Robert Aickman: The Unquiet Englishman
December 27, 2013 | 4:15 pm
This post celebrates the launch of the Aickman Studies website (http://www.aickmandata.com/aickmanstudies.html), covering the work of Robert Aickman (1914-1981), a highly original yet very typical Englishman, who produced some of the most unsettling – and elegant – dark tales of the post-war era. Well enough established yet little recognized in his lifetime, he has steadily grown since to cult status, as his work outlasts literary fashions. Winner of the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award, and longtime editor of the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, Aickman remained nonetheless a very minority taste until quite recently – something he even might have been pleased about.
One reason that appreciation found Aickman late is that his work is very difficult to comprehend and digest. As Rebekah Memel Brown writes in her opening article for this first issue of this online journal of Aickman studies, “Aickman is a master of literary subterfuge, using constant misdirection and implication of a deeper truth. While reading his strange stories, one must use deduction to separate the the facts from the disinformation and be willing to make, at best, an educated guess at the true story and underlying figurative meaning of the piece. This is often based on mere inferences. There are always unresolved loose ends.”
As this passage suggests, this is difficulty is not a matter of arcane knowledge or deliberately obscure scholarship in the Mandarin manner of Pound. Aickman pieces together jigsaw puzzles where many pieces are missing and others are blank. He had that very English trouble with directness on certain subjects that gives good early training in obscurity. Aickman was married for a time, but his stories breathe sexual difficulty. And he was evidently never on good enough terms with the modern world to have an easy dialog with it, though he hardly ever let his objections approach anywhere near a systematic critique. His position and attitude in public life can be gauged by his co-creation of the Inland Waterways Association, dedicated to the preservation of Britain’s canal network. He also reserved most of his forces for the short story, not a format that often lets an author break into public view.
Some at least of the almost 50 strange stories he produced in his lifetime are available as ebooks, and can be found via the Amazon Robert Aickman page. I’d recommend starting with Cold Hand In Mine, which not only includes his World Fantasy Award winning story “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal,” but also “Niemandswasser,” one of his other best historical excursions outside post-war British grime, and “The Same Dog,” which will not bark in the night time without waking you in a cold sweat – among others equally good. But almost any point of entry is good, not least as his literary style and easy command of English is breathtakingly effortless.
Sadly, many of Aickman’s other tales are still very hard to come by, although Tartarus Press is doing its best with some beautiful (albeit expensive) print editions. I hope that changes for the better soon, as there are reports of an unpublished novel in his papers due for release soon. Aickman is the kind of writer who leaves you feeling that the more is revealed, the more his stature will increase – as will his power to disturb.