The more I read of Robert Aickman, the more I realize how thoroughly unfathomable his stories are. I'm forced to wonder whether their depths have a bottom, or whether their mystery extends forever, meaningless. This ought to matter, some part of me is insisting, but I know full well that it doesn't. The reason I read the six stories in Dark Entries in a single, nausea-inducing sitting, even after finishing two other books the same day, was not that I was doing the literary equivalent of a crossword puzzle, but that I was caught up in the workings of a particular kind of mind, a machine where product is irrelevant and pleasure exists simply in watching the gears turn.
This was Aickman's first solo collection of strange stories, and what strikes me about it is how fully-formed his sensibilities were. These stories are no less suggestive, elaborate, and baffling than those included in his later collections. There is no sense that Aickman, like other writers of the strange and the weird, went through an early imitative phase before developing his voice. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact he became a published writer at mid-life; he was in his thirties when his first collaborative collection appeared. It may be that the lesser efforts never saw the light of day. Whatever the case, I felt as I read that a full-length biographical study of Aickman is much to be desired. From what little I know, he doesn't seem the sort of person to be easily got at, but any light would be a help.
The stories themselves number only six, but most are quite long. The first, "The School Friend," remains as wonderfully confusing to me as it did after I first read it in the reprint collection Painted Devils. I can see how the story's epigraph, Elizabeth Bibesco's remark that "To be taken advantage of is every woman's secret wish," must have something to do with it, and it's perfectly possible to decode the story as a metaphor for the restrictions society sets on women's achievement. (Given the slightly lascivious attitude toward women in many of his stories about male characters, it's somewhat surprising how sympathetically Aickman treats female protagonists.) But that sounds terribly reductive, and as Glen Cavaliero notes in his introduction to the Tartarus Press edition of Dark Entries, there is much tangible detail in the story, so much that I feel treating it purely as metaphor would be a great mistake. However one reads it, "The School Friend" offers that gradually mounting sense of disorder, leading to a final moment of inexplicable terror, that one hopes for in any strange story.
With "Ringing the Changes," one of Aickman's best-known stories, I feel on slightly firmer ground. Metaphor is not the only thing at work here, but I marvel that on first reading I missed the connection between the honeymooning protagonist's mundane anxieties and the horrifying supernatural events that threaten to engulf him. This is something that has often happened to me with Aickman, I must admit. I read a story once, think it's rambling and pointless, then read it again and realize how tightly structured and clever it is. That's not to say I understand everything about "Ringing the Changes." I haven't yet grasped what, if anything, is the deeper spring of the wonderfully-named Commandant Shotcroft and his actions. But again, that doesn't matter. What makes the story-- and many of Aickman's others-- memorable is the way it turns events that are ordinary, if deeply atypical, into something with a collective effect that's menacing or uncanny. Drunken hoteliers, a melancholy guest, a town where church bells ring all night and the beach is hard to find in the dark-- nothing sinister there, and yet...
"Choice of Weapons" was the only story in Dark Entries I hadn't previously read, so I was delighted to see that it was long, the longest in the volume in fact. For most of its length it seemed (for Aickman) unusually comprehensible, and it was only when I came to the ending, which seems abrupt and which I am utterly unable to interpret, that I realized I had been skimming along on the surface, enjoying Aickman's description of unrequited love and decayed gentility without thinking enough on the larger intentions of the story. For now, then, I can only admire the characters, lovestruck Fenville, seemingly-guileless Dorabelle, and the friendly yet somehow disturbing Doctor Bermuda.
"The Waiting Room" is rather short and straightforward; like his much longer "The Unsettled Dust," it's about as close as Aickman ever came to writing a traditional ghost story. There is little enough to say about it, except perhaps that the most salient feature of Pendlebury's dream is a reminder of one of Aickman's recurring themes: that our only hope for an escape from the wearying dailiness of life may be a heightened existence that is equally ghastly in its own way.
That theme is even more prominent in "The View," one of at least four Aickman stories in which a world-weary man travels to a new place, meets an attractive woman/women, forms a sexual relationship with her/them, achieves something like an epiphany, and then discovers the consequences of these actions. (The others are "The Wine-Dark Sea," "Never Visit Venice," and "The Stains.") "The View" is the earliest of the four, and I think possibly the best. The motif of changing and unchanging patterns is used to great effect, and the final revelation makes sense in a way that is beyond logic.
With "Bind Your Hair," the final story, I found a third stage in my Aickman-reaction pattern. I had found the story impenetrable on first reading, but this time I thought I was understanding it as a metaphor for, almost a kind of satire on, certain anxieties in the protagonist about her future and its potential limitations. But, again, the details defeat me. I know it to be an excellent story, but... What do the children mean? The pigs? The maze? Lateness? Even as I type these words a new theory is forming in my mind, but it feels so preposterous that I hesitate to set it down.
I know I will have to read these stories, and Aickman's others, 13 of which are still unknown to me, many times more. Not, as I say, in the hope of finding "the answer;" I'm not sure it exists. But, just as Aickman's characters stumble through strange landscapes in the possibly vain hope of finding clarification and safety, so must his readers. It can be a frustrating journey. Even now, as a deeply committed Aickman reader, there were times when I wanted to say "This means nothing!" and toss the book aside. But instead I read on, and was entranced by a strange detail, a new nuance, a possible symbol that made it all worthwhile. The Aickman reader may have to bind his hair before entering the maze, but as it may not have been for Clarinda, what he'll find there is worth the trouble.