Saturday, October 30, 2010

Robert Aickman and Philip Challinor: Akin to Poetry

Philip Challinor. Akin to Poetry: Observations on Some Strange Tales of Robert Aickman. Baton Rouge: Gothic Press. 2010. 80 pp. $22.50 pb. ISBN 978-0-013045-19-0

The British author Robert Fordyce Aickman (1914-1981) was a man of varied interests and wide culture. Although he received a formal education focused on a career in architecture, his father's profession, he was, from a very early age, more interested in literature, music, and the theatre. He was theatre critic for The Nineteenth Century and After, chairman of the London Opera Society, active in multiple other operatic, ballet, and theatrical organizations, as well as cofounder—along with another writer of ghost stories, L.T.C. Rolt—of the Inland Waterways Association, a group dedicated to the preservation and restoration of England’s inner canal system. This last group consuming as it did a great deal of the author's time while he was most closely associated with it, is the focus of a great portion of his second autobiographical volume, The River Runs Uphill and is also the sole subject of two books Aickman wrote in the 1950s.

The first volume of Aickman’s autobiography, The Attempted Rescue goes into fascinating, excruciating, and often savagely funny detail about his parents’ dramatically dysfunctional marriage and the devastating effects this had on his own development. His Father moves about in the book like some kind of capricious, baffling, and frightening Olympian godling, too indifferent to the needs of others to be useful or understood by anyone else. His bitterly unhappy mother clings to her son as a surrogate for the love she felt she had lost elsewhere, laying the foundations for her son’s interest in the arts and his love for language, when not engaged in heated and nearly incessant battle with her husband. Her father, Aickman’s grandfather, was the charming swindler turned Victorian novelist Richard Marsh (1857-1915), author of The Beetle, a novel, whose popularity in its time, rivaled that of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was published the same year (1897).

Aickman is best known as the author of 48 “strange stories”, a title he used in what he felt was the absence of any really satisfactory equivalent for the German words “geistlich” or “unheimlich”, which he felt were the best terms serving the definition of the “ghost story” he established in the introductions and selections he made for the first eight celebrated volumes of Fontana’s Book[s] of Great Ghost Stories.

Aickman won the World Fantasy Award in 1975 for his story “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” and the British Fantasy Award in 1981 for “The Stains”. He was a controversial figure in supernatural fiction during his lifetime and afterwards, earning accolades as “one of the most accomplished avatars of the English ghost story tradition” from such distinguished critics and authors of supernatural fiction as E. F. Bleiler, Ramsey Campbell, John Clute, Dennis Etchison, Michael Dirda, Neil Gaiman, Russell Kirk, Fritz Leiber, Peter Straub, Jack Sullivan, and others due to the high literary polish and ambiguity of his work, while at the same time eliciting baffled scorn from many others as a pretentious peddler of stories from which the conclusions had been lopped to give a false impression of profundity. His devoted but limited following has slowly, steadily increased thanks to a few significant reprint editions and wider critical acceptance. As late as Autumn 2005, a never-before published ghost story by the author appeared in the British journal Wormwood, edited by Mark Valentine.

I regret that two informal sources that mixed playful erudition with probing analysis of this author’s work are currently unavailable. No transcript seems to be available of the panel devoted to Aickman presented at the 2007 World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, with participation by Kathryn Kramer, Lisa Tuttle, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Dirda, and others. Also, the variety of approaches and perspectives brought to bear on several Aickman stories by a variety of academics and amateur critics at the now moribund alt.books.ghost-fiction group, once collected (amongst a number of more formal essays, all highly recommended) at Barb Yanney’s sadly defunct website Robert Aickman: An Appreciation are currently only available to those willing to delve through reams of Google and Deja group archives. To those diligent enough to search these archives, I particularly recommend the remarks by Robert Suggs and the late lamented John Eatman, two talented amateur critics who had an uncanny knack for ferreting out the finest details of whatever they examined and doing so with such joy in discovery as to make all this concentrated effort entertaining rather than labored.

To date, criticism of his work has been rather limited and much of that tentative, with S.T. Joshi’s assessment of the author, “So Little Is Definite” in Studies in Weird Fiction 18 (Winter 1996. Reprinted in The Modern Weird Tale, McFarland, 2001) offering a few insights concerning the use of language and landscape, but otherwise remaining as baffled, if not as infuriated, by the author as Joanna Russ had been when reviewing the collection Painted Devils for the February 1980 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

More insightful have been John Clute’s essay in E. F. Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers (Scribners, 1985. Reprinted in Clute’s Strokes: Essays and Reviews, 1966-1986, Serconia, 1988), Peter Straub’s introduction to the Aickman retrospective collection The Wine-Dark Sea (Arbor House, 1988), Michael Dirda’s. “Crossing into Darkness: Robert Aickman’s `Strange Stories’ ” in Washington Post Book World, 11 Dec. 1988: 9 (Reprinted in Dirda’s excellent, wide-ranging compilation of essays and reviews, Bound to Please, W. W. Norton, 2005), Gary William Crawford’s frustratingly brief yet informative Robert Aickman: An Introduction (Gothic Press, 2003), a smattering of essays and dissertations in a variety of venues (see Crawford’s online Aickman database at for publication information and short assessments of secondary literature devoted to Aickman), and at long last, the present collection of essays by Philip Challinor, some of which first appeared at the website mentioned above.

As already noted, Challinor’s essays are not the only valuable analyses available, but Challinor is unique, at this point in Aickman’s critical reception, in dealing with several individual stories in depth rather than attempting to infer as much as possible about all of Aickman’s work based on examination of themes common to several stories or choosing a single “characteristic” story upon which to base a key to all of the author’s works. Fritz Leiber’s description of Aickman’s impact, written upon the publication of Cold Hand in Mine in 1975, remains one of the best:

“Robert Aickman has a gift for depicting the eerie areas of inner space, the churning storms and silent overcasts that engulf the minds of lonely and alienated people. He is a weatherman of the subconscious.”

Although many of Aickman’s stories may share common themes and employ similar techniques, they affect the reader almost entirely on a subconscious level, employing allusions, metaphors, and subtle shifts in characterization, atmosphere, and geography to trigger memories and emotional responses in readers that a more straightforward plot and development would overlay and overwhelm. Furthermore, his use of allusion is so refined and so elusive that the author he most closely resembles is not any of his illustrious predecessors in the art of supernatural fiction, but the extremely subtle net of allusions and wordplay employed by James Joyce in Dubliners. Every word counts: from the title to the epigraph, to the names of characters, to variances in the way objects or locations are described, to recurrences or variations in dialogue. All of these interact with each other in a manner that elicits a very individual response that varies not only from reader to reader, but is also capable of striking the same reader in different ways depending on his or her experience, a phenomenon that Aickman described in his introduction to the 3rd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1966): “the successful ghost story is akin to poetry and seems to emerge from the same strata of the unconscious”.

In this remarkable collection of essays, Challinor has demonstrated that Aickman’s technique is equal to his intent by exploring eight stories from different stages in the author’s career as a writer of strange tales: one story from the 1964 collection Dark Entries (“Bind Your Hair”), three from the 1968 collection Sub Rosa (“The Unsettled Dust”, “No Stronger Than a Flower”, and “Ravissante”), three from the 1975 collection Cold Hand in Mine (“Niemandswasser”, “The Same Dog”, and “The Hospice”) and one from 1977’s Tales of Love and Death (“Le Miroir”).

Challinor’s identification of allusions and how these allusions contribute to the atmosphere and impact of the stories is apt and persuasive. Of “Niemandswasser”, he writes, “Aickman uses the English and German names interchangeably throughout the story, and there is a certain feline irony in his choice of a lake [Lake Constance] whose English name implies feminine fidelity” in a story that deals with broken engagements, gender-shifting doubles, and a pervasive sense of betrayal. His identification of a subtle reference to the German Romantic writer Annette Droste-Hülshoff is another nice touch, since, like the present Aickman story, Droste-Hülshoff’s famous novella “The Jew’s Beech Tree” is another exploration of the doppelgänger theme whose conclusion raises as many questions as it answers, and it serves to point out the delicate touch Aickman employs when delivering allusions and asides: “like many of Aickman’s seemingly casual asides, it both rounds off part of the tale and throws the reader slightly off-guard.” (Challinor, 16).

Joanna Russ in the review mentioned above, dismissed these subtleties, claiming, “Robert Aickman has left out the parts of his horror stories which explain what is happening and why, thus achieving a mystifying non-compossibility (i.e. you can’t put the damned thing together)”, but Challinor’s patient exploration of Aickman’s use of language and the precise methods the author uses to mis- and re-direct his readers proves otherwise. Challinor demonstrates that often it is not what Aickman has left out of his stories that threatens to confuse the reader, but what he has included:

“The presence of such a wealth of detail helps to emphasize the inexplicability of the weird phenomena; as though the narrator had difficulty deciding what was relevant and what was not, and so decided to put in everything. Relevant details are often so slyly inserted that their significance (at least in that conscious part of the reader’s mind to which Aickman so determined refused to truckle) only on repeated readings . . . ” (8)

“Aside from greatly enriching the texture of his stories, it is also a subtle kind of redirection; not imprecision so much as precision about the wrong things . . . the effect is both disorienting and richly allusive.” (19)

Time and again, Challinor points to the methods Aickman employs to reveal how much richer the world is than the one we normally see—the psychological and social decay that underlies the physical evidence in “The Unsettled Dust”, the ambiguities and seeming contradictions that counterpoint the male and female views of what occurs in “No Stronger Than a Flower”, the clash between private need and public myth in “Bind Your Hair”, the need to rationalize the unconventional “combination of sadness and carnal appetite [which] appears characteristic of the guests at The Hospice”, the “unsettling tangents” that allow settings and objects to shift out of recognition in nearly every one of the stories, and many more instances of the irrational erupting into and attempting to impose its individual will, upon the fabric of reality. In discussing “The Same Dog”, Challinor even manages to illuminate elements in the story by introducing passages from Aickman’s autobiography, a perilous enterprise that all too often results in readings that are either superficial or even smugly condescending. Curiously, Challinor’s exploration of “Le Miroir”, fascinating as it is, merely confirms my own estimation of the story as pretentious, self-pitying, and elitist with only a few flashes of wit to redeem it.

Look beneath the surface, Aickman tells us, and see a variegated realm whose patterns go beyond the obvious features of the world we think we all know, a world with hitherto unsuspected ties to our subconscious, containing truths we could not otherwise have recognized or grasped. Challinor has proven Aickman to be a worthy, if rather prankish, guide to these mysterious provinces, and has provided us with more of the signposts we will need to find our way.

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