"Above all, he can evoke in a few lines of concentrated prose, the tenebrous and oppressive atmosphere of a very bad and inescapable dream."
That's a quote from Barry Humphries' Forward to this collection of seven tales and one novella (The Model) by the master of the strange story, Robert Aickman. Also included in this fine Tartarus Press publication are a number of Aickman's Introductions to The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories.
To share a more specific taste of Robert Aickman's sublime storytelling, there's no substitute for the author's actual language, thus I'll link my comments to specific passages from the following sextet:
"He knew bliss unequaled, unprecedented, assuredly unimagined. Moreover, the wonder lasted for longer than he would have conceived of as possible. That particularly struck him. Nell's flawed body was celestial. Nell herself was more wonderful than the dream of death. Nell could not possibly exist." So reflects main character Stephen who is now a widower following his dear wife Elizabeth's lengthy illness and passing. Stephen meets Nell when out on one of his solitary walks across the heathered uplands whilst vacationing with his elder brother and wife. Stephen's relationship with Nell deepens, although Nell's family and background is shrouded in secrets and concealed meanings, including her tending to a blind father with apparent supernatural powers. A touching Aickman tale combining love and tenderness with an eerie sense of foreboding and impending disaster.
JUST A SONG AT TWILIGHT
"On the mud road there was nothing, beyond a very occasional dirty cart, laden with inexplicable oddments, slowly dragged by a lean mule, the counterpart of its ragged driver. On each ridge was a crucifix, very fierce and bleeding; usually also far gone in rot and ants, and seeming to be little regarded. At the top of the fifth or sixth ridge, the other coastline came into sight, a fine wide panorama, though still sad, Lydia thought: with their house a half-mile or so below in the hot centre of it." Lydia and Timo, longtime Londoners, move to a rustic island to begin their life anew. They could hardly anticipate what will happen when listening to the sound of a ghost on the wind. A puzzling tale that underscores R. B. Russell's observation: "There can be no doubt that Aickman's stories succeed in causing uncertainty and unease in the mind of the reader. . . . That which is left imperfectly explained haunts the more imaginative reader, who will go over the story for clues and hints."
"In any case, from almost the first moment that I entered the big room clutching my bottle, my attention had been riveted upon a girl who was there. I say a girl; but, in fact, she was considerably older than I was, thirty at least, I should suppose. She was very blonde and slender, almost ethereal. She had the greenest eyes I had ever seen - or have ever seen since; and the biggest too. She wore white boots which went right up under her dress." This from when the unnamed narrator, age twenty, first meets Laura. His subsequent encounters with Laura touch on what can be interpreted as either coincidence, myth, archetype or even the supernatural. There's good reason why Barry Humphries stated: "He (Robert Aickman) captures the very texture of a bad dream which may start, as such dreams do, beguilingly; until the dreamer (and reader) feels the first presentiment of encroaching nightmare - and cannot wake."
"There was even a lingering peacock, which screamed vindictively, and continued to scream. All its feathers were greying, so that it looked to be the oldest peacock Aylwin-Scott had ever come upon, and it seemed to be resenting to the full both that fact and his own presence. He reflected that it matters less how old and grey a peacock is when there is no observer; and that now an observer had quite irrationally intruded." Sound ominous? An old, grey peacock. Brings to mind the words of Laid Barron: "Aickman's ideas entrain the subconscious and mutate it in the fashion that transgressive art must."
THE COFFIN HOUSE
"The windows were boarded up, but there were the remains of a primitive verandah. The two women pressed themselves against the black dilapidated woodwork while the rain beat at them. It was darkening all the time with the premature-seeming darkness of Christmas Day. Suddenly Jessica noticed that the door of the hut was open. Standing in it was a very large elderly woman with grey hair drawn back into a bun, and strong bony features. She was muffled in a vague, navy-blue wrapper, and appeared indifferent, perhaps habituated, to the weather. She was looking at the two land girls from grey commanding eyes." Poetess Jessica Yarrow and her friend Bunty Baines take a long walk on Christmas day across the bulrush-green fells. Suddenly, there's a torrential rain and they seek cover in a hut. It must have been this very story that prompted Peter Straub to judge Robert Aickman "the twentieth century's most profound writer of what we call horror stories." Let me warn you, The Coffin House is truly horrifying. Pleasant dreams after taking the readerly plunge.
THE FULLY-CONDUCTED TOUR
"Since I've written quite a number of stories about strange occurrences - and, what's more, they've some of them been published, it's natural that people are always asking how many things of the kind have actually happened to me. . . . One point is that the strangeness usually takes an unexpected form, it is no good looking for something strange. It only happens when you're not looking. I'll tell you a short tale which may help to illustrate. It's one of a quite large number that have come into my life." Sounds innocent enough as Robert Aickman takes on the role of narrator here but as we learn, especially at the very end, what begins as innocence flips into a tale of terror, this time no so much of the supernatural variety as that of sheer sadism and evil. Robert Aickman has written dozens of strange tales but The Fully-Conducted Tour most certainly wins the prize for the largest number of blameless women and men (tourists, for crying out loud) cut down by the Grim Reaper.
British author Robert Aickman, 1914-1981