Thursday 25 June 2015

Recommendation: The Strangers & Other Writings by Robert Aickman

Robert Aickman’s The Strangers And Other Writings is the first ‘new’ collection by Robert Aickman since the posthumous publication of Night Voices in 1985. The Strangers contains seven unpublished stories, a selection of non-fiction, and two poems. It also comes with a DVD documentary about the writer (which I haven’t had chance to watch yet). Aickman was undoubtedly one of the finest writers of the supernatural and uncanny of the last century, but if you are a reader new to him then this collection isn’t the place to start (try Cold Hand In Mine or The Wine Dark Sea, both recently reissued by Faber). Instead, this handsomely produced but pricey volume is a book for those who are already Robert Aickman aficionados and want to learn more about his growth and development as a writer. The stories are arranged chronologically in the order they were written, and it must be said they get much better as the book progresses.

The earliest piece (from 1936) is called The Case of Wallingford's Tiger and is a story about a pet tiger kept by an Englishman which promptly goes missing. The slight, predictable plot and reliance on dated colonial tropes mean this is the weakest story in the volume; an inauspicious start. Yet, even at this young age, Aickman’s prose shows flashes of his mature style: precise, cool, knowing. The Whistler is a darker tale, which starts to introduce the uncanny and Aickman’s famed ambiguity. But here the ambiguity is, more properly speaking, just frustration. This isn’t the mature Aickman, showing us a picture full-on thus tempting us to think we can decipher it, it’s a young Aickman showing us half a picture knowing full well it isn’t enough.

A Disciple Of Plato seems to suggest a route not taken for Aickman’s fiction, reading more like Henry James than anything else (and I mean the James of The Bostonians say, not The Turn Of The Screw). It’s about a famous historical figure posing as a ‘philosopher’ in 18thCentury Rome, meeting a woman on her way to live in a convent. It’s a decent story, if not spectacular, with Aickman’s prose now fully up to the task of telling it. But there’s a spark, a flair, missing; it’s perhaps for this reason Aickman never wrote more in this vein.

With The Coffin House, things improve dramatically. A short but perfectly formed supernatural tale, it starts with two women on a walk who seek shelter in a strange dwelling… Aickman fans will of course recognise this set up from The Trains, but The Coffin House is very much its own beast, and the steady accumulation of strange, unnerving details is masterfully done. The ending is unexpected, both in terms of the story itself and in the context of Aickman; the twist seems to owe as much to the pulps as Aickman’s more literary influences. But its no less chilling and effective for that.

The Flying Anglo-Dutchman reads almost like a pastiche of Aickman’s more well-known tales: two people encounter ‘the strange’ but are left almost blithely unaffected, more concerned with such mundanely English details like tea and the times of the next trains. There’s something almost wistful about the tone, and it would no doubt be annoying if it were any longer. As it is, it serves as the perfect palate cleanser for the next story…

The Strangers – so here it is. The title story. The motherlode. What we all hoped we’d find in this book but were secretly afraid we wouldn’t – a long (50+ pages), never before published Robert Aickman ‘strange story’ masterpiece.  So it feels on first reading anyway. Certainly no one else but Aickman could have written this, with its conventional, staid narrator dragged into events he (and we) scarcely understand, its disturbing yet intriguing visual imagery, its dream-like surrealism rendered even stranger by Aickman’s matter of fact telling. Quite why he never saw fit to include this story in any of the volumes published during his lifetime is a mystery, for it is superb.

The Fully-Conducted Tour is an anomaly, a story written to be read aloud on BBC Radio 4, about the mysterious events that befall a group on a tourist visit to a stately home. It’s an effective piece, with the introduction blurring the lines between Aickman himself and the narrator, giving you the initial impression that Aickman is in fact telling you of something that actually occurred to him. Until events become so strange that you conclude that’s not the case; at least one hopes not.

The two poems in the book, Pimlico and Thea have a similar feel to A Disciple Of Plato about them – slight but promising pieces that indicate a direction Aickman could have taken his writing in, but ultimately did not; which anyone who is a fan of his strange stories must be grateful for. The non-fiction covers a broad range of subjects: films, rivers and waterways, Oscar Wilde, Animal Farm and accounts of supposedly true supernatural occurrences. Naturally it is all well written and interesting, although I suspect the majority of readers will be reading these pieces for what light they shed on Aickman’s life and fiction than the subject matter itself. In this regard Introduction To A Proposed Ghost Story Anthology is most interesting, being a forerunner to Aickman’s fascinating ruminations on the supernatural in fiction that he developed in his introductions to the Fontana anthologies.

Overall then, Tartarus Press should be commended for this volume, which sheds so much light on Aickman’s development and missteps as a writer, as well as providing us with the fine stories The Coffin HouseThe Flying Anglo-Dutchman, and The Fully-Conducted Tour, along with the stellar, sublime, wonderful The Strangers.

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