The ‘Strange’ Writing of Robert Aickman
Once, many years ago, a friend asked me a question no one had ever asked me before: “What is your favorite Robert Aickman story?” The answer to that question is “The Inner Room,” which means that “The Inner Room” is also my single favorite horror story, and one of my favorite short stories of any kind. I’m going to now describe it in some detail.
In the story, an adult woman, Lene, recounts something that happened when she was a little girl. She, her brother, and parents were going to the beach when their car broke down. Lene, weeping and miserable as this was to be her birthday outing (“I was promised the sea”), is promised a gift when the car is towed into a nearby village for repair. Walking through town they find a shop called Popular Bazaar: “It was not merely an out-of-fashion shop, but a shop that at best sold too much of what no one wanted.” Nevertheless, in the toy department, Lene finds a dollhouse. She’s not so interested in dolls as such, but she loves their homes. This particular one was especially impressive, Gothic in design, and full of dolls (“They’re thrown in,” says the shopkeeper), one “sagging” out of a window. The dollhouse costs almost nothing, and so Lene’s present is procured. Once home, Lene finds it seemingly impossible to get inside the dollhouse in order to clean it, nor can she find the doll she’d earlier seen in one of the windows (“I thought myself a murderess”). Eventually it’s discovered that the layout of the dollhouse suggests that there is a secret room. And then, due to the family’s financial situation, Lene’s parents sell the dollhouse.
The story now jumps ahead several years. Lene’s an adult, and one rain-drenched night she’s lost in a marsh. After a while she comes upon a house that vividly resembles her old dollhouse. Obviously stunned but needing shelter, she knocks on the door. Inside she finds the place inhabited by living rag dolls, each named after birthstones, and offering more hospitality than Lene really wants at this point. After the main doll, Opal, has complained about their mysterious landlord, Aickman writes:
“But there is one place she cannot spoil for us. One place where we can entertain in our own way.”
“Please,” I cried. “Nothing more. I am going now.”…
“It is the room where we eat.”
All the watching eyes lighted up, and became something they had not been before.
“I may almost say where we feast.”
The six of them began again to rise from their spidery bowers.
“Because she cannot go there.”
The sisters clapped their hands, like a rustle of leaves.
“There we can be what we really are.”
So what, finally, does any of this mean? What is the point? If you’re expecting Aickman to explain what is going on here, you’re wasting your time. This is the central source of his fiction’s power. Even though Aickman would sometimes write a more or less conventional ghost story, in which the understood tropes to the genre could be said to provide a kind of explanation for what’s been going on, by and large he put down on paper the strangest, most inexplicable things, the most bizarre of occurrences impeding on the lives of basically normal individuals, and then he would just leave the reader there, agape.
Though unquestionably a horror writer, Aickman, according to some, rather disdained the genre. “He was, to put it mildly, no admirer of [H.P.] Lovecraft, or indeed of any fiction he regarded as horror,” Ramsey Campbell, a proud horror writer who was friends with Aickman, wrote in an afterword to the Faber reprint of Aickman’s collection Dark Entries (1964). Campbell also mentions Aickman’s dislike of M.R. James, whom I didn’t think anyone disliked, and in The Attempted Rescue (1966), the first of his two volumes of autobiography, Aickman writes that E.F. Benson was “currently being re-read by the collectors of wax fruit.” So all those two-initial guys could take a hike, basically.
By all accounts an odd and prickly man (in a short documentary, a woman who was close to Aickman for years describes him as thoughtless and insensitive), he seems to have been largely unhappy, at least in his romantic life. Aickman had a day job, as a member of a committee to preserve England’s waterways (he wrote two books on the subject), during the course of which he fell in love with Elizabeth Jane Howard (with whom he’d collaborate on the story collection We Are for the Dark (1951)), also an employee of the Inland Waterways Association, and also an accomplished writer. She would go on to marry the novelist Kingsley Amis, due to which Aickman bore a grudge against the man. Yet this would inform his fiction: What other horror writer has so often mined the subject of love given but not returned as the source of their story’s fear? In Aickman’s “Choice of Weapons,” the protagonist essentially, though unintentionally, destroys two women because of this very thing. His story “Ringing the Changes” is a horror story about marriage. So, for that matter, is his story “Marriage.” And it shouldn’t be assumed that because these are horror stories that they end with one spouse killing the other, or blossoming into a kind of demon. Rather, they stand apart from other horror fiction by not being, necessarily, death-obsessed. Instead, that which is eerie is found in the hearts of his characters, and in surroundings, or objects, that become suddenly unfamiliar, foreboding, and strange. In “Ringing the Changes,” it’s church bells.
In other stories—many other stories, in fact—Aickman embraces a slowly creeping surrealism. “The Hospice” is about a man named Maybury who finds himself in what could be a kind of sanatorium, or perhaps a kind of hotel. On the night he arrives, he sees other tenants chained to the floor of the dining room while eating huge plates of food. Later, finally too disturbed by the place to contemplate staying overnight, he tries to leave. He gets in his car and tries to start the engine:
Maybury had already turned on the headlights … and was pushing at the starter, which seemed obdurate.
It was not, he thought, that there was anything wrong with it, but rather that there was something wrong with him. The sensation was exactly like a nightmare. He had of course done it hundreds of times, probably thousands of times; but now, when after all it really mattered, he simply could not manage it, had, quite incredibly, somehow lost the simple knack of it.
Speaking of “strange,” that was Aickman’s preferred description of his own work. He called them “strange tales.” A fitting description, as Aickman could find strangeness in just about anything: dust in “The Unsettled Dust,” for example, or a mystifyingly sinister tangle of embroidery in “Choice of Weapons.” And then again he can land on a perfect image of horror: in “My Poor Friend,” one of his masterpieces, the narrator’s friend, a member of Parliament named Enright, has recently split with his wife, which could be considered scandalous. Enright mentions his two children, not fondly, saying that two children “was enough to drive any woman clean out of her mind.” Then Enright shows Grover-Stacey, the narrator, who’s visiting the man at home, marks on a wooden toy train:
“Teeth,” said Enright, dropping the toy on the floor. “Just teeth.”
It was, as you can see, difficult to think of anything to say.
“You mean there’s something unusual about the children?”
“They’re not human at all. They ought not to live. But my wife naturally doesn’t see it like that.”
You should infer from that “naturally” that Aickman’s fiction does on occasion contain some humor, of a very particular sort. And if you think that passage sounds like something on the more conventionally creepy side of things, I’d advise you to find the story and keep reading.
There’s a phrase that’s currently popular in the world of horror cinema (but not horror literature, as far as I can tell): “elevated horror.” The idea being that certain kinds of horror films—movies like The Witch or Midsommar—take the genre to heights, of ambition and artistry and thematic seriousness, it has never achieved before. This is, of course, in its very essence a snobbish and elitist attitude, but it’s not at this level that I object to it the most. I do not, for example, consider A Nightmare on Elm Street to be on the same artistic level as Kubrick’s The Shining. No, what I object to most vehemently about the concept of “elevated horror” is that it was created, and is used, by people who don’t know the first thing about the genre they seem to believe needs to be lifted out of its grubby little roots. Leaving aside even the obvious fact that internationally renowned writers, from Shakespeare to Edith Wharton to, well, Kingsley Amis, have written horror fiction (in England, at least this is not considered slumming, in the same way it appears to be seen in America); horror fiction has always had greatness within it, and that greatness has always been exploited by its best and most original writers.
For me, Aickman is at the top of that class. He wrote stories that no one else could have written, because it would be impossible for anyone else to think of them. They were personal, from and of his mind and psychology. In his introduction to The Wine-Dark Sea (1988), a compilation of some of Aickman’s best stories published seven years after his death, Peter Straub writes that it’s foolish and pointless to try to mimic Aickman’s style and approach to horror, because he was so singular that everyone will immediately see what you’re doing. He was, and is, perhaps the most shining example of the fact that horror can be anything, and it’s only a collective lack of imagination that holds it back. In my view, horror should actively fight against clear interpretation and easy conclusions. And if you think you can get away with chalking up some of Aickman’s stranger works of fiction to some kind of hallucination or dream on the part of the protagonist, I’ll leave with these words from Lene, from “The Inner Room”: “But that perhaps was the worst of it: I was plainly not dreaming now.”