Monday, November 07, 2016

Robert Aickman

With apologies for being remiss throughout October--hosting crowds of 20ish people every night as the Cubs romp to the championship does tend to throw off one's planning in other realms--I'll open November with a quick post on Robert Aickman, a subject more properly suited to the month just past. Aickman was one of the greatest writers of strange stories, turning out nearly fifty, all so good that for a while earlier this year, when most of his work was out of print in the States, I was scheming to find a way to publish a complete collection. His stories can be hard to describe--or, more properly, hard to describe in a way that gets across the discomfiting, uncanny, almost physical strangeness they convey.

A quick attempt at a generic outline: A man, often a low-end salesman or businessman, takes a wrong turn or encounters some travel difficulty in an area unknown to him, a vague semi-suburban landscape that's a bit down-at-heel, forgotten or bypassed. He makes reasonable decisions about how to handle this, like taking a room; there are hints even as he's securing lodging that something is off, but they're no more than hints, flashes of odd behavior by the proprietor, for example. Later, almost without us realizing it, things get supremely weird, and there is a sense that the man may have become trapped, subject to forces beyond his control. There are hints of sex, and even some Freudian imagery, but they're balanced or neutered by attention to other aspects of physicality, like eating or tiredness or bodily discomfort. Sometimes these events are recalled from a later time, or they happen only to have an unexpected sequel years later.

That description, I realize, is simultaneously vague and very specific, but that's almost the point: Aickman traffics in specific details about places and people and events that are fundamentally vague. A strong personality wouldn't ever quite fit in Aickman's stories, nor would a lavishly described locale. These are stories about what happens elsewhere, in the spots we pass through, to the people we don't think about, in the hours of the night we sleep through. There's a palpable air of menace, and of age--of an ancient quality to the land and its accretions that somehow has failed to bring them dignity or value, but instead has rendered them unfit for today, strange, dangerous. At the same time, this is almost all implied rather than stated: these aren't stories of atmosphere, quite, but they're also not really stories of action. They're stories, more, of  deterioration, of the quiet breakdown of logic, assumptions, even cause and effect. The protagonist thinks he's in one, fairly clear situation, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, he finds himself in another, wholly new and inexplicable situation. And you, the reader, have trouble even pinpointing when or why it all began to go wrong. I came across a telling line in Aickman's memoir The Attempted Rescue today:
I learned reading . . . very literally at my mother's knee. I remember having particular difficulty with the word "because." Much could obviously be made of this significant block, but I abstain.
If this intrigues you at all, I recommend you get the collection Cold Hand in Mind, which includes the masterpieces "The Swords," "The Hospice," and "The Same Dog," and also Sub Rosa, for "Into the Wood" and "The Inner Room," the latter of which is my favorite Aickman story. I also highly recommend the recent episode of Backlisted, an excellent books podcast, that focuses on Aickman--the two hosts and guest offer a similar take to mine above, but with a lot more analysis and back-and-forth, and some real insights into Aickman's work.

That podcast was what led me to Aickman's memoir. The hosts discuss it at length, and they read out a long section about Aickman's father that is truly, beautifully, unsettlingly strange. Even though I'd heard it read just over a week ago, I was still astonished when I read it last night:
My father, as I knew him, was impossible to live with, to be married to, to be dependent upon.

This is a vast subject, the framework and colouring of my universe. As I approach it so nearly, I warm and chill at the same time.

In the first place, there was his unpunctuality.

At the beginning of my life, he would rise from bed at ten or eleven, and even then, like me today, with much emotional agony. He would protest, non the less, every night, that he would be down for breakfast, and be indignant if this were doubted, but my mother soon learned that the only hope lay in bringing him breakfast in bed. Risen, he would potter for several hours with the problems and difficulties of his toilet, and then, in the early afternoon, he would struggle away to his office. Daily he would say that he would be back for Dinner, not by seven, he had to admit, but, absolutely, positively, by eight, or perhaps nine. Nightly, he would return at ten or ten-thirty, to find Dinner spoiled and my Mother in sulks. Quite often he would even miss the last train (which reached Stanmore at 12:10 a.m.), and appear in the small hours, having walked the four miles from Wealdstone (later the three miles from Edgeware, when the Underground was extended thereto), while my Mother's anxiety and resentment rose in the silent house, each time as if he had never done it before. As I grew older, even these times began to slip. On most days, he would not depart for work until the evening, and the last train back became his regular one. He always came back in the end, even if he had to walk all the way from London, which he did not infrequently.
Of such is the soil made in which weird tales grow, no? Trust me: try some Aickman.

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