This has been a bad few weeks for me, for a number of reasons: personal, political. I’m managing to get my work done, but my psychic reserves are low. And so I find myself reading the so-called “strange stories” of Robert Aickman.
Robert Aickman was a British conservationist and author who primarily wrote from the 1950s through the 1970s. I hadn’t heard of him until I stumbled on one of his stories called “The Hospice.” It was included in an anthology of horror stories, something my husband Laurence had given me for Christmas. My partner understands that I love horror the way other people love shrimp fried rice or cupcakes with butter frosting: it is my comfort food. And from the first paragraph of “The Hospice,” I was hooked. Yet in this story, the traditional pyrotechnics are low-keyed to nonexistent. Yes, it’s a stunningly odd tale, a heightened nightmare that begins with a motorist lost on his way home who stops by an inn. But the horror is implied and sidelong at best and the details are downright mundane: a heavy turkey dinner, a bad cat scratch, and a too-hot bedroom with windows that won’t open figure prominently in the creeping dread. What’s more, the ending is inconclusive in a way that belies genre convention altogether.
Yet I found myself reading the story again and again and thinking about it for days. So of course, I had to read more.
There aren’t that many Aickman stories; he wrote only four dozen in all. Many of them involve the usual themes — ghosts, zombies, and vampires — but in a way that is distinctly understated. There’s no blood, gore, fangs, rotting shrouds, or even much on-page violence. Any apparitions serve more as manifestations of deeper dreads, a terror of the pagan, the female, and the carnal, than as supernatural beings intent on bodily harm. Naturally, these creatures are frightening in large part because they’re attractive; their danger is inextricably bound to their profound appeal. A middle-aged widower becomes obsessed with a beautiful young woman who may be a dryad, perhaps even a form of lichen. “The Same Dog” contains one of the loveliest depictions of childhood friendship I’ve ever read; but that connection is ultimately undone by a terrifying animal that develops a strange rapport with the girl. A young man is initiated by a carnival performer who allows strangers to stab her with swords. An older man is terrified when his young wife joins in a seaside town’s ritual of summoning the dead by the ringing of bells. And so on.
It takes no great imagination to discern Aickman’s underlying obsessions and fears; each story is a not-especially-subtle Rorschach ink blot, a mat of used tea leaves that indicates pretty clearly who he was. Cursory online snooping backs this up: Aickman seems to have been a somewhat disagreeable snob who felt entitled to the trappings of old-British-white-guy privilege: a romanticized England of its imperial past, a beautiful and nubile young girlfriend, literary fame. Socially speaking, I don’t think I would have liked Aickman if I had ever met him; and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have had much use for me, either.
And yet I find myself reading all of his stories, even the ones that don’t succeed, and relishing the singular world he created half a century ago. Good horror fiction gives the reader a seat in the theatre of the psyche and that is what he has done, again and again. His best stories are thoughtful, honest, and deeply personal, rooted in fears, anxieties, and desires that I may not share, yet which I recognize and respect.
The connection between writer and reader is one of the most profound there is. Through our words, it is possible for us to reach across personality, time, gender, politics, nation. After all, you get to know someone in a weirdly intimate way when you see what frightens them; and I am grateful to be spending time with Robert Aickman. He has been excellent company.