Friday, June 10, 2011

Three Miles Up and Other Strange Stories

After We Are for the Dark, her collaboration with Robert Aickman, Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote only a single further tale of the supernatural, "Mr Wrong," first published nearly a quarter century later.  In 2003, Tartarus Press brought those four tales together in Three Miles Up, a small, elegant hardcover that has just recently gone out of print at the publisher, though as of this writing it is inadvertently still listed on their page of in-print titles.  A few copies remain available at reasonable prices from various dealers, and interested readers might wish to make their purchases sooner rather than later: although the stories may be or become available in other formats, one is unlikely to find the four so handsomely presented within one set of covers.  The cover illustration by R. B. Russell is an especially nice example of his striking black-and-white style, and the introduction by Glen Cavaliero, while not one I entirely agree with, is an intelligent, defensible consideration of Howard's supernatural fiction.

The title story is perhaps the most famous of the four, often reprinted; I first read it in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Ghost Stories but was too immature to appreciate it.  (The same is true of de la Mare's "The Quincunx.")  It is, on a psychological level, a deft account of how close quarters and the presence of a woman in whom both are interested can drive men rapidly back and forth between friendship and frustration.  That young woman, whom they came across when it seemed their bickering was insurmountable and might force an end to the expedition, is mysterious, inscrutable, her dialogue perfectly crafted to seem just odd enough that one suspects she's not what she seems, just ominous enough to tickle the spine.  The travelers' two encounters with the people of the area they're sailing through are likewise disturbing, reversing expectations in ways that heighten the eerieness of it all.  The ending, while open in some ways, suggests not an end to the strangeness but a new, more dangerous phase.

"Perfect Love" is the closest of the four tales to the strange stories of Robert Aickman, not dissimilar in theme, as someone has observed, to his later "The Visiting Star" and "The School Friend."  It generates the same sense of confusion as his stories, and like them, demonstrates on careful (re)reading a coherence one would never have suspected.  It also employs the older technique, of which M. R. James was the master, of using disparate sources, innocuous in themselves, to construct a more complete picture that's chilling.  A meditation on love, on the eccentricity of artists, and on what people give up for the sake of their dreams, it remains my favorite of Howard's ghost stories.

The most frightening, however, remains "Left Luggage," which is, I think, the only story to demonstrate quite the degree of coherence and directness Cavaliero attributes to all four.  It is also the closest of them to a simple, traditional ghost story: an isolated, dry, scholarly protagonist, an inheritance from an eccentric relative, a series of strange events increasing in intensity toward a truly ominous threat.  There is, perhaps, a light satire on fear of intimacy, but more than anything else "Left Luggage" is a chilling yarn.

And then one comes to "Mr Wrong," which is a horse of a different color.  Indeed it is so different in mode and atmosphere from the others that I would not call it a strange story at all.  I might say conte cruel, but it is mostly the word "cruel" that makes that label an attractive one.  This is as, Cavaliero remarks, a story full of unsatisfied characters, unable or unwilling to connect with one another, so that the protagonist is left alone to face the trouble brought on by her secondhand car.  The world of "Mr Wrong" is not so much strange as harsh, sparse, devoid of beauty and burdened with a sense of imminent threat.  (A.S. Byatt's non-supernatural "In the Air" has a similar potency.)  In addition to its haunting this story offers a human evil whose banal yet menacing presence clashes somewhat with the ghostliness.  The conclusion of the story is, as it aims to be, profoundly upsetting, and yet it is the only thing that could have happened in the grim urban modernity of its milieu.  Dissimilar to the others though it may be, "Mr Wrong" is every bit their equal in craft and power.  And Three Miles Up is a gorgeous collection, making available a body of work that might, due to its slimness, otherwise have been unjustly neglected.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your post and appreciate the link to the Vault of Evil discussion. I'm an Aickman fan, and Three Miles Up was so very Aickman-esque I wondered what percentage, if any, was Howard's work.