Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sub Rosa

Travel is a good thing; it stimulates the imagination.  Everything else is a snare and a delusion.  Our own journey is entirely imaginative.  Therein lies its strength.
This quote from Louis-Ferdinand Celine, used as the epigraph for Robert Aickman's novelette "Never Visit Venice," could also serve for the entire collection in which it appears.  Seven of the eight stories in Sub Rosa features some form of travel.  Whether it's a business trip to Bedfordshire or a vacation to Belgium, Aickman's characters leave home and encounter ghosts and other mysterious phenomena.  Aickman called his work "strange stories," which is as good a label as any for the elusive and allusive feel of his fiction.  It's difficult to describe the nature of his work, or its likely effect on any reader.  His sensibility either appeals or it doesn't.  As Neil Gaiman once said,
I think that Aickman is one of those authors that you respond to on a very primal level. If you're a writer, it's a bit like being a stage magician. A stage magician produces coin, takes coin, demonstrates coin vanished... That tends to be what you do as a fiction writer, reading fiction. You'll go, "Oh look. He's setting that up."...Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I'm not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully. Yes, the key vanished, but I don't know if he was holding a key in the hand to begin with.
 For myself, I think Aickman wrote some of the greatest ghost stories of the 20th century, but also produced some real clunkers, fiction in which his motifs and preoccupations are tedious or even offensive rather than chilling or psychologically potent.  Sub Rosa, fortunately, is much more tilted toward the former than the latter, including a number of my favorite Aickman works, and only one real clunker.

Because the original British editions of Aickman's collections are rare and rather pricey, I first read his work in the slightly-cheaper American collections.  Only one of those, Cold Hand in Mine, is a straight reprint of a British version; the other two, Painted Devils and the posthumous The Wine-Dark Sea, mix stories from several of his British collections.  As a result, when I received a copy of the handsome new Tartarus Press edition of the British collection Sub Rosa, I had already read seven of its eight stories.  However, that was no bad thing; Aickman's stories often feel so different on rereading that it's like encountering a whole new story.  In more than one case I liked a story much more after finishing it the second time than I had the first.

A case in point would be the opening tale, "Ravissante."  At a party, the narrator meets an ex-artist who now collates soulless books of reproductions.  They become friends, and after the ex-artist's untimely death, the narrator inherits a first-person account of the artist's meeting with Madame A, the widow of a famous symbolist painter.  As is often the case in Aickman, the events of that meeting are just unusual and baffling enough that it seems they must have been supernatural, even if each individual aspect can be explained by eccentricity or psychological breakdown.

The first time I read "Ravissante," I wasn't sure what to make of it.  It seemed to me that the opening section with the narrator went on too long, and that the artist's encounter with Madame A was too random to be frightening or disturbing.  But this time the meeting seemed much simpler and more symbolically potent, and as for the opening... Well, as R. B. Russell observes in his introduction to the Tartarus edition, in Aickman's stories "that which is left imperfectly explained haunts the more imaginative reader, who will go over the story for clues and hints."  Although I'm never sure whether meaning in Aickman is real or an illusion, I do find myself forming theories about just what's going on.  When it comes to "Ravissante," I can't escape the feeling that there may be some connection, literal or symbolic, between Madame A and the wife and later widow of the artist, a shadowy figure who appears prominently in the opening but is absent from the flashback.  And yet, what's the evidence for that idea?  Why, none at all.

"The Inner Room," the next story, features a dollhouse, which is a potent device for a ghost story, as any reader of M. R. James's "The Haunted Doll's House" can attest.  But, while there are a few skin-crawling moments here, mostly to do with the suggestive rather than the explicit, "The Inner Room" is as much about guilt, neglect, and the power of the unconscious as it is about spirits.  I liked this story a lot when I read it in The Wine-Dark Sea, and I enjoyed it even more in Sub Rosa.  It is, I think, one of Aickman's more straightforward works, to the extent that that word is ever applicable to his "strange stories."

I think it most certainly is applicable to "Never Visit Venice," a story in which devices Aickman uses well elsewhere fall apart entirely.  Driven by a recurring dream, the world-weary Henry Fern travels to Venice in the hope of some revelation, only to find it a cheap, tawdry disappointment.  Aickman's overlong description of Venice rather reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne's from his overlong romance The Marble Faun: it would be nicer, they both seem to think, if only there weren't so many filthy Italians in it.  By the time Fern takes a gondola ride with a mysterious woman, my patience has been exhausted, and what follows is no help.  The symbolic significance of the black-clad woman isn't real hard to work out, and Fern's sexual encounter with her feels like crude wish fulfillment.  Generally when Aickman writes about characters disappointed by ordinary life, his creations are detailed enough that they feel like people rather than a loud authorial voice, but Henry Fern is thin, and feels like a self-pitying device whether he is or not.  There's no substance to "Never Visit Venice," and the fact that it's well-crafted on a basic level doesn't make up for that.

With its silent spectre and its inexplicable layers of lingering dust, "The Unsettled Dust" is the closest thing to a traditional ghost story in Sub Rosa, but the real driving force of this story is shattered, dysfunctional human relationships.  Mr Oxenhope works for the Historic Structures Fund, which buys British country houses from their occupants and allows them to continuing living there in exchanging for maintaining the houses as museums.  Staying at Clamber Court for a nearby project, he meets the Brakespear sisters, whose covert feuds make for a series of uncomfortable evenings, and disrupt the sexual tension between the narrator and one of the sisters.  And then, one night in his room, he sees a mysterious figure...  "The Unsettled Dust" also tilts more toward the straightforward, but the characters are so richly drawn, and their pathetic conflicts and desires so real, that the story is a triumph anyway.  The only sour note is that project Oxenhope is working on.  He says that he won't focus too much on it because it's irrelevant to his story, which it is, but he says rather a lot about it anyway.  This may be a subtle piece of characterization, but the portrayal of Oxenhope's antagonist on that project is so one-sided that I wonder if Aickman, who worked for a similar organization at one point, is working out some real-life issue in fiction.  Either way, this material drags the story down somewhat.

"The Houses of the Russians" is also more traditionally ghostly, to the point where I can't find much to say about it, except that it is, as with Aickman's best work, allusive and chilling, mining a real landscape and real history for ghostly effect, and sending a shiver down the spine even though I don't know what, if anything, the events described actually mean.

"No Stronger Than a Flower" is the one story in Sub Rosa that doesn't deal with travel, but with another sort of new world: marriage.  It's also the story I hadn't previously read, so I'm hesitant to analyze it too much, lest I come back to it in the future and realize how stupid my initial interpretation was, but on one reading I found it an intriguing story of psychological warfare that goes farther than anyone could have guessed, with a realistic, aptly-observed newlywed couple and an ending that is literally absurd but makes perfect surreal sense-- another Aickman trademark.

In the brief but invaluable story notes unearthed for the Tartarus edition of Sub Rosa, Aickman remarks that the events "The Cicerones" happened to him, "(almost) precisely."  And indeed, John Trant's experiences at the Cathedral of Saint Bavon could almost have happened to someone, and yet they are also uncanny and deeply disturbing.  I admire this story, but I can't escape the feeling that there's something about it I don't quite understand.  Maybe if I researched the paintings described at the Cathedral I would be less in the dark.  Or is that only an illusion?

The collection ends with its longest and, to my mind, best story, "Into the Wood," one of my two of three favorites among the Aickman I've read.  Set at a sanatorium for insomniacs in Sweden, it mines the phenomenon of insomnia for all its disturbing value, observing that those who can't sleep can, in a certain light, seem almost like vampires.  But, like many of Aickman's best works, it also addresses the ambiguous nature of metaphysical revelation.  Molly Sawyer, the American who finds herself at the sanatorium with a decision to make, may be saved if she ventures into the wood, or damned.  Or the two may be the same thing.  This is another story that brilliantly blurs the line between ordinary eccentricity and the supernatural.

I wasn't sure at first whether it would be worth buying the new edition of Sub Rosa.  It's pricey, and I already owned most of its content in other editions.  But I received a copy for Christmas, and now I'm glad I did.  The stories work very well collected in this order, as intended by Aickman, and being spurred to reread them has made me admire his work all the more.  The Tartarus edition of another collection, Dark Entries, is forthcoming soon, and although there is once again only story I haven't read, I definitely intend to buy it.  If you're a ghost story fan and you haven't experienced Aickman yet, do yourself a favor and try to find one of his collections in your library system.  Whether you enjoy it or not, you'll be having a literary experience like no other.


  1. Excellent reviews of Aickman, whom I discovered back in the 1980s. I was fortunate to get the Tartarus collection of all the "Strange Stories," though I already had the American anthologies. Though I'm more forgiving of the weaker stories, I am generally in full agreement with you about his best, and I am especially impressed by "the School Friend" and "Into the Wood." It's very interesting how a number of what strike me (and you too) as Aickman's best stories feature a female protagonist, and I think that's partly bceause they force him to be more inventive than in his stories of male yearning and its generally distressing results. But I've found all his stories worth reading in one way or another; as you say, an Aiokman collection is "a literary experience like no other."

  2. Thanks for the wonderful breakdown. FYI, Molly Sawyer (i.e Margaret) is English, not American.