Monday, May 23, 2011

We Are For the Dark

This is, I suppose, the third in a series of personal reflections on Robert Aickman collections.  Previous posts dealt with Sub Rosa and Dark Entries.

Robert Aickman's first book was, of course, a collaborative collection with his then-lover, the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard.  Containing three stories by each, the volume, like most to which Aickman contributed, is now out of print and difficult/expensive to find.  However, I was lucky enough to find a copy of the scarce paperback edition at a very reasonable price.

The collection opens with Howard's novelette "Perfect Love," which uses the antiquarian ghost story device of multiple, indirect information sources to fashion a distinctly modern, suggestive story of a great opera singer and the presence that haunts her.  This like all Howard's strange stories, captures much of the same bewildering atmosphere as Aickman's stories, without being quite so narratively obscure.  I still want to read it again to see if I've missed anything, though.

Next is Aickman's "The Trains," a favorite of mine among his work.  From the amusing but insightful portrayal of two young women with different temperaments on a hiking trip, to the sparse, cheerless landscape of the train-dominated valley they find themselves in, to the eccentric household where they take shelter from a storm, this is an ambitious story about the ambiguities of love and desire that more than justifies its length.  And the ghost, though seen fleetingly if at all, is quite frightening.

Aickman's "The Insufficient Answer" was the only one of his three contributions that was new to me.  It's another story in which an unusual, awkward social environment is edged with hints of the supernatural: an English sculptress has withdrawn to an ancient castle high in the mountains of Eastern Europe, and maintains a solitary existence there with a single female companion.  As this was my first reading, it goes without saying that I didn't particularly understand the story, but it's effective all the same, and the (sufficient) answer seems closer to the surface than in some of his work.

"Three Miles Up" is by Howard, but some early reviewers of the book, which does not attribute the stories to their particular authors, took it to be by Aickman.  It's not difficult to see why: taking place during a canal voyage, dealing with two male friends and the mysterious woman they encounter, and ending on a note of baffling ambiguity, it is very Aickmanesque.  It is, however, more viscerally chilling than most Aickman stories.

I wrote about a later, slightly revised version of Aickman's "The View" in my post on Dark Entries, where I also remarked on "something that has often happened to me with Aickman...  I read a story once, think it's rambling and pointless, then read it again and realize how tightly structured and clever it is."  On this, my third reading of "The View," I finally had that epiphany.  Well, I still think that the enigmatic, aphoristic dialogue of "Ariel," the protagonist's mysterious lover, could be trimmed without notable loss to the story, but in that earlier post I was polite about the story without much admiring it.  Now I appreciate better (without accepting) its chains of association and symbolism relating to male and female identity.

The simplest and most terrifying story in We Are For the Dark is "Left Luggage" by Howard, which takes the most innocuous of objects, a stray suitcase, and imbues it with malevolent presence.  As with "Perfect Love," Howard demonstrates mastery of various structural tricks of the ghost story, but "Left Luggage" is so concise and clearly-explained that the effect of those tricks is much greater.

Despite dual authorship by writers with slightly different sensibilities, the stories in We Are For the Dark complement each other nicely, offering a fine mix of the ambiguous and the direct, the quietly unsettling and the outright frightening.  It's a pity that, while all of the stories are, for the moment, relatively easy to find,* they're not readily available under a single set of covers.  Their cumulative effect is not to be missed.

*The Howard stories, along with a fourth strange tale, can be found in the almost-out-of-print Three Miles Up from Tartarus Press,  "The Trains"  in the Aickman reprint collection The-Wine Dark Sea, "The Insufficient Answer" in the instant-remainder anthology Girls' Night Out, and "The View" in the Aickman reprint collection Painted Devils or the Tartarus edition of Dark Entries.

1 comment:

  1. A superb review which has the exact mix of subjective & objective that may compel a novice in the genre (to wit, me) to feel attracted towards this book, esp. now that Tartarus Press has done the world a lot of good by coming out with a new edition. Thanks for the review, again.

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