I first heard of Aickman from a gifted student with an interest in the fantastic: he was in the tradition of M.R James, my student said, but his books were practically impossible to get hold of. I'm always annoyed when people claim to know authors too obscure even for me, and to prove a point I dug around in my ghost-story anthologies and found a couple of Aickman stories. In comparison with James, whose work I've loved since my teens, and who may one day feature in this blog himself (though his cult status is dubious), I found them a bit disappointing, with inconclusive plots and a vaguely spooky atmosphere that didn't quite precipitate into genuine manifestations. But then, as tends to happen, the name kept cropping up - in fact, as we shall see, he's developing quite a presence on the web. And Faber and Faber, who publish my poetry, brought out three volumes of his stories in their print-on-demand series Faber Finds (hence the generic-looking cover in the image shown here).
I now realize I was reading those other stories with the wrong expectations. Aickman isn't really a ghost-story writer, and his writing seems more a reaction against James's work than a development of it. Take 'The Swords', which opens the volume - the opening sentence, in fact: "My first experience?" the narrator asks. Yes, he is talking about sex, a subject James scrupulously avoided. He's looking back on his early life as a travelling salesman, staying in squalid lodgings in postwar provincial towns. James's protagonists were often displaced, too, but their lodgings, though bleak, were usually picturesque with it: the East Anglian settings of 'O Whistle and I'll Come to You,My Lad' and 'A Warning to the Curious' are far removed from... Wolverhampton.
Not knowing the town at all, I had drifted into the rundown area up by the old canal. The main streets were quite wide, but they had been laid out for daytime traffic to the different works and railway yards, and were now quiet and empty, except for the occasional lorry and the boys and girls playing around at some of the corners. The narrow streets running off contained lines of small houses, but a lot of the hosues were empty, with windows broken, or boarded up, and holes in the roof. I should have turned back. but for the sound made by the fair; not pop songs on the amplifiers, and not the poundings of the old steam organs, but more a sort of high tinkling, which somehow fitted in with the warm evening and the rosy twilight.
The protagonist goes to the fair and is admitted to a tent where an all-male audience is watching, and taking part in a bizarre show, egged on by a rough-looking impressario. I'd call it indescribable except that Aickmann describes it in vivid detail: the girl in green face-powder and revealing, if tatty, costume, sprawled in a canvas chair on the stage, the pile of swords, 'stacked criss-cross, like cheese straws' with which the men are invited to stab her, without, apparently, any ill-effect. The narrator flees before his turn comes round, but later meets the impresario and the girl in a cafe, and is coaxed into making a private arrangement.
'The Swords' doesn't try to hide its Freudian symbolism, or the sexual nature of the narrator's fascination with the girl and her act. You could describe it as an allegorical account of a young man losing his virginity to a prostitute, but such a label would nothing to dispel its strangeness or the shocking nature of its ending. Sex and death are combined in a totally unexpected way. It's one of the most disturbing stories I've ever read, and, for me, the best in the book, though some of the others run it close. 'The Hospice' tells of a man who loses his way while driving and ends up having to stay the night in a very unhomely hotel / institution; it has a typical Aickman open ending, though in this case I have my own theory as to what is going on. An example of his anti-Jamesianism is the way the temperature, here and in some other stories, is unnaturally hot instead of unnaturally cold as one might expect - he likes to make you sweat rather than shiver. 'The Same Dog' is a great modern fairy story; as Diane Purkiss points out in her excellent book Fairies and Fairy Stories: A History, fairies and ghosts are almost indistinguishable in some folk tales. Finally, 'The Clock-Watcher', the second of two stories with a strong German influence, uses the uncanny imagery of clocks to brilliant effect, and has a superbly handled unreliable narrator, making the conclusion, once again, highly elusive. I should add that Aickman is a writer every bit as sophisticated as any of his literary-fiction contemporaries, in style, technique and characterization.
I am a bit slow catching on to the Aickman cult. You can find a lot about him on the web, including a bibliographical database and a recent radio programme on him by the writer Jeremy Dyson on BBC iPlayer. He lived from 1914-1981, was a key figure in the conservation of Britain's inland waterways, and wrote forty-eight stories as well as a novel, The Late Breakfasters and a novella The Model: A Novel of the Fantastic. From one of the sites I learn that his mother left home when he was in his teens and his father left not long afterwards, leaving the boy to look after himself in the family home: it's the kind of grim eccentricity you might find in his own stories. His Collected Stories are out of print and can only be obtained second-hand at exorbitant prices. Faber are doing a tremendous service by making these three volumes available; my first reaction on finishing Cold Hand in Mine was to order the other two, The Unsettled Dust and The Wine-Dark Sea.
Next time, I'll be writing about a dark and very original adult fairy-tale by a little-known modernist poet.