Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tales of Love and Death

I am still of the opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind-- sex and the dead.  --W. B. Yeats
That quote was the epigraph to Robert Aickman's second collection, Powers of Darkness, but it would self-evidently have served equally well for his fifth, Tales of Love and Death.  That title might lead one to expect stories in which the sexual element found throughout Aickman's work is especially prominent, but in fact the "love" of the title has wider reference, and in some of the stories appears not to be present at all; the meaning of the title would seem be "Tales of Love and/or Death," but that would have been rather less catchy.

Aickman is renowned for his subtlety, but there's nothing subtle about "Growing Boys," the first and longest of these tales.  The story is, in fact, ridiculously overstated, in a way that lends it the same strange and uneasy affect as the elusive tales.  Millie Morke is a woman saddled with an ineffectual husband, a doting but eccentric uncle, and truly demonic twin sons, and the story plays out as a satire on the various flaws of contemporary men.  For readers accustomed to the understated ghostliness of typical Aickman, this gruesome, almost garish story may come as a bit of a nasty shock, but interpreted as black comedy it has a certain charm, and Millie's interactions with a local fortune are more like the author's usual form.

"Marriage" is also about the weaknesses of men, but from a male perspective, and in a lower key.  Indeed, the story is so subtle that, allowing for the guilty mind of the protagonist, it might not be supernatural at all.  Laming Gatestead is dating Helen Brown, a kind but rather dull woman he met at the theater, and infatuated with her roommate, Ellen Black.  What may or may not be a chance meeting with Ellen leads to an affair that leaves Laming by turns overjoyed and miserable, but as the situation develops, he begins to see things that make him regard his life in a new light.  The connection between Helen and Ellen may be eerie, or Laming's infidelity may be commonplace, but either way the story explores the distinction between love and desire, and offers a cool yet sympathetic portrait of a man who has, in every way, gotten in over his head.

The collection includes two atypically short pieces, "Le Miroir" and "Raising the Wind."  The former tells of the decay of an aristocratic Englishwoman as she struggles to survive in Paris, and of the ornate mirror that may or may not be hastening her decline; the latter features two boatmen forced by circumstance into an unusual method of ensuring smooth sailing.  Although both stories, particularly "Le Miroir," offer flashes of Aickman's finest uncanny imagery, they're too brief for the proper atmosphere to develop.  This makes, "Le Miroir," another of Aickman's frequent reflections on how simply dreadful the modern world is for people who used to be rich and important, rather tiresome, which is a pity, as with more deft handling it could have been one of his finest tales.

Although it's closer to normal Aickman length, "Compulsory Games" is another story that feels more dully world-weary than enticingly strange.  Colin and Grace Trenwith have maintained cordial enough relations with their elderly neighbor Eileen McGrath, but when Grace leaves the country to see to an ailing relative, Eileen invites Colin over for dinner, alone.  When that event fails to go according to her plan, whatever that plan might be, Eileen moves in on the returned Grace, inviting her to take flying lessons.  By the end of the story, events have taken their usual bizarre turn, but too much time has been taken up by Colin bemoaning his age and the fact that contemporary life has no room for him.  He's not a well-enough developed character for these meditations to feel organic, and (justly or not) they read more as authorial self-pity than anything else.

"Residents Only" also has its complaints about the late twentieth-century, namely bureaucratic disrespect for an old cemetery, but the evocation of that cemetery's decline and its two mysterious keepers is potent enough to balance the thematic elements, and as in "My Poor Friend," the absurdity of government procedure is drily mocked.  The primary supernatural feature of the story is eminently predictable and takes rather too long to emerge, but the final image is strong enough to earn this a place as a solid, though not exceptional, contribution to the author's oeuvre.

In "Wood," a late marriage to an undertaker's daughter leads to a new life for Mr Munn, but what sort of a life, exactly?  This is, on first reading anyway, the most Aickmanesque story in the collection, with an awkward and unusual wedding celebration leading up to an impossible, inexplicable married life.  Recurring images based around the titular material, and some play with the social and personal distaste morticians often inspire in people who ought to know better, lend this story that sense of an almost-grasped guiding logic that is one of the virtues of this author's strange stories.

Burdened with several weak stories at its center, Tales of Love and Death is not one of Robert Aickman's finest collections, but the dark gusto of "Growing Boys," the wild cemetery of "Residents Only," and the oblique social commentary of "Marriage" and "Wood" are enough to make it a success.  After the shortly-forthcoming Cold Hand in Mine, this will presumably be Tartarus Press' next Robert Aickman reprint, and fans of the author who have yet to encounter some or all of these stories have much to look forward to.

2 comments:

  1. "Le Miroir," another of Aickman's frequent reflections on how simply dreadful the modern world is for people who used to be rich and important

    That wasn't the impression it left me with. It struck me much more as a story concerned with the unstoppable force of Time's passage, the constant disintegration of the present, than a meditation on the future or the past.

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  2. That may well be what the story was intended to do, but like a couple other (to my mind) minor Aickman stories-- "The-Wine Dark Sea" and "Never Visit Venice" come to mind-- it seems to me that as written the story's timeless dimension is too thin, and its specific critique of the present time and place too blatant, to succeed on those terms. "The View," I think, is a more successful if less harrowing exploration of quite a similar theme.

    At some point in the near future I may post an essay about horror fiction, particularly ghost stories, and ambivalence about modernity, in which I would hope to expand on, and perhaps nuance, discussion of this topic. Thanks for the comment.

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