Dark Entries: Robert Aickman

13 Aug

Robert Aickman was the grandson of Richard Marsh, a leading Victorian novelist of the occult. Though his chief occupation in life was first as a conservationist of England’s canals he eventually turned his talents to writing what he called ‘strange stories’. Dark Entries was his first full collection, the debut in a body of work that would inspire Peter Straub to hail Aickman as “this century’s most profound writer of what we call horror stories”. 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 four-square – 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.

Those who have newly discovered Aickman’s rare brilliance have, however, quite often wondered why he is not better known outside the supernatural cognoscenti. One likely reason is that his body of work is so modestly sized: there are only 48 extant ‘strange stories’, and there was never a novel; or, to be precise, the two longer-form Aickmans that have been published – The Late Breakfasters in 1964 and The Model, posthumously, in 1987 – were fantastical, not to say exquisite, but had nothing overtly eerie or blood-freezing about them. Aickman simply refused to cash in on his most marketable skills as a writer, somewhat to the chagrin of the literary agents who represented him. He was also a relatively late starter. We Are for the Dark, his co-publication with Elizabeth Jane Howard, appeared in 1951; but nothing followed until 1964, with his first discrete collection, Dark Entries. By the turn of the 1980s he was a significant figure in the landscape, and from there his renown might have widened. It was then, however, that he developed the cancer from which he would die, on 26 February 1981, having refused chemotherapy in favour of homeopathic treatments. Aickman’s name would surely enjoy a wider currency today if any of his works had been adapted for the cinema, a medium of which he was a discerning fan. And yet, to date, no such adaptation has come about.

Had Aickman never written a word of fiction of his own he would still have a place in the annals of horror for his endeavours as an anthologist who helped to define a canon of supernatural fiction through his editing of the first 8 volumes of the Fontana Book of Ghost Stories between 1964 and 1972. His enduring reputation, though, would have been based on his co-founding in 1944 of the Inland Waterways Association, dedicated to the preservation and restoration of England’s inland canals. Such a passionate calling might be considered perfect for an author of ‘strange stories’ – also for a man who was, in some profound way, out of step with or apart from his own time. By all accounts Aickman gave the IWA highly energetic leadership and built up its profile and activities with rigour and zeal. His insistent style, however, did not delight everyone: in 1951 he argued and fell out definitively with L T C Rolt, fellow conservationist and ghost story writer. Even Aickman’s admirer’s have sometimes found what they have heard of him to be a shade forbidding. Culturally he was a connoisseur who had highly finessed tastes in theatre, ballet, opera and classical music. Socially he was punctilious and fastidious, unabashedly erudite, an autodidact not shy about airing his education. His political instincts were conservative, his outlook elitist. Nonetheless, those whom Aickman allowed to know him well and whom he liked and trusted in turn clearly found him to be the most marvellous company – for a night at the theatre, say, after which he would be inclined to read aloud from whichever strange story he was then working on.

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