s exactly what he called them (p.31, Rue Morgue, Sept. 14). It is almost as if he brings together the perfect blend of literary prose with elements of the strange, supernatural, and fantastic — it depicts a life set to explore the potential for strange interactions.
The stories I’ve managed to comb from my local library appeared in short story collections: The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories, I Shudder at Your Touch: 22 Tales of Sex & Horror, and Shudder Again: 22 Tales of Sex & Horror.
And, strange interactions are exactly what Aickman delivers in “Ringing the Changes”, “The Swords”, and “Ravissante”, respectively.
Michael Cox included “Ringing the Changes” in The Oxford Book, and it was a great place to start to really get a feel for Aickman’s perspective and tone. He uses details and genuine interaction to set the mood and bury our feet in “reality” only to allow the strangeness of Gerald and Phrynne’s unconventional honeymoon (due to their 20-year age difference and the low status of Gerald’s work position) to fly off the page. The changes they experience as a newly married couple are counterpointed against the major changes the bells bring to Holihaven every year. Never on the same day and never after the same amount of ringing, changes in life are unexpected and as Aickman points out, it’s all about how you face them.
In her first sex and horror anthology, Michele Slung included “The Swords” much to her own joy — and I wouldn’t blame her. Being able to talk up Aickman right now is plastering a perma-grin on my own face. Not to mention, if you watch British horror TV shows, you may already know about this short. Focusing on the path of decisions a young man makes toward his “first experience”, Aickman’s unnamed protagonist starts by admitting that it is “to beginners that strange things happen, and often, I think, to beginners only” (p. 132). It couldn’t have helped finding the young woman of your dreams at the unique sideshow of a fair that was “pretty and old-fashioned, but no one could say it cheered you up” (p.136). Mildly, it might not have been the best choice, but being young and inexperienced will do that for you. Additionally, this story could be used as an exploration of the delicate relations between men and women — how one is viewed by the other, what is “typically expected” on a date, and how each reacts to or anticipates the fallout of a traumatic experience.
Michele Slung brings back Aickman in her second anthology, Shudder Again. “Ravissante” (a loose French translation turned up ravishing or charming as the meaning) is structured in a frame and comes with comparisons to Henry James’ “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” and “The Aspern Papers”, even a little bit of “The Turn of the Screw” with the calling at the end. However, since I’ve never read any of those (shock, horror, gasp!), I’m coming to this story completely clean, and when I think of frame stories I always think of Shelley’s Frankenstein — “In order to tell you this story, I’ve got to tell you that story.” So, Aickman begins with another unnamed protagonist who will take us to meet a struggling artist — controversial and only kind of sought after — and his oddly dressed and almost always silent wife. I think maybe she just doesn’t dig a party scene, but I digress. More than a couple years after the last party they share, the protagonist hears of the artist’s death and his listing the protagonist as co-executor of the will. That isn’t even the strangest part of the story; remember, there’s a frame in place. The protagonist takes a painting and the manuscripts his friend edited from the estate the wife anticipates destroying. But among them is a small discovery, a harried, surreal memory from the artist of a strange Madame A. and her desires in meeting an artist who appreciates her former husband’s work. In this case, I think Aickman was going for “Ravishing” as the title, more than charming.
After getting just a taste of what Aickman creates of fiction, I can’t wait to get my hands on more. According to Rue Morgue, an established and known publisher from the UK, Faber & Faber, are re-releasing Aickman’s collection, which includes a novel The Late Breakfasters and a novella, The Model. I can’t wait to get my hands on it!
Have any of you ever read Robert Aickman? Are you hearing about him for the first time? Do you know of other anthologies he has been included within? I’d love to hear about it!