The Curmudgeon


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Robert Aickman

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Robert Aickman, the author of some of the best weird fiction of the twentieth century. During his lifetime he published forty-eight stories, mostly of long-story to novella length; a novel called The Late Breakfasters which is more or less unobtainable; and two volumes of autobiography. The first of these, The Attempted Rescue, gives a poignant account of his upbringing in a thoroughly unhappy home on the fringes of the British aristocracy. Of his forty-eight stories, at least ten or a dozen - a rather high percentage - are authentic masterpieces. Opinions will vary over which ten or a dozen, but a book which included "Ringing the Changes", "The Swords", "The Hospice", "Into the Woods", "The Same Dog", "Meeting Mr Millar" and "Ravissante" would rank among the greatest weird collections ever published.

His prose style is inimitable and unforgettable; as erudite and urbane as Nabokov's, without the verbal flashiness and the cheap in-jokes. Aickman also shared with Nabokov a wide culture and a pervasive nostalgia for a lost world: in Nabokov's case pre-revolutionary Russia, in Aickman's case the England of the Edwardians and late Victorians. Aickman's posthumously published short novel The Model is set in Tsarist Russia, and his story "The Houses of the Russians" features a caricatured Soviet sympathiser who would not have been out of place in some of Nabokov's more lamentable excursions into patriotic self-pity.

He has a reputation for being enigmatic and (to his detractors) unnecessarily obscure, but many of his tales have the clarity and simplicity of allegory. In "The Swords" (told uncharacteristically from the viewpoint of a relatively uneducated and uncultivated protagonist), the intentionally obvious sexual symbolism of the eponymous weapons makes the horror and perversity of the climax all the more shocking; in "Into the Woods" the wife of a well-to-do Manchester businessman is brought to an inner awakening by her encounters with the denizens of a Swedish sanatorium for insomniacs. The protagonist of "Never Visit Venice", whose fantasy of the city has been intolerably cheapened and coarsened by the mob of tourists, discovers in the end that great visions come at a price; while in "The Wine-Dark Sea" another traveller is granted a temporary reprieve from the modern world, although the modern world extends no reprieve to his haven.

Others of Aickman's stories are indeed difficult, at least on the level of surface plot; but in the best of them the superficial obscurity is allied to a lucid and thoroughly worked out poetic symbolism. The painter's narrative in "Ravissante", with its complex interweaving of colour (particularly the associations of red and gold) with sexuality and supernatural threat, is a superb example.

Ramsey Campbell, a friend of his later years, has noted Aickman's unexpected reactions to certain horror films: he preferred George Romero's Night of the Living Dead to Val Lewton's The Leopard Man, and he despised Don't Look Now. But several of Aickman's stories, though written with consummate refinement, portray thoroughly gruesome scenarios. "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen" works a nasty variation on the theme of the unknown telephone caller; "Ringing the Changes", deservedly his most anthologised story, has a premise worthy of Romero and a structure worthy of Lovecraft.

Aickman also published two books on Britain's inland waterways. He was an environmentalist long before it became fashionable, being a founder-member in the 1960s of the Inland Waterways Association, an institution dedicated to improving the then deplorable condition of Britain's canals. One of his colleagues, L T C Rolt, also published ghost stories; Rolt's slim volume Sleep No More contains several which make effective atmospheric use of ostensibly utilitarian industrial settings.

My chapbook on Aickman is available from Gothic Press


  • At 5:05 pm , Anonymous BenSix said...

    Interesting - thank you. Which volume would you recommend to the unfamiliar?

    (Oh, and Aickman's wiki states he died of cancer "after refusing to have conventional treatment". Do you know what that was about?)

  • At 5:26 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    A fine appreciation of Aickman, but I think what Ramsey Campbell actually says (in his tribute to Aickman in Collected Strange Stories) is that R.A. preferred Romero's Night of the Living Dead to The Leopard Man.

  • At 5:42 pm , Blogger Philip said...

    Ben: His stories have been printed and reprinted in all sorts of combinations, and just about any collection you can pick up will probably contain at least one of his best. For my money his greatest original collections, now being reprinted by Tartarus Press, are Cold Hand in Mine and Sub Rosa, and there are also two paperbacks that came out in the late 1980s and shouldn't be too expensive, which between them contain much of his other best work. They're called The Wine-Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust.

    As for his death: apparently he really did go to a homeopathic therapist for cancer treatment. During his last few weeks he was looked after at home by friends. He was hospitalised near the end and given a blood transfusion, but it didn't work and he died. He hated just about everything to do with the machine age, including science and rationalism and hence presumably conventional medicine too.

    Anon: just checked it and you're right. I'll correct that.

  • At 8:54 pm , Anonymous Rob J said...

    Robert Aickman was one of the most elegant writers of the English
    language in any genre.

    It is a shame that he hasn't been given the recognition that lesser names have achieved, it certainly doesn't help that his books are
    long out of print.

    I have a copy of "The Wine Dark Sea" and "The Model" which are truly magnificent.

    His influence is very obvious
    on Peter Straub and Gene Wolfe
    who are equally elegant writers.
    I hope that in the rush for the dreadful likes of Dan Brown, a publishing company will reprint his books.

  • At 12:34 am , Blogger Philip said...

    The Tartarus Press line noted above is still going, although I'm not sure if The Late Breakfasters is on their list. It's about time somebody brought that out again. Several of Aickman's books are also fairly easy to find online, especially the magnificent collection Cold Hand in Mine and his American collection, Painted Devils.

    I suspect that Aickman would feel Dan Brown and his audience are more than welcome to each other.

  • At 2:41 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I just googled "The Late Breakfasters," and found a copy for sale on Amazon.


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