Monday, November 14, 2016

Two by Aickman

The Unsettled Dust (1990/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "Bind Your Hair" (1964); "No Stronger Than a Flower" (1966); "Ravissante" (1968); "The Cicerones" (1967); "The Houses of the Russians" (1968); "The Next Glade" (1980); "The Stains" (1980) [Winner, 1981 British Fantasy Award] ; and "The Unsettled Dust" (1968); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Graham and Heather Smith: 

The Unsettled Dust is a bit of a curiosity in Faber and Faber's recent four-volume reissue of Robert Aickman collections as The Unsettled Dust is a posthumous reprint collection that duplicates one story from both F&F's Dark Entries AND The Wine-Dark Sea reissues ("Bind Your Hair") and two more from just The Wine-Dark Sea ("The Stains" and "The Next Glade"). Given that the F&F volumes are now the only Robert Aickman short-story collections available in mass-market editions, little or no duplication among collections would be ideal.

Nonetheless, any in-print, readily available Aickman is good. He's the master of a fairly rarefied type of ghost story, one for which he preferred the term "strange story." His stories will enthrall a (relatively) small readership. Most of Aickman's stories are too subtle for most readers, leaving them unmoved and confused as to Aickman's importance. And that's fine. He's one of the Boss Levels of horror/weird fiction. 

Those who like him, like him a lot -- but not liking him doesn't make one a 'bad' reader. Indeed, Aickman's hypercritical views caused him to dislike or dismiss many stories and writers considered by many (including myself) to be classics and masters -- almost the entire oeuvre of M.R. James, much of Henry James, all of H.P. Lovecraft, to name three writers whom Aickman found seriously wanting. So if you find Robert Aickman seriously wanting, you're just following in the footsteps of... Robert Aickman.

The stories here are mostly excellent. The one misfire is "No Stronger Than a Flower," a strange story about female vanity that seems both dated and obnoxiously sexist. But that's more than offset by the strange and disturbing wonders of such stories as "The Cicerones." That story is almost a short model of the Aickman approach: the events of the story are rendered clearly and precisely, but no emphatic explanations are offered as to why things are happening. It's immensely disturbing. So, too, "The Stains," in which horror, romantic rapture, and erotic fixation combine in a story about a recently widowed man who falls in love with... well, that's a good question.

In all, this is probably the best Faber and Faber volume to introduce yourself or others to Aickman, covering as it does more than a decade of Aickman's best stories. And when you've read them, please explain to me what the Hell is actually going on in "The Stains." Or "The Cicerones." Highly recommended.


Dark Entries (1964/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "The School Friend" (1964); "Ringing the Changes" (1955); "Choice of Weapons" (1964); "The Waiting Room" (1956); "The View" (1951); and "Bind Your Hair" (1964); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Ramsey Campbell: This is Faber and Faber's reissue of weird-fiction master Robert Aickman's first solo collection of short stories, novelettes, and novels. 

Aickman amazes insofar as it's very difficult to distinguish between stories written in 1950 and stories written in 1979: his style and subject matter emerge seemingly fully grown and developed. Obviously, they didn't really -- Aickman started publishing in his 30's, after years of work on his art.

For all the strange and disturbing mystery of Aickman's stories and the cool, detailed nature of his prose, Aickman nonetheless often took tired horror tropes and rendered them fresh and new by re-investing them with that unexplained mystery rendered so cleanly and clearly that one feels as if one has simply missed an explanation somewhere in the story: Aickman doesn't create mystery with obfuscations of prose style. You're watching a magic trick performed without smoke and without mirrors.

Take "Ringing the Changes." It's a zombie story. But what a zombie story! Or "The School Friend": is it a Jekyll and Hyde story? Sort of. "The Waiting Room" seems like a traditional ghost story until one gets to the ghosts, whose behaviour is both inert and cosmically threatening. "Bind your Hair" makes witchcraft scary and mysterious. 


These are great, mid-career stories from one of weird and horror fiction's prickly, mysterious greats. Highly recommended.


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