by Cooper Anderson
With an eerie sense of the real that slowly unravels around not only the characters but the reader, Robert Aickman was a master of the short form horror story. This month I got a chance to look at English author Robert Aickman’s work, mostly in his short story collection Dark Entries, and here’s why I think Aickman is one of the most under rated horror writers of the last century.
For those of you who don’t know, Robert Aickman was an English author born in 1914. He’s most notably known for his short fiction collection Strange Stories. He’s won the World Fantasy Award for his story Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal and a posthumous British Fantasy award.
Aickman was born one day before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, thus kicking off World War I. He would later grow up in another World War, this time losing his mother to a German bombing. A bomb that would have also taken his own life had he not been out for a walk with his wife at the time. In one of his memoirs, Aickman remembers hearing the bomb that took his mother. The reason I mention this is because you can clearly see where his attention for dark details can come from. Where living through a trauma like that can affect one’s own writing.
In his short story collection, Dark Entries, Aickman explores the full scope of the human condition with hyper realistic detail, letting the reader get fully immersed in its pages. His characters have clear motivations and understandings of the world around them which helps root the reader in a false sense of security. As if things are starting off normal or alright. He points the story to true north at the beginning but with a slightly diverted compass.
As the reader, you can tell what general direction the story is going in but slowly you can start to see that things are slightly off. What’s even worse is that Aickman doesn’t explain why it’s off. He lets the reader come to their own conclusions as to why their sensing unease when reading. It’s almost the literary equivalent of a low frequency noise in the background of a horror movie. You can feel yourself growing uncomfortable, but you can’t sense why.
Here’s an example from his story “The School Friend.”
“Sally herself had once told me that she not only could remember nothing of her mother, but had never come across any trace or record or her. From the very beginning, Sally had been brought up, it was said, by her father alone.” (p. 19)
Looking at this piece, there is nothing inherently wrong or strange being told here. It’s not unusual for the world to have secluded single fathers in it. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Sally’s mother left her family and her father got rid of all the painful traces of her, but it is the way that all that information is given that makes us uncomfortable. There’s a real sense that not everything is okay in Sally’s homelife. It’s like this for a lot of Aickman’s other stories as well.
Aickman likes to stack up tiny amounts of detail into each line. It isn’t until you’ve read a few pages do you see the bigger picture and that, unbeknownst to the characters in the story, things aren’t as they should be. The camera is tilted slightly off center and the brain is trying to adjust. Not unlike H.P. Lovecraft’s work.
However, there are some major difference between Lovecraft and Aickman. In Lovecraft’s work, a seemingly normal person is suddenly dropped into the strange or unimaginable and then has to deal with that situation. While Aickman has a much slower approach. Like a tide that’s slowly coming in and before you know it your up to your waist and nearly drowning. It takes a little more investment from the reader, but it does have a larger and more impactful pay off than Lovecraft in some cases.
Aickman also isn’t afraid to talk about sex in his stories. Something that is pretty astonishing for an English man to write about back in the 1940’s. Aickman understands that sex is a major driving force of life and that no fully fleshed out character would be complete without at least mentioning it. Going back to The School Friend, the main characters, two teenage girls named Sally and Mel talk to each other about sex a few pages into the story. Something that normal teenage girls talk about and by doing this, Aickman gives the story a much more authentic feel to it.
The only real criticism that I have for Robert Aickman’s work isn’t actually a criticism of the work itself. It’s just that Aickman’s work is very obviously a product of its time. Certain societal aspects of his work wouldn’t really be feasible or realistic in today’s climate of 2018. His women characters are fairly one dimensional and if there is an abnormally strong female character it’s because they are succeeding using more masculine attributes rather than just being an outstanding woman in her own right. There’s even a quote at the beginning of “The School Friend” by Princess Elizabeth Bibesco that reads:
“To be taken advantage of is every woman’s secret desire.”
Again, I don’t want to criticize this aspect of his writing too much as a lot of it was written before the 1970’s but do be aware of some of the more cringeworthy moments if you decide to read his work.
It’s a shame that Robert Aickman isn’t more well-known throughout the literary world. He was a writer that understood people and more importantly saw the tiny minute details that must be skewed, ever so slightly, in someone’s life in order to create a feeling of realistic horror. If you want to read some incredibly well written horror stories this Halloween season, then you can find Dark Entries at Amazon.