Drabness and Dread: On Robert Aickman

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Drabness & Dread:

On Robert Aickman

Alexander J. Zawacki discusses the life and work of author Robert Aickman, whose strange tales of dread and unease defy easy categorisation...

Robert Aickman was a strange man who wrote strange stories. The former is a personal judgment, but the latter is not — it’s what he called them, eschewing the label of “horror” with all its conventions and expectations. With a handful of exceptions, like the folk horror-ish “Bind Your Hair” or the more-or-less straightforward ghost story “The Unsettled Dust,” Aickman’s stories defy easy categorisation. The experience of reading them is an odd one: Neil Gaiman compared it to watching a magic trick being done, “and at the end of it you’re not even sure what the trick was.” Their horror lies not in direct confrontations with the monstrous or the supernatural, for there are few of those. Monsters, when they appear (and they do) are half-seen things flapping drily in the shadows, or almost human cries heard from another room. Rather, it comes from a sense of the world slipping gradually into nightmare, inhabited by lonely characters who have absolutely no power over their fates.

It lies, too, in Aickman’s steadfast refusal to clearly explain what happens in any of his stories. His plots are occult in the oldest sense of the word — hidden, providing the mechanism of the events that take place on the page but never revealing themselves. There are some exceptions, though these tend to prove the rule; one might be “The Stains,” in which a man falls in love with a nymph-like woman whose father appears to be lichen. It’s easy, of course, to write horror stories whose plots are incoherent or completely unexplained, but these are rarely successful. Aickman’s are because he gives you the distinct impression that things do make sense, somehow, or they would if you were just a bit smarter, or had just a few missing pieces of the puzzle. His characters (and his readers) move on the surface of great and awful designs that they do not comprehend. “In the end,” goes the epigraph from Sitwell that opens Cold Hand in Mine, “it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.”

Isolation permeates each story, adding to the fog of dread that arises from the weird events they describe. Conversations between characters, even close family members, are opaque. People hide things or make vague allusions that are never explained but seem pregnant with awful meaning. Emotions are repressed under the rigid rules of decorum. In “The School Friend,” the narrator’s father — distant from her, though they live in the same home — chides her for trying to really comprehend other people. It’s exceptional, he says, when we can understand anything about each other at all. Familiar and marital relationships are ruinous more than supportive: “My husband aroused physical intimacy in me….but diminished and deadened much else,” writes the female narrator of “The Inner Room.” Sex is real (and wish-fulfillingly common, particularly for the male narrators) but it is devoid of real meaning and sometimes hellish, as in “The Swords” when a prostitute physically disarticulates like a doll. 

But I have said that Aickman was a strange man. He was born in 1914, a year he later described as the point at which humanity lost control of the world. His parents were the architect William Arthur Aickman and Mabel Violet Marsh, daughter of the famed gothic novelist Richard Marsh. Not until she saw the marriage register did Mabel realize that her spouse was her senior by three decades. Robert seems to have been conceived on their wedding night, an event which Mabel later described to her son as “worse than [she] could ever have believed possible.” Unsurprisingly the marriage was troubled. The two separated when Robert was seventeen, with Mabel leaving her husband for a viscount she’d met while in treatment for arthritis. William died in 1941; his ex-wife survived him by two years before dying when a German bomb struck her home. Robert, out walking with a female companion, was within earshot of the detonation.

Aickman’s relationships with women were numerous and fraught — a fact reflected in his stories, where women tend to appear as deceptive harbingers of sex, or death, or both. He had a number of lovers around the Bohemian London theatre scene of the prewar years, before marrying the children’s book author Edith Ray Gregorson. To friends, he claimed he did so out of sympathy. After only a few years he began an affair with the younger Elizabeth Jane Howard, with whom he co-authored his first book of strange stories (We Are For The Dark, in 1951) before she left him for the novelist Kingsley Amis. Aickman and Gregorson divorced in 1957, a fact he kept secret. His ex-wife entered a convent and became a nun.

Supported by a modest inheritance, Aickman never had much in the way of a job. (Neither, it might be said, do most of his narrators, who tend to drift aimlessly through life). He supplemented his income through his own writings and by editing the first eight volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories. The paranormal was a standing interest of his; he befriended the psychic Harry Price and participated in his investigation into Borley Rectory, famously the most haunted house in Britain. Much of Aickman’s time, though, was devoted to his other passion: rescuing Britain’s dilapidated canal system. He founded the Inland Waterways Association, which still exists, and still works to conserve the island’s canals.

Aickman died in 1981, of cancer that might have been curable had he not attempted to treat it homeopathically. The years around the centenary of his birth saw a marked but sadly brief resurgence of interest in his works: Faber & Faber printed several volumes of his stories and commissioned a book of tribute tales edited by horror writer Simon Strantzas (Aickman’s Heirs). Aickman even received some mainstream literary acknowledgement when the NYRB Classics line put out a collection. The Faber editions have been confusingly edited, however — “Bind Your Hair” appears in both Dark Entries and The Unsettled Dust, and “The Inner Room” was published also as a standalone volume — and between them, they omit a fair number of his published works. (Completionists might turn instead to the pricier volumes put out by Tartarus Press.) Despite all this, he never really caught on, and there has been no renaissance of the Aickmanian strange tale. 

If he were placed within a genealogy of horror he might fit between M. R. James and Thomas Ligotti. He has something of the former’s classical education and antiquarian interest, though for lack of funds Aickman never went to university and instead followed the path of the autodidact. The scion of a family that had declined in status, Aickman seems nostalgic for James’ older and more aristocratic Britain: in an introduction to one of the numerous Fontana Books of Great Ghost Stories he laments the “compulsorily egalitarian society” of the 20th century. Modernity in his stories is felt as a sick and intrusive thing, a mess of blazing highways and cheap furniture that can’t be maintained or kept clean. But then, so does the world at large: we read descriptions of mounted animal heads that are “shoddy, fungoid ruins,” of an autumn which “had infected much of the greenery with blotched and dropping senility,” an outer wall which appears to be “in a late stage of disease.” The plaster is always flaking away, the floorboards are always giving underfoot. A faint sense of weary loathsomeness inheres to Aickman’s reality, and in this, he resembles Ligotti, for whom the universe is a churning morass and existence is a burden. Like Ligotti, too, his stories are shot through with black humour that suggests the joke is really on us. 

Yet Ligotti and James both fall more neatly into the genre of horror than does Aickman. It might be better to associate him with a label described by philosophers and art critics like Noël Carroll and Cynthia Freeland as dread (“art-dread,” to use Carroll’s unnecessary neologism). Unlike horror, which for Carroll focuses on distinct monstrous entities (the ghost, the zombie, the buried Martians under Hobbs Lane), dread focuses on events. Ominous and frightening things happen, but they are difficult to comprehend and not really attributable to any one actor, generating the sense that “inhuman and perhaps concealed and inexplicable forces rule the universe.” This, perhaps, strikes close to the heart of Aickman’s unease, to the way he generates what Lovecraft called the “atmosphere of breathless dread” which is so essential to the weird tale. There are few ghosts in Aickman’s stories; reality itself is haunted, and we — alienated from each other and often ourselves, drifting aimlessly in a world with no clear meaning — can’t do a thing about it.

Alex Zawacki

Alex Zawacki

catholic | medievalist phd candidate working on ghosts & horror | cultural heritage recovery w/@lazarus_imaging | andrew w. mellon digital humanities fellow

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2 thoughts on “Drabness and Dread: On Robert Aickman”

  1. A rather sad footnote – in general his tales didn’t supplement his income very much. I belatedly learned that the advance I offered him for “The Stains” (an amount he told our agent Kirby McCauley was very handsome) was four-fifths of the amount Gollancz advanced him for his latest collection.

    1. That is terribly sad to hear – especially when one thinks of the joy (and unease) he left behind for those of us who love his works.

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