Why Robert Aickman is the master of “weird fiction”

Reading Aickman’s strange stories is to glimpse a reality you would prefer to forget.

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What has come to be known as weird fiction is commonly interpreted as an escape from reality. Writers such as HP Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and Walter de la Mare evoked a world of dreams in order to relieve the sense of oppression that comes with a life ruled by physical laws and social conventions. Obeying an impulse similar to that which animated the Gothic and Romantic writers of an earlier era, they fashioned a make-believe world as a refuge from the emptiness they found in modern life.

 It is at best an over-simple interpretation of many writers working in this genre. Nowhere is this more so than in the case of Robert Aickman, until recently a lesser-known figure but surely one of weird fiction’s most remarkable practitioners. What Aickman called his “strange stories” tell of landscapes morphing into new shapes, while time is twisted or suspended. Yet readers are not left with the impression of an unreal world that fades away when the book is closed. It is what we take to be the actualities that end up looking imaginary. Reading these stories, you feel you have glimpsed a reality you would prefer to forget. But the disquieting vision lingers on, haunting the mind more insistently than any spectral revenant from beyond the grave.

Edited with an illuminating introduction by Victoria Nelson, author of The Secret Life of Puppets (2001), a fascinating investigation of the ways in which marionettes and their robotic successors are portrayed in fiction and the arts, Compulsory Games contains many stories in which the protagonists find the world mutating around them. In “No Time Is Passing”, a suburban office worker called Delbert Catlow discovers a river at the bottom of his garden that he had not noticed before. Passing through a small gate of which he had also been unaware, he finds an expanse of water more like a sea and a little blue boat, with the words “SEE FOR YOURSELF” painted on the stern. 

Looking at his watch, Delbert finds it has stopped. Rowing over to the further shore, he meets a red-haired figure who takes him to a crimson hut and offers him a colourless, cloudy drink, with a “rare and heavenly” smell. In the hut he notices a wired cage containing a tiny white living sphinx. After a succession of anomalous experiences he hears his watch ticking “frenziedly”. He decides to return home, consult his usual doctor and “resume his proper beliefs and optimism”. When he reaches his home he discovers it has been burgled, leaving everything “wrecked and despoiled”. The ambrosia-like drink had left him with a raging thirst and an unsettling thought: “There is no certainty in anything, only likelihood: and if we lose hold of likelihood, we never cease worrying.” The story concludes: “Tomorrow is always another day, take it or leave it.”

 Among the other stories in this collection are “Residents Only”, in which a town council sub-committee struggles with a cemetery that shifts its shape in ways “unpredictable even to the philosophical”; “Le Miroir”, a short tale of a young woman from a declining aristocratic family who sees herself rapidly decaying in a beautiful mirror, where her reflection continues to appear after she has died and her body has disappeared. The title story “Compulsory Games” tells of a love triangle involving a nondescript middle-class couple, “fortified, as well as might be, against all things, except sickness, death, inflation, revolution and chance”, in which the male protagonist finds his wife has eloped with a female neighbour and watches baffled as a pilotless plane crosses the sky above his back garden. “After life has run away from us, nothing is ever again really credible,” the narrator comments, “nor does it matter.”

All of Aickman’s stories involve a rupture in the seeming order of things. But nothing positive is revealed, and the protagonist feels lost rather than entranced. None of his stories contain anything like the intimations of a realm of beauty and ecstasy lying behind the drab appearances that we find in Machen, whose work was heavily informed by an unorthodox brand of Anglo-Catholicism. Nor is there any trace in Aickman of Gothic and Romantic nostalgia for a pre-modern form of life.

Born in 1914, Aickman was conservative, even reactionary in his values. He was convinced that life before the First World War was superior to that which followed; while it was highly unequal, the pre-1914 era at least allowed freedom to a few. But the age on which he looked back with approval was modern in its thinking, and the formative influences on his stories were not mysticism or the occult (though he was extremely knowledgeable about both) but psychoanalysis and surrealism. Showing how time and logic hold no sway in the deeper regions of the mind, Freud and Dalí were his mentors.

A mark of Aickman’s 20th-century sensibility is his explicit treatment of sexuality. He appears to have had few male friends and many female lovers. His stories first appeared in a collection, We Are for The Dark (1951), half of them written by Elizabeth Jane Howard, his lover at the time, who appears on the cover of the book as co-author. When Howard left him and married Kingsley Amis, Aickman was desolated. But he had no difficulty finding alternative female companionship. Surprising in a man of prickly right-wing views, he displayed a genuine interest in women – how they think and feel, look and dress – that seems to have given him a compelling charm. When in his last years he fell ill, a number of women friends whom he had kept in separate compartments of his life came to know one another and looked after him until he died in 1981.

In the 30 years before his death Aickman wrote 48 strange stories. He was never a full-time writer. Having trained as an architect like his father, an eccentric figure who was famously unpunctual, Aickman worked in the family business for a while. When his father died in 1941, he inherited a small allowance that enabled him to afford an impecunious bohemian life in Covent Garden. Later he was a theatre and film reviewer, chair of the London Opera Society and an aficionado of the ballet. While never learning to drive, he loved travelling. Despite his reactionary views he was a conscientious objector during the Second World War and relieved from any obligation to take part in the war effort.

Much of Aickman’s life was devoted to the conservation and restoration of the English canal system, a cause he promoted through the Inland Waterways Association, which he co-founded with LTC Rolt, an automotive engineer who was also an author of stories in which supernatural events play out in industrial settings. Along with his then wife, Edith Ray Gregorson, Aickman set up a literary agency, calling it the Richard Marsh Agency in memory of his grandfather, the author of the horror novel The Beetle , published in 1897, the same year as Dracula, and like Bram Stoker’s book a massive best-seller. Participating in a celebrated investigation of an allegedly haunted rectory, Aickman was an active psychical researcher. He edited eight volumes of the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, and as well as his stories wrote two novels, two popular books on canals, two volumes of memoirs and a lengthy treatise on philosophy, Panacea: the Synthesis of an Attitude, which remains unpublished. He died of cancer having rejected conventional treatments in favour of homeopathy.

While he may have belonged in a tradition of weird fiction, Aickman’s style and vision are too singular for him to be easily categorised. Like many in the romantic movement he regarded the growth of knowledge with some suspicion. He cherished a dictum of the art critic, poet and aesthete Sacheverell Sitwell: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts, and not the explanation.” Striving for knowledge, human beings deny the mystery that surrounds their lives. But Aickman differed from the romantics in denying that this mystery was in any way redemptive. Losing their foothold in ordinary life, his protagonists spend the rest of their days falling into an unfathomable void.

Invoking the horror that is evoked when ordinary existence is unaccountably disrupted, Aickman’s stories may seem to resemble those of HP Lovecraft. But the oblique and elegant style in which he describes the dissolution of ordinary life is different from anything in Lovecraft, while the horror that ensues is not inspired by inhuman monsters. Aickman viewed the paranormal phenomena he investigated as being at least in part objective facts. He produced a number of supernatural stories, and even a tale of vampirism. Yet the sense of uncanniness that is conveyed in his best stories has little to do with any otherworldly realm. Aickman’s true subject matter is the instability of the human world.

HP Lovecraft has been plausibly interpreted as exploring through his fiction a philosophy of “weird realism”, according to which the human mind floats on what Lovecraft called “black seas of infinity”, “the boundless and hideous unknown – the shadow-haunted Outside”. According to weird realism, the mind is a speck of awareness floating in a possibly lawless cosmos. Apart from nightmarish glimpses, the world beyond the mind is unknowable. In contrast, the unknown with which Aickman was concerned is inside the human mind. The protagonists in his stories are conventional men and women who think their way of life will run on by itself. When it begins to slip away from them, they discover they know little or nothing of themselves or other human beings.

Such an experience of de-familiarisation is at the heart of “The Strangers”, one of Aickman’s most compelling stories. A chartered accountant whose days are filled by his work, visits to his club and undemanding male friendships, the narrator is prised out of the life he thinks he knows by an enigmatic woman, “Vera Z”, and an unspeakably disturbing theatrical performance.  After a period of illness in which he is cared for by his mother, he moves to a town in “our own sleepy West Country”, answers an advertisement for an auctioneer’s assistant and in the years that follow builds up galleries and salerooms of his own. In this way he is able to resume the daily round, but his life has been altered out of recognition. The narrator concludes: “I myself became more normal and ordinary again before very long. I am sure of it. Though never completely so. My business gained accordingly. My state of soul lost. It is an old story.”

The uncanniness conveyed in the story is powerful, and yet its content is elusive. In his well-known essay “Das Unheimliche” (1919), Freud suggested that what we experience as uncanny is not novel but familiar to us – a feature of our experience that we have repressed from conscious awareness. What is repressed always somehow returns, Freud believed – as neurotic symptoms, or haunting fantasies. But what returns in Aickman’s stories is not any repressed desire. Instead it is fear of the flimsiness of our lives.

Dreading an illegible world, we make an imagined home from which the world has been banished. When inexplicable incidents befall us the makeshift structure breaks down, and the narratives we fashion of our lives are broken. If Aickman’s stories are strange, it is because they are in fact anti-stories; revelations of the plotless lives we actually lead. When we encounter the uncanny our fancied home can no longer shelter us, and we are lost in the indecipherable shape-shifting reality it has been built to shut out.

Something like Aickman’s sense of the uncanny is conveyed in many of the stories of Walter de la Mare, one of the writers he most admired. If their fiction conveys a message, it is that human beings should not seek to see for themselves; they are best off when they inhabit the quotidian dream-world. As a seasoned old doctor observes at the end of one of de la Mare’s stories, “Physic”: “As a general rule it’s wiser never to wake anybody up, merely to give them physic – and certainly not mere doctor’s physic.” 

John Gray’s most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

Compulsory Games
Robert Aickman
New York Review of Books, 160pp, £12.99

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family