An old school friend is discovered to be living in a house where every room is mysterious locked, possibly to keep something out, possibly to keep something in. In a remote seaside town on one night of the year the church bells ring all night long, waking everyone, perhaps even some who are no longer living. A railway waiting room houses some curious passengers. And a civil servant discovers an idyll on a remote island whose landscape keeps on shifting and changing....
...and such are the Dark Entries in this little volume. To connoisseurs of weird fiction, Robert Aickman needs no introduction, and indeed the likes of Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, and the League of Gentlemen are all Aickman devotees. During his lifetime Aickman won much critical praise and and both a World Fantasy Award and a British Fantasy Award, but thanks to his works being long of print (save for some small press editions that are long out of print and command terrifying second-hand prices) he remains something of a cult figure in the horror world. However as this year is the centenary of his birth, Faber & Faber are publishing a selection of his books in smart new editions.
Dark Entries is the first of these very welcome reissues, and was originally published back in 1964. This was the first collection of Aickman's short fiction, however it was not his literary debut. Previous to this he had written half the tales in a collection co-authored with Elizabeth Jane Howard entitled We Are For The Dark: Six Ghost Stories in 1951. And indeed one of the tales from that volume 'The View' is included in this new Faber edition of Dark Entries, and I suspect the remaining two from We Are For The Dark will be appended to the future tomes in this reissue line.
Now then firstly I must praise the wonderful new cover art by Tim McDonagh, who is doing the art for all the volumes in the series. It's broodingly eerie, strange, and oddly colourful; striking and evocative yet restrained and subtle – in this reviewer's humble opinion neatly mirroring the same qualities found in Aickman's prose. The book opens with an essay by author Richard T Kelly which deftly introduces us to the man and his works, and without being overly dry, maps out the main themes and qualities of Aickman's stories. Following the six tales, there is another piece on Aickman, this time a personal reminiscence of the man himself by a close friend, distinguished horror author Ramsey Campbell. And these two essays neatly bookend what is a fine introduction to the unsettling world of Robert Aickman.
So what of the stories themselves? Well, while he was most fascinated by supernatural fiction - indeed Aickman curated the first eight volumes of the Fontana Great Ghost Stories series - he never referred to his own work as ghost or horror stories, although they are filled with all manner of disturbing things wrought by shadowy dark forces. Aickman himself dubbed his fiction “strange stories”, and that is a most apt description. For while many of his tales, including some in this collection, feature the classic twist-in-the-tail endings so common in short weird fiction, the unique and strange nature of Aickman's stories make them almost impossible to spoil.
The first story in this collection is very much a baptism by fire into the way Aickman weaves his weird literary sorcery. In 'The School Friend' it becomes very clear that there is something both horrid and supernatural going on, but what exactly that is is harder to define. And this is typically Aickman – as is the fact that while one may not be entirely certain of what has gone on, this vagueness which should be irritating is oddly satisfying. For his scenarios and imagery linger in the mind for a long time after reading, resisting comfortable definition, and in a very real sense haunting the reader. Hence one never feels cheated by his ambiguities - rather one is drawn into their mysteries, and having no clear answers to cosily wrap them up in, the stories remain potent and disturbing.
Some tales are clearer than others - 'Choose Your Weapons' for example concludes with a traditional twist which resolves the fate of the two leading characters in a straightforward manner. However the motivations and the nature of a supporting character, the key figure who has influenced the destiny of the main pair, leave us with a host of sinister questions to ponder. As is so often the case in an Aickman tale, there is a sense of the world drifting off kilter as the story unfolds, of unseen powers in operation, forces whose effects we are seeing but Aickman himself never details.
Stylistically much like the great master of the British weird tale who preceded him, the great MR James, Aickman's works evoke wonderfully an England of yesteryear. However it is to be remembered that when he was writing, these were contemporary works, whereas James often deliberately set his tales a little in the past to give his ghosts a patina of history and nostalgia. And in his own distinct way, Aickman's strange tales are filled with sharp observations of the society of the time, quietly digging into the psychological and social forces enveloping his characters as keenly as any serious literary author. Hence on one hand 'Ringing the Changes' is about the dead returning, but on the other it's also an exploration of the social and personal tensions around an older man marrying a younger woman. Similarly while 'The Waiting Room' may be the most conventional ghostly tale in this collection, at the same time its as much peeling back the veil between the social classes as it is the veil between life and death.
Another key difference with Aickman from his peers in weird fiction is that while his writing is as every bit as gentlemanly as MR James or EF Benson, unlike many classic British ghost stories his tales aren't a boys only affair. Aickman's tales have a wealth of strong and well-written ladies taking the centre stage. Furthermore while vintage supernatural fiction tends to be somewhat sexless, Aickman does not shy away from romance, lust and sensuality. For example while 'The View' is one of the stranger tales in the collection, where a stay on a remote island becomes as fluid as a shifting dream, it's equally the tale of a passionate affair arising from a chance encounter between two strangers.
Aickman's tales are meticulously crafted, with every word carefully chosen. However whereas other weird masters such as Lovecraft and Poe are similarly exacting in their choice of words, Aickman isn’t using language in the evocative poetic way they did. Rather his tales have more than a little in common with the works of Harold Pinter or Mike Leigh; their language seems to reflect the everyday mundanity, and indeed banality, of ordinary life in Britain, but at the same time it's the little observations, the chance remarks, and what is pointedly not being said that are important. Thus the uncanny creeps into ordinary situations, and Aickman's carefully weighted phrases and concise descriptions paint the normal world in a weird unsettling light, and a far deeper and stranger portrait of reality emerges. One may be be doing something completely mundane, such as waiting for a train, or checking an friend's house while they are ill, but if Mr Aickman is in charge of your destiny then rest assured what is everyday and normal will soon begin shifting and transforming into something darkly unusual.
"Nightmarish" is something of an overused adjective in horror, but in the case of Aickman's tales it is for a change most accurate. For while these stories contain much that is unexplained and much that is outré, there is a strange sort of dream logic to them; while we may not have the answers to many of their riddles, one senses that there are mysteries to unravel, symbols to decode, and that the weaver of these eerie dreams, Aickman himself, knew exactly what was going on. Also like dreams, many of these stories may be read psychologically – there is as much of the subconscious as there is the supernatural.
With so many subtleties and ambiguities, Aickman's work is highly rereadable, and indeed generously repays returns visits. Of course Aickman is perhaps something of an acquired taste, and while he may be too obtuse for some, undoubtedly for others his strange stories will become an eerie source of endlessly fascination. And it is wonderful that this new edition of Dark Entries will swell the numbers of those under his dark spell, offering a new generation the chance to be ensnared by his uniquely unsettling tales.