As noted previously, Faber & Faber is re-releasing some of Robert Aickman’s short story collections for the centenary of his birth, and Dark Entries is one of the four volumes, and the one that has been unavailable from Faber up until now. Faber sent me the ebook copy on his centenary day, and I read (almost) all of it the same evening, which was not only timely, but also a good chance to come fresh to work by this hitherto hard-to-come-by (as well as guarded and deliberately mysterious) writer. And it gives you an idea of the kind of spell his work – and his reputation – has cast. I even read some of it on my smartphone while out clubbing, which shows you how captivating it is.
Aickman’s reputation has grown since his death to almost outsize proportions. Novelist Richard T. Kelly states in his introduction to the book that, “yes, he was the finest horror writer of the last hundred years.” That’s quite a claim, when that century contains both the last great works of M.R. James, the entire career of H.P. Lovecraft – and as Ramsey Campbell remarks in his afterword “Remembering Robert Aickman,” Aickman “was, to put it mildly, no admirer of Lovecraft, or indeed of any fiction he regarded as horror” – and Stephen King and Thomas Ligotti, to name but a few. Does Aickman reach that stature? Not in my view. He certainly hasn’t had anything like their influence. However, he unquestionably was the best British writer of ghost stories since World War 2 (with Ramsey Campbell possibly a rival in pure horror), and at least some of that talent is on display here.
Not fully, perhaps. Because Dark Entries was Aickman’s first full collection under his own name, published in 1964 after the joint 1951 collection We Are for the Dark, written with his fellow writer and sometime lover Elizabeth Jane Howard. One of the stories from that earlier collection, “The View,” is an addition to this volume, along with the five stories from the original collection. These are some of his earliest essays in the weird and dark tale, then, and cover subjects and material that he perhaps developed with more assurance later, though since his next major collections, Powers of Darkness and Sub Rosa, followed in 1966 and 1968 respectively, the difference may be less than it appears.
The tales in Dark Entries certainly gravitate around Aickman’s recurrent theme of sexual repression and thwarted or somehow unfulfilled pairings, and have a somewhat narrower range than other collections of his stories. Only “The Waiting Room” is unambiguously not concerned with this topic, as well as being the most conventional pure ghost story in the volume. “Ringing the Changes” is particularly interesting as the subject of a sadly-lost British TV dramatization, as well as a sinister account of an older man’s honeymoon night with his much younger bride, in a seaside resort where the locals, literally, ring bells loud enough to wake the dead. The mysterious lover – who may or not be from another time or plane – appears in “Choice of Weapons” and “The View,” the latter story very similar to the later, more accomplished tale of another Circean idyll, “The Wine-Dark Sea.” Female protagonists who themselves have mysterious and deeply ambiguous encounters anchor “The School Friend” and “Bind Your Hair,” as they later do “The Inner Room” and “The Real Road to the Church.”
Aickman’s difficult engagement with the modern world and the lower orders of English society are on show, sometimes amusingly, sometimes disturbingly, as they would be later in “Never Visit Venice” and (more sympathetically) in “The Swords.” So is the occasional misogyny captured in the remark of the Commandant in “Ringing the Changes”: “At heart, women are creatures of darkness all the time.” But these kinds of issues and cross-comparisons are more concerns for readers who already have taken the bait and been lured into Aickman’s warped world. Those coming to his stories for the first time will find them often cryptic and elusive, but almost always unsettling and very disturbing.
What is terrifying about Aickman, though, from a writer’s point of view, is the appalling perfection of his prose and his construction. Take “Ringing the Changes,” where – appropriately enough for a tale that hinges on sound – so much of the action and setting is conveyed through dialog rather than description, in sentences which fit together so well that you could hardly slip a knife in between them, like Inca drystone masonry. (Aickman was often, as it happens, a very lapidary stylist.) Or the sinuous, allusive prose of “Bind Your Hair,” previously available in Faber’s 2008 compilation The Unsettled Dust. Questions of style and technique are unavoidable with Aickman just because he was such an immensely accomplished artist, and he undoubtedly has written some of the best prose in the horror or weird fiction vein in the 20th century.
Something of Aickman’s secret, as well possibly as the personal limitations that made him such a sad spectacle as an individual (to modern eyes anyway) is perhaps revealed in the remarks by the father of the lady protagonist of “The School Friend” (herself a writer): “Everyone’s lives are full of things you can’t understand … But fortunately we don’t have to understand. And for that reason we’ve no right to scrutinise other people’s lives too closely.” Aickman may or may not have held himself at a distance from too direct scrutiny of his own personal issues, but that cultivated detachment, as exercised in art, produced masterpieces. And Dark Entries contains some of his early ones. For anyone with any pretensions to be a genuine aficionado, or writer, of horror and dark fiction, it’s a must-have.