Saturday 29 June 2013

Review: Night Voices - Robert Aickman

I've not reviewed any Robert Aickman books on this blog before, despite how much I admire his writing. The final Tartarus Press reissue of his work is a fine time to rectify that. Night Voices was originally published as a posthumous collection which gathered together Aickman stories not available elsewhere. This lovely Tartarus edition omits The Trains (which they reprinted elsewhere) but adds the novella The Model, a selection of Aickman's non-fiction writing, and Robert Remembered by Ramsey Campbell - a nice tribute.

It starts brilliantly - The Stains is a classic Aickman story, with his trademark slow build, exquisite prose, and tantalising symbolism. That sense that more is being implied that is said. It's a showcase of Aickman's ability to delineate a realistic, English setting and characters but yet evoke a faint, surreal sense of disquiet. I don't want to spoil the plot, but I will say the stains themselves are one of Aickman's more hideous little touches.

Just A Song At Twilight is almost as good; a shorter tale with an ending that took me by surprise. I like the fact that Aickman can still surprise me; that I don't yet know all his tricks and techniques. This is the first one I'll reread, seeking out all those tantalising Aickman details...

After that strong start, I have to say the rest of the short stories were definitely second-rate (the presence of The Trains is missed). Aickman, even second-rate Aickman, is always worth reading and his prose is always a pleasure, but I found Laura a somewhat derivative retelling of a common supernatural trope, and I must confess that all I took from a Rosamund's Bower was a sort of pleasurable bafflement. Mark Ingestre: A Customer's Tale is better, another of Aickman's patented 'strange stories' but not quite first-rate, covering themes Aickman did better in  his masterly The Swords. Nevertheless it's a suggestive tale and the historical setting is a nice change.

The novella The Model is an interesting read, but nothing like Aickman's other fiction, being a picaresque tale set in pre-revolutionary Russia, about a young girl who wants to be a ballerina. It's not a realistic piece, having a dream-like, fairytale atmosphere. It was a lovely journey, but I can't say I felt I actually arrived anywhere.

The non-fiction section of the book largely consists of Aickman's series of introductions to the Fontana Book Of Great Ghost Stories series, which he edited. Taken together, they form a virtual manifesto of the ghost story, which Aickman is at great pains to distinguish from the horror story. Although I disagree with a lot of what he says, the manifestos of geniuses are always fascinating. Suggestive ideas abound; I will quote just one:

"I should like to suggest that the now the word 'ghost' should be seen more as the German geist: that ghost stories should be concerned not with appearance and consistency, but with the spirit behind the appearance..."  

These essays are full of such gems, and any writers of horror (sorry, Robert!) are certain to find much to think over, much inspiration.

Overall, this book is like one of those rarities albums bands release when they're no longer together - interesting to the fans and obsessives, but hardly the best place to start for someone new. Night Voices contains much of Aickman's brilliance but, for this reader, some misfires and duds as well . If you're new to Aickman, start with Cold Hand In Mine or Dark Entries. But if you're already under his spell, you'll find nothing in this volume to break that spell; Aickman was one of the best there's ever been, it's simple as that.


MRCosby said...

Insightful review!

Gumbywan said...

Well done.