A middle-aged company man on a business trip in 1970s England gets lost miles from the nearest town and, running out of gas near nightfall, takes refuge at a hostel, where things go from weird to worse.
In a large overheated dining room, the guests eat silently, consuming daunting quantities of food; a matronly server harasses the stranded traveler with nanny-like admonitions to finish his meal, then smashes the plate in a fit of pique when he refuses. The manager, who somehow knows his name, calmly explains that the establishment has no telephone—so as not to disturb the guests’ nerves. A beautiful lady guest moves from an unsettlingly intense after-dinner conversation to an equally unsettling amorous advance. A creepy male roommate comes and goes stealthily in the night, and may or may not alter his appearance between outings.
The next morning, someone is dead, and the traveler’s adventure ends (or does it?) in an anticlimax likely to leave one asking what in the world happened.
Robert Aickman (1914-1981) happened. A British writer virtually unknown outside a cult following, Aickman—author of several story collections as well as two novels, two autobiographies, and a book on conservation—is sometimes described as an author of supernatural or horror fiction. But the best way to describe his work is with his own preferred term: “strange stories.”
Last summer and fall, to mark the centennial of Aickman’s birth, which occurred the day before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Faber & Faber brought out a four-volume series that comprises about two-thirds of Aickman’s short story oeuvre. Dark Entries and Cold Hand in Mine are reprints of Aickman’s original books, published in 1964 and 1975, respectively; The Wine-Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust are posthumous collections assembled from other volumes.
These handsome paperback editions may not spark a Robert Aickman revival, but anyone who picks them up is in for a memorable literary discovery—and a rewarding, though disconcerting, experience.
As a rule in supernatural fiction, mystifying and frightening things have (or eventually get) a logical, if paranormal, explanation, be it ghosts, sorcery, or demonic presence. Aickman’s work—such as “The Hospice,” the story about the traveler stuck at a sinister hostel—nearly always defies this convention. It’s as if a whodunit ended with the “who” still unanswered, and perhaps also the “how” and “why.”
There are exceptions. “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” is a fairly straightforward vampire tale set around 1820, lifted above the genre by its dry humor and skillfully paced descent from mundane into macabre. “Ringing the Changes,” Aickman’s most-anthologized story, draws on two horror-fiction staples—the town with a dark secret and zombies—to create a stunningly original piece. A couple on their honeymoon, the much older Gerald and his wife Phrynne, find themselves in the midst of a quaint local festival that starts with the incessant ringing of church bells. Here, the answer to the mystery is telegraphed in advance: A fellow lodger at the inn tells Gerald they are literally “ringing to wake the dead,” who rise once a year to join the living for a night of orgiastic dance. Gerald half-believes it, at best; but we know it’s true—and this knowledge heightens the growing dread, as husband and wife frantically reassure themselves there’s no cause to worry.
The frenzied throng finally invades the inn, and Phrynne is dragged away and swept up in the awful revelry. She is rescued, seemingly unharmed; but the very Aickmanesque morning-after ending hints at some ineffable transformation: “Gerald had become aware of something dividing them which neither of them would ever mention or ever forget.”
In other, more quintessential, Aickman stories, ambiguity is all. In “The School Friend,” the unspeakable coexists with the deliberately unspoken, starting with the unspecified “catastrophe” that brings the narrator, Mel, a successful novelist, back to her small hometown at the age of 41. Mel’s childhood friend, the brilliant and beautiful Sally, returns as well after her reclusive father’s death. Before long, Sally starts to change, looking haggard and unkempt, and acting oddly; and there may be someone or something else inhabiting her late father’s house. A series of perplexing events culminates in a hair-raising confrontation with Sally, horribly transfigured and “dressed in a very curious way, about which I do not think it fair to say more.” A fittingly cryptic coda follows.