|Robert Aickman, photographed circa 1960|
In his famous essay on ‘The Uncanny’ (1919) Freud was careful to let us know that he did not scare easily; that taking fright at strange things belonged, indeed, to the backward childhood of mankind, the natural fear of the body’s death and ‘the old, animistic conception of the universe’, of a world ‘peopled with the spirits of human beings.’ That said, Freud accepted that we all go through this phase and that ‘residues and traces’ of it may remain – old beliefs ‘ready to seize upon any confirmation’ of their survival and endurance.
Freud paid special attention to the uncanny as evoked by literature because of its special appeal and privilege in terms of making the supernatural plausible to us– which is to say, ‘there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.’ And Freud certainly understood that a great writer of the supernatural could shake us at our cores by the skilful pretence of moving ‘in the world of common reality… he deceives us by promising to give us the sober truth, and then after all overstepping it. We react to his inventions as we would have reacted to real experiences; by the time we have seen through his trick it is already too late…’
I note all of this in advance of a special event that I am compering tomorrow night, Thursday June 26, at the Freud Museum in Hampstead. The occasion is the centenary of the birth of Robert Aickman, the brilliant English author of ‘strange stories’ whose work I’ve been privileged to publish in Faber Finds and who is now being offered by the main Faber list in glorious-looking new editions. All tickets to the event are already sold, which is a tribute to Aickman’s ardent following but also, I imagine, to the drawing powers of the two gentlemen who will be reading from Aickman’s work and discussing his influence with me: Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson, formerly of Royston Vasey.
If you don’t know Aickman already, I can only say that you will not go wrong for one moment if you sample the oeuvre at any point. (The new edition of his Dark Entries, for instance, includes an introduction by me and an afterword by Ramsey Campbell.) Aickman's work is a wonder, and will always be so. He is an especially fine exemplar of the style Freud identified, as he seems always to proceed from a realism where detail accumulates without fuss, the recognisable material world seems wholly foursquare – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and the protagonist is proceeding toward death as if in a dream.
Tomorrow night, in the house where Freud used to live, I hope we’ll throw some light into Aickman's shadows - and I hope to report back here, with pictures.