For those who don’t know, Robert Aickman (1914 -1981) was a British writer and conservationist widely regarded as one of the finest craftsmen of ghost stories in the 20th century. His writing did not really conform to the traditional contours of the supernatural ghost story, however; often times, his ghosts are interior, psychological, environmental. Their manifestations are curiously unresponsive to logic, they are more like fragments of former beings rather than specters. Their broken and dispersed nature brings to mind Fernando Pessoa’s use of heteronyms, which he said were mutilated versions of himself. The supernatural or ghostly in Aickman’s work is often a mutilated version of something, and reading him can feel like being tasked with reconstituting the mutilated body with all its constituent pieces, knowing that you are doomed to end up with three arms and one leg, and four lips with no nose.
And yet the task is exciting. Sometimes reading him is like reading a mystery tale which you suspect, even dread, consists of literally nothing but red herrings. Other times he cowers you into an oleaginous puddle slopping into the corner in fear, bewildered and scared with no idea of what it is that’s frightening to begin with, let alone why.
An overview of the margins, signposts, and boundaries of Robert Aickman’s world: the starched, firm collars of the business introvert; the vanishing British countryside, devoured by real estate interests and exhaled as middle-class suburbs; slate-gray train stations; emptied sea-side towns, damp as handshakes; the innards of bureaucratic institutions, scrubbed and inscrutable, reeking of cleaning chemicals and power; second-class, provincial theaters beaming with dull, tarnished glamor.
I would say that his work could be compared to the American Henry James, with the tremendous caveat that I find James’ work indescribably boring the majority of the time, and that Aickman is the more sensual, poetic, perverse, and technically skilled writer.
To bring this comparison out, a quote from Italo Calvino’s introduction to his own Fantastic Tales seems called for: “With James…the fantastic genre of the nineteenth century has its final incarnation. Better put, its disincarnation, since it becomes more invisible and impalpable than ever: a psychological emanation or vibration….The ghosts in Henry James’ ghost stories are very evasive.”
This is a point worth drawing out. I think we can indeed consider Aickman to be in a 20th century branch of Henry James’ lineage, with British predecessors such as Walter de la Mare coming before him and working in a similar, familial idiom. Like James, Aickman’s stories are psychologically centered, with the supernatural at times seeming to be the exteriorization of mental distress and neurosis – although a fundamental aspect of Aickman is that his work can never be reduced so totally. His work rarely performs tropes, and hardly ever hums the standard bars of tradition. Like the Symbolist painters he sometimes mentions in his fictions, his symbols are diffuse in their meaning; they are multiple, open. Nonetheless, I believe that at least some of them can be pinned down.
If we consider Aickman’s supernatural to be a disincarnation of the fantastic, it is a disincarnation that remains more bodily focused than James’, more sexual in its concerns and manifestations, and never wholly impalpable. These disincarnations, rather than making the fantastic less strange or more normalized and domestic (as arguably you could say about James), instead seem to make it more alien, more incomprehensible and other than ever. The famous quote of Aickman’s that “the ghost story draws upon the unconscious mind in the manner of poetry” is apt here. Aickman’s own brilliant phrase for the unconscious was “the magnetic under-mind,” which is both stylish and punning.
In Aickman’s stories, the under-mind undermines, and what it undermines is often the narrator’s own conscious self-image, sense of bourgeois comfort, or belief in materialism. It undermines the trail of mythologies we make about ourselves and the places we live in and the people we say that we love. Most particularly, it undermines the reader’s expectation for a neat, closed, and readily explicable ending. But again, this under-mind is not the totality of the supernatural for Aickman; it is just one valence of it, one agent. Along this line, it is important to note how the “manner of poetry” statement above finishes: “[the ghost story] need provide neither logic nor morals.”
This rejection of logic is one reason why horror scholar S.T. Joshi believes Aickman to have a basically surrealist conception of the supernatural. Whereas I, as I have hinted above, would argue it is actually more symbolist.
(To be continued in a second post).