Friday, 17 October 2014

Robert Aickman at the Freud Museum: Evidence

Above is a nicely shot and edited three-and-a-half minutes marking the event Faber held at the Freud Museum in June 2014 to honour Robert Aickman's centenary. Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson were our distinguished guest speakers and they read and spoke splendidly; and we were also treated to an excellent speech by Jean Richardson, a close personal friend of Aickman's in his latter years, whose acquaintance I was pleased to make in the course of this project. Mr Dyson is at the lectern in the image-capture above; mine is the convict-like profile in the lower-right corner.

Reece and Jean wrote new pieces about Aickman for the new Faber edition of Cold Hand in Mine. A new preface by me also appears in Dark Entries, The Unsettled Dust and The Wine Dark-Sea. Below is a bit of what I have to say therein:

So elegantly and comprehensively does Aickman encompass all the traditional strengths and available complexities of the supernatural story that, at times, it’s hard to see how any subsequent practitioner could stand anywhere but in his shadow. True, there is perhaps a typical Aickman protagonist – usually but not always a man, and one who does not fit so well with others, temperamentally inclined to his own company. But Aickman has a considerable gift for putting us stealthily behind the eyes of said protagonist. Having established such identification, the way in which he then builds up a sense of dread is masterly. His construction of sentences and of narrative is patient and finical. He seems always to proceed from a rather grey-toned realism where detail accumulates without fuss, and the recognisable material world appears wholly foursquare – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and our protagonist is walking toward death as if in a dream.

This effect is especially pronounced – Aickman, as it were, preordains the final black flourish – in stories such as ‘Never Visit Venice‘ (the title gives the nod) and ‘The Fetch’, whose confessional protagonist rightly judges himself ‘a haunted man’, his pursuer a grim and faceless wraith who emerges from the sea periodically to augur a death in the family. Sometimes, though, to paraphrase John Donne, the Aickman protagonist runs to death just as fast as death can meet him: as in ‘The Stains’, an account of a scholarly widower’s falling in love with – and plunging to his undoing through – a winsome young woman who is, in fact, some kind of dryad.

On this latter score it should be said that, for all Aickman’s seeming astringence, many of his stories possess a powerful erotic charge. There is, again, something dreamlike to how quickly in Aickman an attraction can proceed to a physical expression; and yet he also creates a deep unease whenever skin touches skin – as if desire (and the feminine) are forms of snare, varieties of doom. If such a tendency smacks rather of neurosis, one has to say that this is where a great deal of horror comes from; and Aickman carries off his version of it with great panache, always.

On the flipside of the coin one should also acknowledge Aickman’s refined facility for writing female protagonists, and that the ambiance of such tales – the world they conjure, the character’s relations to people and things in that world – is highly distinctive and noteworthy within his oeuvre. Aickman’s women are generally spared the sort of grisly fates he reserves for his men, and yet still he routinely leaves us to wonder if they are headed to heaven or hell, if not confined to some purgatory. Among his most admired stories in this line are ‘The Inner Room’ and ‘Into the Wood’, works in which the mystery deepens upon the final sentence.

And lest we forget: Aickman can also be very witty, too, even in the midst of mounting horrors, and even if it’s laughter in the dark. English readers in particular tend to chuckle over ‘The Hospice’, the story of a travelling salesman trapped in his worst nightmare of a guesthouse, where the guests are kept in ankle-fetters and the evening meal is served in mountainous indigestible heaps (‘It’s turkey tonight.’) In the aforementioned ‘The Fetch’, when our haunted man finally finds himself caged in his Scottish family home, watching the wraith watching him from a perch outdoors up high on a broken wall – he still has time to reflect that ‘such levitations are said to be not uncommon in the remoter parts of Scotland.’ This is the sound of a refined intellect, amusing both himself and us.

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