Monday 9 November 2015

Recommendation: Aickman's Heirs

Another post, another recommendation from the increasingly impressive Undertow Publications. This time it's Aickman's Heirs, an anthology that... well, I was going to say that it couldn't fail to disappoint me, but thinking about it the opposite is true. I'm a massive Robert Aickman fan but I'd hesitate to describe my own work or anyone else's as 'Aickmanesque' - he was such an idiosyncratic, peculiar writer that there's never been anyone else like him. So if the tales in Aickman's Heirs were nothing but bloodless imitations they'd have been pretty pointless. But fortunately that's not the case, and indeed Simon Strantzas's brief introduction to the volume makes clear he was aware of such a risk:

Were this book merely a collection of writers trying their best to reproduce something so uniquely Aickman, I'm afraid it would be interesting only as an example of how mistaken such a direction would have been...

Instead, Aickman's Heirs features a selection of authors writing stories that take Aickman's legacy and twist it for their own ends. A few of the writers here explicitly call out their debt to him, but most are content to tell their own oblique, strange stories without direct reference. It's one of those rare anthologies where every story is at least very good, and the best ones are utterly superb.

It's something of a cliche to say of an anthology that every reader will have their own favourites, but it's especially true of this book, where the stories seem such one-offs, relying on an interior logic specific to each writer - some you will 'get' and others you won't. These are also stories that cry out to be reread, which I haven't done as yet. Nevertheless, these are my favourites as things currently stand:

Seaside Town by Brian Evenson - a great opener that manages to combine a teasing ambiguity with a real sense of impending violence. It's a story about a mismatched couple taking a holiday to Europe and staying in a strange hotel. I've never read anything by this author before, but on this evidence I should rectify that.

The Dying Season by Lynda E Rucker - regular readers will know I thoroughly recommended Rucker's collection The Moon Will Look Strange; in fact I used the word 'Aickmanesque' at the time. This new story, set in a caravan site during the off-peak season, doesn't disappoint.

Underground Economy by John Langan - strange how 'Aickmanesque' fiction set in America seems to instantly become 'Lynchian' as well. Not that that is a bad thing, when it leads to stories as wonderful as this one. Set in a strip club, this is one of those pieces of uncanny fiction that lingers in the mind long after finishing it.

The Vault Of Heaven by Helen Marshall - the story that captured Aickman's distinctive voice the best.  "It will be of little surprise to those who know me well that, as a boy, I was possessed by frequent night terrors. I do not like to speak of them now. It embarrasses me - even as it embarrassed my father once..." but it's also a fantastic tale in its own right.

Two Brothers by Malcolm Devlin - unsurprisingly, this story is about two brothers, the elder of whom goes to boarding school whilst the other remains at home. A tale of shifting identities and adult secrets, it's both sinister & unnerving.

A Change Of Scene by Nina Allen - one of the few stories to reference a specific Aickman tale (Ringing The Changes) but even so this is one of the most original, distinctive pieces here. A long, exquisitely controlled story about two widowers visiting the seaside town where one of them spent their honeymoon.

Aickman's Heirs (UK | US)

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