Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Powers of Darkness

Very good horror writers often demonstrate that ordinary life can be horrific and tedious at once for the sensitive person, and one suspects it was so for [Robert] Aickman. [Peter Straub, in his introduction to The Wine-Dark Sea]
In Powers of Darkness, Aickman's second solo collection, he demonstrates that continuum between tedium and terror in six stories of the absurdity of modern life.  From "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen," in which technology, namely the telephone, is simultaneously baffling and monstrous, to "The Wine-Dark Sea," the tale of a fleeting escape from the contemporary, his protagonists navigate a world in which the mundane frustrations of society, culture, and politics can at any moment turn into something darker.  The precise narrative mechanics of these transitions may remain obscure, but Aickman's philosophy and voice-- world-weary, intellectual, mordantly witty-- is clear, and constant.

Powers of Darkness has recently been rereleased by Tartarus Press in a durable, elegant hardcover edition of 350 copies, as part of a serious of Aickman reissues.  In addition to the pleasure of its handsome yet reserved design, part of the Tartarus aesthetic and a perfect match for Aickman, there is a new introduction by Mark Valentine, which, like all Tartarus introductions, is succinct and valuable.  Valentine comments aptly on the author's traditionalism and the relationship between aspects of his biography and his stories, as well as making intriguing suggestions regarding writers with similar sensibilities.

"Your Tiny Hand is Frozen" was the first Aickman story the present reviewer ever read, sitting at a worn and graffitied desk on the lowest level of his university library.  He blushes to admit that he didn't make much of it at the time.  This is especially baffling as it is, in fact, one of Aickman's more frightening tales, with a climax that is simple yet horribly vivid.  Edmund St Jude lives in his fiancee's apartment, waiting for her return and doing minor translation work to get by.  When his lonely existence is disrupted by a series of mysterious telephone calls, he finds himself drawn into a powerful yet dangerous obsession.  St Jude is a sensitive man, unable to summon up the force of personality necessary to deal with the faceless bureaucracy of the telephone company, and the headaches caused by the strange calls suggest that Aickman viewed the telephone, and perhaps much modern technology, as more trouble than it was worth: an innovation we would be better off without.

And so, he seems to have thought, was democratically-elected representative government.  The protagonist of "My Poor Friend" expresses a preference for hereditary rule, and Aickman shared that preferece, or at least claimed to do so.  From M. R. James such a statement would seem unthinking conservatism, part of what A. C. Benson not unreasonably identified as a an almost aethetic traditionalism, lacking in ideas or principles.  From Aickman, though, it is clearly the product of thought and bitter experience.  "My Poor Friend," in which an advocate of local electricity befriends a noble, doomed Member of Parliament, rings with authentic detail, drawn, one assumes, from Aickman's encounters with politicians on behalf of the Inland Waterways Association.  The eccentricities of government become almost Gothic as the cynicism of Parliament swallows the narrator's poor friend.  There is a passage that, I think, captures the futility of public attempts to influence government as well for America of the 2010s as it did for Britain of the 1960s:
Generalisations such as these [about hereditary versus representative government] are common talk.  What upset me was how it works in practice.  Government has been carried on less and less visibly for a long time; but the critical thing in Britain has been the swift development of official public relations.  Every public authority that knows its business now has what may be termed a paddock for its critics and opponents, not excluding those inside Parliament.  Quite rapidly it has become almost impossible to be a rebel.  Today the rebels are put in a paddock and then built into the structure.  They are patiently listened to, when they have made themselves assertive enough.  They are pressed to deliver their ideas in writing.  They are invited to serve on Joint Committees.  It is implied to them that if they keep their criticisms 'constructive', they may even become O.B.E.'s.  'Look at our splendid collection of rebels.  It proves how strong, important, and on the right lines we are.'  The Speaker's Corner technique, one may call it: intensely British, brilliantly adaptable, utterly null.  Faced with it, Bessemer [the head of the local electricity organization] emerged, quite unawares, as a mere nineteenth-century evangelist; not only incapable of planting his petards deep enough, but incapable of even seeing that he was paddocked, that his ostensibly critical notions were being applied, Judo-wise, to the actual strengthening of his opponents.  It is sadly true that only the power to inflict actual damage of some kind holds any hope of surmounting the official techniques.
 Tea Partiers and liberals alike take note.

In "Larger Than Oneself" it is not political but religious organizations that take a hit.  Mrs Iblis, despite her apt name, is entirely out-of-place at a gathering of contemporary spiritual authorities, having shown up by mistake after a letter postponing her visit to an eminent journalist failed to arrive.  Aickman perfectly captures the isolation and misery of a party at which one knows nobody and is interested in nothing, and Mrs Iblis' silent suffering is conveyed with a very British restrained irony that makes this one of Aickman's funniest tales.  Beneath the humor, however, is a wise commentary on the futility and the danger of using religion as a crutch, attempting to assign to it a meaning it cannot offer if one lacks inner strength.  Look too hard for something larger than oneself, Aickman suggests, and you may be swallowed by it.

"The Visiting Star" offers irony of a darker sort, as a celebrated actress' visit to a regional theater has unfortunate consequences for a number of area residents, including the author of a book on lead and plumbago mining with whom she shares some disturbing information.  Thematically reminiscent of "Perfect Love," written by Aickman's one-time lover Elizabeth Jane Howard for her collaboration with Aickman in We Are for the Dark, the story is surely a metaphor for the regrets and demands of any difficult, past-her-prime performer.

Aickman often begins to generate unease through awkward social scenarios, typically involving eccentric strangers, where the stomach-twisting quality of embarrassment merges with the stomach-twisting quality of the inexplicable.  In  "A Roman Question," the narrator and his wife must deal with the elderly couple whose house they are staying in during a dull conference, and with the odd young woman also sharing that home.  When the young woman suggests a strange ritual that may help locate the elderly couple's missing son, the five are drawn into something much more interesting, but much less pleasant, than any conference.

"The Wine-Dark Sea" was the second Aickman story this reviewer ever read, and he must confess that on rereading he likes it even less than he did then.  A better title might be "Never Visit Greece," for, like "Never Visit Venice" but thankfully to a lesser degree, it features a world-weary traveler disappointed to find that the foreign country he visits has a lot of stupid, degenerate natives in it.  As in that story, the protagonist finds pleasant distraction in the form of sexually available but mysterious women, and the self-pity is so overpowering, the imagery so bare and straightforward, that the total effect is rather distasteful.  One supposes that the story was, for the author, a powerful expression of principles, but the aphoristic dialogue of the three women is unduly pompous, and the protagonist feels more like a spoiled aristocrat on holiday than a person of any depth.

But the story nonetheless offers flashes of interest, and its flatness is an exception in what is otherwise a fine collection, comparable to Sub Rosa as a top example of the author's early work.  Although Aickman's stories are both viscerally and philosophically unsettling examples of supernaturalism, he should not be overlooked as an observer of and commentator on ordinary life.  From the small details of an uncomfortable reception to larger questions of character, morality, and survival, he is a thoughtful and erudite chronicler of the less gentle aspects of the human condition.  Happiness, many an Aickman story suggests, is possible, but only fleetingly, and at great cost.  It's a notion that deserves more attention than the modern world seems inclined to give it.

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