Richard's Literary Byways: Robert Aickman's Bad Dreams

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  • #4316
    RichardB
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    Very likely, many of those who enjoy cruising Britain’s canals in narrow-boats have never heard of Robert Aickman. Nevertheless, they owe him a huge debt, for his founding, together with L T C (Tom) Rolt, of the Inland Waterways Association in 1946 was the initiative that that resulted in the restoration of the then neglected and largely derelict system of canals that criss-crossed the country, opening up the many miles of mostly secluded, peaceful waterways that now exist for the pleasure of anyone who wishes to use them.

    Aickman’s short stories, the bulk of which were published in seven collections between 1964 and 1985, are hardly better known, but many of those who do know them maintain that they are among the finest things of their kind ever written.

    Exactly what kind they are is harder to say. Aickman had a long-standing interest in the paranormal (he took part in the investigations at Borley Rectory, dubbed by the press ‘the most haunted house in England’), so you might have expected him to write ghost stories. Well, he did in a way, but that way was very much his own. Aickman’s stories are not like anyone else’s.

    They defy precise classification. Dark they certainly are. With rare exceptions, they aren’t actually ghost stories as such. They have been called horror stories, but there is little or no overt, in-yer-face nastiness in them. There is, however, plenty of weirdness. You could try ‘surreal stories’ or ‘tales of unease’. Aickman himself simply called them ‘strange stories’, and that is about as close as we are likely to get.

    A typical Aickman story begins with a perfectly normal, everyday situation or scene. Then, as the tale unfolds, little by little, detail by small detail, strangeness starts to creep in, often so slowly you hardly notice it happening, until you find yourself plunged into an ominous, sinister world in which the ground has been pulled from under your feet and nothing can be relied on. You don’t ask why, you don’t ask how. Well, you can, but you’ll get no answer: nothing is ever justified or explained. The weirdness just sits there on the page on its own terms, defying you not to accept it. The effect is profoundly disturbing, like one of those dreams you can’t quite remember when you wake up but know you wouldn’t want to go through again. The stories are nightmares in print. Like this, taken from The School Friend, though it is impossible in a short extract to give you the full flavour of the discomforting strangeness of the situation.

    ‘Glad to see you’re better, Sally. I didn’t expect you’d be about for some time yet.’ My words were incredibly foolish.

    She said nothing, but only stretched out her hand. It too was changed: it had become grey and bony, with protruding knotted veins.

    I handed her the big bunch of keys. I wondered how she had entered the house without them. The animal wailing above continued without intermission. To it now seemed to be added a noise which struck me as resembling that of a pig scrabbling. Involuntarily I glanced upwards to the ceiling.

    Sally snatched the keys, snatched them gently and softly, not violently; then cast her unblinking eyes upwards in parody of mine, and emitted an almost deafening shriek of laughter.

    ‘Do you love children, Mel? Would you like to see my baby?’

    Truly it was the last straw; and I do not know quite how I behaved.

    Now Sally seemed filled with terrible pride. ‘Let me tell you, Mel,’ she said, ‘that it’s possible for a child to be born in a manner you’d never dream of.’

    I had begun to shudder again, but Sally clutched hold of me with her grey hand and began to drag me up the basement stairs.

    ‘Will you be godmother? Come and see your godchild, Mel.’

    The noise was coming from the library. I clung to the top of the basement baluster. Distraught as I was, I now realised that the scrabbling sound was connected with the tearing to pieces of Dr Tessler’s books. But it was the wheezy, throaty cry of the creature that most turned my sinews to water.

    We never do get to find out what the creature is, for Mel flees the house. This is typical. It is what is left unrevealed, unexplained, that brings the chills on, for our imaginations can disconcert us more than any frank description of horrors could.

    Otherwise, it is hard to define how Aickman achieves his effect, and probably not even worth trying. Analysis or explanation are precisely not the point, and any attempt would, I believe, diminish the stories. It is their intractable, dreamlike lack of logic that gives them their power.

    I sometimes wonder if Aickman got his inspiration from his own nightmares. I find it quite hard to imagine where else he could have got such stuff from. And I am quite sure that the inside of his head was a very odd, and not very comfortable place.

    Robert Aickman’s stories will unsettle you. They will creep under your skin and haunt you. Maybe they are ghost stories after all, confronting us with the ghosts of our deepest subconscious fears.

    • This topic was modified 2 years, 2 months ago by RichardB.
    • This topic was modified 2 years, 2 months ago by RichardB.
    #4320
    JaneShuff
    Participant

    Thanks Richard. I’d never heard of him but have down loaded a collection of his and will have a look – maybe not at night with the wind howling round the house like it did yesterday evening!

    #4322
    Athelstone
    Moderator

    Sounds like my kind of writer and you’ve definitely sold him to me.

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