My top 5 Robert Aickman stories
I wrote this last year, when myself and the rest of the Curious Tales team began putting together Poor Souls' Light, an anthology of Christmas ghost stories which took their inspiration from Robert Aickman whose centenary took place in 2014. Aickman is not a very well known writer - certainly nowhere near as famous as MR James, the instigating influence of The Longest Night, our first book - but has become more appreciated in recent years, thanks to his reputation as a writer's writer par excellence, with fans such as Neil Gaiman and, in particular, Reece Shearsmith singing his praises at any given opportunity. Indeed, last year also saw the reissue of his long-neglected short story collections with brand new introductions from the likes of Shearsmith and Richard T Kelly, and afterword reminiscences from Aickman's friends and proteges Ramsey Campbell and Leslie Gardner.
Writer's writer is one of those phrases which, whilst intended as a compliment, has a faintly off-putting ring, implying boring elegiac tales in which nothing happens. Not so with Aickman. If you've been thinking of reading some of his work, a genuine warning: Aickman isn't a writer you get into, he's a hole you fall into. The stories I've listed below are, for me, constitute one of the most page-turning, addictive and above all frightening reading experiences I've had as an adult.
The Hospice (in Cold Hand in Mine)
Fans of Aickman tend to have a soft spot for the first of his stories they encountered, the one which ushered them into the heady territory of Aickmanland. For my money ‘The Hospice’ – my own personal gateway story – represents Aickman at his most unsettling, all the more so because it contains, on the surface, so little in the way of anything which appears to approach outright horror. Maybury, a travelling businessman, gets lost whilst driving through the outskirts of suburban Midlands and takes shelter in a remote hostel. Inside, seated in a dining hall of stale opulence, he is surrounded by seemingly doped-up guests and served mounds of indigestible food. Things take an disquieting twist when Maybury notices one of the guests is chained at the ankle to a radiator. The phrase ‘Kafkaesque’ is often used for shadowy and potent bureaucracy, but ‘The Hospice’ is Kafkaesque in that it evokes a nameless terror which is more abstract, and much more frightening, than anything as simple as a ghost.
The Cicerones (in The Unsettled Dust)
Frequently, the structure of Aickman’s stories involve an unassuming male protagonist stopping by somewhere remote and humdrum (or seemingly humdrum) and uncovering some disturbing and enigmatic hidden stratum of the world, as Freudian as it is supernatural. Here, a traveller visits the Cathedral of Saint Bavon in Belgium, intent on a brief look at a painting of Lazarus recommended by his guidebook. Inside he encounters a series of characters – the cicerones of the title – each of whom lead him deeper and deeper into the Cathedral, eventually into the crypt. Dense with symbolism and allusions, this is a story which touches on themes of religion, historicity, culture, and, ultimately, martyrdom.
Ringing the Changes (in Dark Entries)
Perhaps Aickman’s most famous story, ‘Ringing the Changes’ has been widely anthologised, including in the wonderful Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, and it’s not difficult to see why. Gerald – another stiff-upper-lipped Englishman – takes his much younger wife on honeymoon to a remote coastal village where, from the off, a sense of gloom and dread hangs profoundly over them: they cannot see the sea; their hotel is populated with cryptic, unfriendly locals; and, all around, church bells endlessly ring out (asked why, one of the locals simply tells Maybury: ‘practice’). Worst of all is the reek of rot that seems to fog up from the pages as the story progresses, reaching its knockout effect in its rancid, unconscionable climax.
The Stains (in The Unsettled Dust)
This late story from Aickman – one of his last and one of his longest – won the 1981 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction. It opens with Stephen, an old-fashioned civil servant and OBE whose predictable, traditional way of life begins to unravel when he finds himself newly widowed. Recuperating in the countryside he discovers Nell, a young, beautiful woman who could well be a woodland nymph, or an hallucination, or something else entirely. Their affair, at first blissful and passionate, is increasingly overshadowed by her father whose invisible presence prowls at the periphery of a story informed by weighty tensions: liberation versus repression, empire versus modernity, domestication versus freedom, civilization versus nature. If this all sounds a bit dully high-minded, it isn’t: rest assured that the violent, terrifying dénouement will stay with you for a long time.
Not an individual ghost story but a series of brief essays on the subject. For eight years Aickman edited and provided introductions for The Fontana Book of Ghost Stories series, accompanying his favourite tales with eloquent, incisive and eminently quotable observations about supernatural fiction, but also providing an Aickman reader with something of a divining rod for his own stories’ depths. Most importantly, these are strong, readable collections, including, alongside as a number of Aickman’s own stories, some of the lesser-known greats: Oliver Onions’ ‘The Beckoning Fair One’, Walter de la Mare’s ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Wendigo’.
There will be no further Ruth Rendell novels.
Or, rather, there will be only the half-dozen or so she most likely composed before publication of The Girl Next Door, her most recent the book (or, as we must get used to describing it: her last).
It upset me when I heard Rendell had suffered a stroke earlier this year, but I’d hoped she’d recover. I’d assumed she would. She seemed like the sort. But no. Sadly not.
There’s no author who occupies anywhere near as much space on my shelves, or whose books I so purely enjoy reading, as Ruth Rendell. But enjoy doesn't seem like quite the right word. It is enjoyment but slightly more so and slightly different. I started reading her books about four years ago and since then my relationship with them has developed something of a reliance dynamic, a dependency. If I ever find myself amid a dry streak, muddling my way through a run disappointing novels, a stopover in Rendellland has always been a safe restorative. I finished reading The Crocodile Bird only last week.
Her books, for one thing, are so numerous. Formidably so. As well as that impending half-dozen I’m sure there could be others which have thus far gone unread. Her first novel, From Doon with Death, was in fact her sixth, her first five receiving only rejections from the publishers. She produced over eighty books in total: Rendell novels, Inspector Wexford novels, Barbara Vine novels, short story collections, novellas, a children’s book, a travel guide, an anthology, a think tank paper. I still feel something of a Rendell novice despite her occupying a substantial bloc of my shelf-space. There are always a handful of titles in the back of my mind: I must remember to look out for Shake Hands Forever! Need an Amazon add-on item! How much is Heartstones?!
Where is Rendellland? What does it look like? It’s a landscape which encompasses dingy London bedsits, neatly ordered suburbs and bucolic Suffolk country piles; is populated with ordinary people: men and women with jobs and families, but also with destructive urges and compulsive needs. They take trips to the supermarket and spend evenings watching television. But suddenly there’s a body in the basement, or a hider in the loft. Gradually, you see grudges being nursed, blighting mental illnesses going concealed or unchecked. Class bitterness is rife, repression endemic. It’s a site of plainness, but also of aberration, where guilt and hope, obsession and ecstasy, all find their terrible locus.
It is, of course, everyday Britain in all its mundanity and all its terror.
And that’s that. Rendellland remains intact, but there’s to be no major new developments. What’s saddest for me though is that one area in particular is unlikely to see any new additions. Because nowhere is Ruth Rendell a more compelling a writer, or more successful a novelist, than when she is Barbara Vine.
Barbara Vine came to life in 1986. Rendell often described her alter-ego as a separate person from herself, with a ‘less cold’ personality, someone who was ‘more feminine’, who was ‘a bit more serious, a bit more searching’. Vine was the product of a desire to turn out both a greater number of novels (Rendell and Vine have never shared a publisher), and ones which differed from her creator’s. She was never as rigid in her focus on the traditional structure and plotting of mystery fiction as Rendell, allowing instead more in the way of what her blurb writers like to call 'psychology'.
The best known of Vine’s books is probably her first, A Dark-Adapted Eye, a woozy, spooky coming-of-age tale, one of muddled parentage and unutterable wartime secrets. Others, like The Blood Doctor and The Birthday Present sold well and gained critical interest for their melding of fiction with an insider’s eye on how Westminster functions (Rendell sat in the house of Lords, attending weekly). But for my money, the best book written by Rendell was her third Vine, The House of Stairs.
A cursory summing-up of the plot – woman meets up and begins an affair with woman who was been released from prison where she's done time for killing first woman's best friend – demands resolution, an explanation. The course the narrative takes weaves between a late 80’s present-day and flashbacks of the 1960’s. It’s a very Rendell take on the decade: an era of drugs, swinging and rock music but, rather than providing the characters with opportunities for the breezy liberation and self-discovery one might expect, it instead nurtures their obsessions, drawing them further down into a squalour of sex and neuroses. There’s a triangle of characters: Cosette, a plump middle-aged woman trying to get in on the free love and psychedelia; Bell Sanger, a beautiful anonymous woman, the stranger in town; and the narrator, Elizabeth, a once-struggling writer who has turned to churning out financially successful but trashy novels.
This writing about writing theme belies how The House of Stairs is something of a novelist’s novel: the book's chief strength lies in its craft, the drama of these characters’ interactions playing out with a dreamlike structural confidence – drifting from past to present, neither taking precedence, both pushing the story on. What takes place seems dictated solely by a need to delineate these characters, to follow them in what seems naturally them and fills them with life. But there’s an undeniable readableness, and also a seamlessness, the whole tragedy meted out with a hermetically controlled precision.
It’s jarring to learn the book never received an award, nor was ever shortlisted. Nor was it singled out for praise beyond that which a new Rendell invariably receives. It's become a cliché to say that crime fiction suffers from literary snobbishness. And it became a cliché to describe of Rendell's Barbara Vine books as her 'literary' or ‘psychological’ output (there is more of an overlap between Rendell and her alter-ego than a nom-de-plume would indicate). Perhaps Rendell’s logic-defying prolificness is to blame for this. It’s hard to bring a clear-eyed assessment to an author who brings out more than one book a year. Your grasp of their capabilities is constantly on the shift; their books are judged as part of a whole rather than individually. If Ruth Rendell had only ever written A Dark-Adapted Eye, The House of Stairs and, say, Asta's Book, it’s hard not to think that she’d be spoken of in purpled tones as a literary colossus. As it is, these are instead thought of simply as a crime-writer's 'good books'.
Which is a shame. Barbara Vine’s novels are by most criteria successful: they engage and excite, they are thematically weighty, they are careful of structure, sophisticated of character and rich with allusion (The Wings of a Dove is unobtrusively referenced throughout The House of Stairs), they speak of their age, and yet are aware of how historicity functions, how some subject matters are touched with a timelessness. And yet, I’m going to hazard, it’s unlikely you’d heard of The House of Stairs prior to reading this blog post. You almost definitely won’t have read it.
In 2013 I noticed Penguin Modern Classics began had begun to reissue the back catalogue of Penelope Lively and Margaret Drabble, a pair of writers whose work I very much admire and whose sensibilities are similar to those of Vine’s. In that same year there was also an interview in which Ruth Rendell declared that The Child’s Child, the most recent novel written as Barbara Vine, would also be her final published under that penname. The book itself, whilst definitely not her best, was one I enjoyed and I'd hoped, optimistically, this ‘last book’ talk was just a bit of chucked-in interview-fuel, something to help the sub-editors with their headlines. But it seems that’s not to be the case.
I’d also hoped that both novel and interview-spiel would generate some kind of reappraisal of Rendell’s Vine-fictions. However, at the time of writing, The House of Stairs and many of Vine’s other novels are out of print. The rights to all of them still lie, presumably, with their original publisher: Penguin.
Perhaps now is the time for that reappraisal to take place.