The Art of Terror: Robert Aickman’s Strange Tales

October 31, 2014 | 6 books mentioned 4 8 min read


In “Ringing the Changes,” one of the great Robert Aickman’s best-known “strange stories,” a woman asks her husband why a place in their inn is called “The Coffee Room” when no coffee is served there. He chalks it up to the lucus a non lucendo explanation, which he explains as the “principle of calling white black.” Out of the darkness comes the authoritative voice of the inn’s only other guest: “On the contrary. The word ‘black’ comes from an ancient root which means ‘to bleach.’” This etymological lesson gets to the core of Aickman’s particular brand of horror writing: strangeness is everywhere, even in the simplest of words. Like the best horror writers, Aickman is a consummate realist. The “real” and “supernatural” worlds are not distinct realms but rather as intertwined as the etymologies of black and white.

Aickman’s stories slip in and out of supernaturalism and dream states with acrobatic ease. Take “The Swords,” in which a young man loses his virginity to a woman he sees at a rather gruesome carnival act. It begins with an observation that explains the psychological foundations for the grotesquerie to come: “I have noticed several times that it is to beginners that strange things happen, and often, I think, to beginners only.” The man’s object of desire (and disgust) is a woman who could accurately be described as either a zombie or a perfectly mortal prostitute. She hovers between two modes — seedy realism and supernaturalism — as the young man wrestles with a “strange,” sordid experience in which “facts” will finally replace his “fancies.”

covercovercoverFaber & Faber has recently reissued four volumes of Aickman’s tales (Dark Entries, Cold Hand in Mine, The Unsettled Dust, The Wine-Dark Sea), each of which sports a suitably ghoulish illustrated cover. The collections demonstrate Aickman’s flexibility and finesse with the strange story. He can use it to craft a convincing, and often very funny, coming-of-age tale in “Meeting Mr. Millar;” set an account of obsession and jealousy against the backdrop of historical atrocities in “The Clock Watcher;” and scare the living daylights out of readers with “The Trains,” his most conventionally plotted but characteristically opaque work of horror. At one point in that spine-tingler, the villain explains the workings of the nearby tracks:

“A railway is like an iceberg, you know: very little of its working is visible to the casual onlooker.”

Aickman’s art could be similarly described: We might be blocked from seeing what lies beneath its surface, but we know it’s formidable and chilling.

Aickman wrote 48 strange stories over the course of his career and two longer works, The Late Breakfasters and The Model, as well as two memoirs and two histories of England’s inland canals, which he strove doggedly to preserve by founding the Inland Waterway Association. There’s a nice symmetry between his volunteer work and his writing subjects; broadly speaking, both involved preserving or discovering those old pathways that modern man has neglected or is blind to.

Faber enlisted scholars, acquaintances, and fellow writers to provide introductions and afterwords, some of which put their own “strange” twist on these usually laudatory pieces to create a new form: the insulting encomium. Ramsey Campbell describes Aickman as a “pale, chubby fellow with the worst teeth I’ve ever seen in a living mouth.” (Only a fellow horror writer would specify “living” mouth.) Jean Richardson, a longtime romantic acquaintance, admits that she wasn’t “young enough, beautiful enough, rich enough, well-connected enough or famous enough to be a trophy, and trophy girlfriend was what Robert thought he deserved.” She then quotes his explanation for why a stroll down the aisle wasn’t in their future: “[Our temperamental difference] is perhaps symbolized in the different pace at which we walk. This stands for much.” (Whether Aickman was prone to moseying or speed-walking is left to the imagination.)

At any rate, the essays reveal that Aickman, though odd and prickly and not shy about his abilities — he claimed to have a wider range than both M.R. James and Henry James — was fundamentally decent, always good company and an impressive autodidact. They also emphasize that he was born in the wrong age, and indeed there is an elegiac strain running through the tales. A character in “The Real Road to the Church” notes the “lack of immensity in the world,” and another in “The View” laments that “there are no beautiful houses in England now. Only ruins, mental homes, and Government offices.” In “The Next Glade,” a housewife living on the outskirts of London complains that it is “impossible to get lost” in the small patch of woods next to her house. But the stories, “The Next Glade” especially, are full of people doing precisely that, stumbling upon ephemeral eruptions of a more expansive, unruly, Dionysian reality in the otherwise mundane world of Apollonian illusion:

Conventions are, indeed, all that shield us from the shivering void, though often they do so but poorly and desperately…None the less, reality lies far behind, and is unchangeable: it is ritual, in fact…Reality is often dangerous…

How characters react to that dangerous reality — what it reveals about their failings or desires and the way it imperceptibly but irrevocably changes their human relations — is one of Aickman’s recurring themes.

This Dionysian threat appears in “Ringing the Changes,” in which the young wife is caught in the “beatific throng” of dancing spirits amid the incessant tolling. The profane revelry humiliates her much older husband, whose failure to protect her is judged harshly; awakens a previously dormant voluptuousness within her; and imposes a division between the May-December couple “which neither of them would ever mention or ever forget.” The brush with the walking dead drives home the real danger lurking in the story from page one: the “perils attendant upon marrying a girl twenty-four years younger than [oneself].”

“Bind Your Hair” is another perfect story in this vein, Aickman managing to honor the seductive mysteries of a Dionysian ritual while wryly making fun of the horrors of a weekend with in-laws. Clarinda Hartley, a woman whom “no one seemed able to fathom,” visits her fiancé’s family in the East Midlands for a stultifying visit. Seeking refuge from her future in-laws, people who “lived in the depths of the country, but had no idea of the wilderness,” she stumbles on the orgiastic rites of one Mrs. Pagani — animal skin-clad bodies writhing in an open pit in the middle of a pastoral maze. Initially horrified, a parting glance the next day between the woman and the priestess-like neighbor suggests that she will be back. Clarinda, suspicious and afraid of Mrs. Pagani as she is, realizes on some level that she is more suited to frolicking in the mysterious woman’s lecherous pit than stewing in the “capacious family lobster pot” of her in-laws.

Like Clarinda, other Aickman characters stumble into a community — or cult — with its own rules. Some of these communities are benign even as they appear sinister, some sinister beneath their surface (or apparent) benignity, but all exert an irresistible influence on their foreign visitors. For example, in “Into the Wood” a restless woman accompanying her road-building husband on a business trip stays overnight at a secluded community of accursed insomniacs deep in the Swedish forest. Despite her initial aversion to the place and its people, she eventually sees the insomnia as an odd blessing that opens up literal and figurative pathways to self-discovery even as it closes her off from the rest of the society.

Another one of these tales, “The Hospice,” my favorite in all four volumes, demonstrates the full range of Aickman’s gifts. Apart from the superb “The Inner Room,” it’s the closest he comes to Kafka’s unique blend of the eerie, the horrifying, the comically absurd, and the emotionally resonant. A man named Maybury who, though he “deplore[s] all deviation,” deviates from his planned route and, low on fuel and bitten by a feral cat, takes refuge at “The Hospice,” whose sign promises “good fare” and “some accommodations.” (There is something vaguely menacing about that some that speaks to the inflexibility of the hospice’s rules as well as to the limited number of its beds.)

The story’s dining room scene is a masterpiece of low-key, sinister farce. Each guest sits alone at giant tables facing the same way. One, Maybury eventually notices, is chained to a railing on the floor. The portions are enormous, the courses unending, but when Maybury pleads satiety, he is rebuked: “That’s not necessarily for each of us to say, is it?” When he can’t finish his turkey, an incensed hostess slams his giant plate on the ground.

“The Hospice” could be paraphrased as a visit to a land of neurotic Lotus Eaters. The guests, “who come [to the Hospice] for the food and the peace and the warmth and the rest,” don’t like stimulants of any kind, forbid the discussion of unpleasantness, abhor the sight of blood and prefer not to sleep alone or in the dark, which isn’t to say that death and violence don’t find their way inside its fortifications. The Hospice — a refuge for pilgrims or a limbo for dying souls? — is an infantilizing institution that makes Maybury feel like “he was only half his normal size.” It also obliquely reflects Maybury’s own anxieties: responsible adult businessman though he is, he nonetheless finds himself submitting to the babying, wearing a pair of matching pajamas with a roommate, quaking in his bed and reflecting on his own inadequacies as a man, husband, and father.

Aickman is also a pitiless chronicler of the battle between the sexes, battles which usually depict a rather feckless man helpless to confront or comprehend the inner drives of the woman in his life. “No Stronger Than a Flower,” to name one, is a fanged makeover tale which I’d love to see a style magazine with a dark sense of humor reprint in its glossy pages.

While Aickman is never ponderous, he comes closest when he is at his most allegorical, as in “The Wine-Dark Sea,” in which a British tourist makes his way on a stolen boat onto a wondrous Greek island ruled over by three goddesses. It is a fable about the feminine energies — fertile, sensuous, wrathful — driven out of culture but still persisting as a last refuge against the barren, masculine culture that has dominated since the beginnings of Western Civilization: “The stupid Greeks even called the plays they wrote about their fight with the women, tragedies.” Despite being set around the “faintly repulsive tideless Aegean” and featuring rattling earthquakes, one feels on firmer ground than with some of his murkier tales, probably because allegories by their nature ultimately tend to reveal more than they conceal.

A much subtler tale touching on similar feminine, ecological themes is “The Stains,” in which a recently widowed civil servant meets an elemental creature collecting lichen samples for her mysterious father. After abandoning his London life to live with her in a stone cottage, she is horrified when he attempts to define lichen, and by extension their illogical relationship, for her as “a fungus and an alga living in a mutually beneficial relationship.” To which she replies: “Don’t talk about it…It’s unlucky.” The story’s gruesome ending I think stems as much from the man’s urge to explain the mysteries of nature scientifically as any malign power; his assertion constitutes some fatal violation of the natural order.

Some of Aickman’s more lurid stories could be alternately titled “Paging Dr. Freud,” specifically one entertainingly febrile tale, “Ravissante,” about a symbolist painter whose checked sensuality is awakened by a visit to the widow of a famous painter. The old, “gnomic” woman urges him to rifle through the shrine-like wardrobe of her adopted daughter, to kneel and tread on the “complex silky nebula” of her dresses. The lingerie drawer is saved for last:

“You could almost wear it yourself…Why don’t you kiss it? Roll up your blue sleeves, and plunge in your white arms…Love them, tear them, possess them.”

Describing the story so briefly, however, can’t capture the more refined accretion of oddities that culminate in this charged scene, which itself is most likely a psycho-sexual hallucination that painfully manifests to him his own unworthiness as an artist.

Aickman readers are a bit like the narrator of “The Inner Room,” who never gains access to her forlorn dollhouse’s hidden sanctum where all mystery is laid bare. What one remembers most from Aickman’s stories are not the ghosts, vampires, psychopaths, goddesses, or lake monsters, but rather a feeling of dread and a lingering doubt over the precise nature of the epiphany, or atrocity, that seems to have occurred. After reading an Aickman tale, one feels as if one’s vision is occluded by the very “self-renewing, perennial” debris that covers every surface of the mansion in “The Unsettled Dust,” a story in which the prying narrator is curtly told: “The key of your room doesn’t open ever door.” And perhaps that’s for the best; some locked doors should remain unopened.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Matt at