Sunday, November 20, 2011

Three Creatures and a Castle: Robert Aickman's "The Insufficient Answer"

After much consideration, it seems to me that the best approach to an explanatory analysis of "The Insufficient Answer" is three mini-essays on the story's central characters, each of whom appears to be a supernatural being of one sort or another.

Felicity: The Ghost

That Felicity is a ghost now seems so overwhelmingly obvious that I have no idea how I ever missed it. She has a tomb, for heaven's sake, even if housekeeping standards at the Schloss Marcantonio are so eccentric that it might just be an unusual bed. And Cust considers the possibility that she might be a ghost, which is, in an Aickman story, the equivalent of a large neon sign spelling out "SHE'S A GHOST!" in violent green letters. Her ability to move among the locked rooms of the schloss is another clue. But I didn't quite put it all together when I read the story a few months ago. That's the thing about Aickman; his stories are so rich in detail and implication that they become overwhelming, creating an impression of inscrutability so profound that even obvious connections can be overlooked. For that reason, I'll deal briefly with Felicity's two appearances in the narrative, highlighting the hints of her ghostly nature, some of which may not be noticed even by those who know a ghost when they see one.

Felicity died when, in her desperation to escape the schloss, she threw herself from its only large window, the one Cust finds and wonders about. As a ghost, she relives those moments over and over again. This is why, in her first conversation with Cust, she begins to fade as the sounds from the hall are overheard; the sounds are her, weeping as she runs down the corridor toward the window, and disappearing from the room altogether as she and the fallen iron shutter, which Cust sees at the end of the story, on the ground outside and covered with years' worth of vegetation, strike the ground below, setting up the enormous clattering that is either the source of Mrs Hastings' aversion to noise or an especially ironic mockery of it. That there is, despite the comparatively new glass Cust notices, no sound of its breaking when he sees the figure fall from the window, is another indication that the fall is spectral rather than physical.

A few aspects of Felicity's dialogue, which is, like Beech's at the end of "The Trains," a model of the suggestive yet opaque manner of certain Aickman characters, also allude to her status, of which she seems at least partially aware. (If that's so, there's a chilling pathos to her description of being imprisoned and looked in on and getting out.) The statement that Cust wouldn't believe how long she has been at the schloss implies her death was so long ago that, if she were aging normally, she'd be much older than she appears. The concern about whether women still say "bloody" in London also reflects the passage of time. Her reference to "the goose who lays the golden eggs" is presumably about herself as Mrs Hastings' model, killed like the goose by another's cruel greed. And finally there's the remark that Poppy is always ill "at these times," a sign that she knows there is some unnatural cycle involved in her escapes.

But how did that cycle begin? Why was Felicity imprisoned, and what need of Mrs Hastings' did she fulfill?

Mrs Hastings: The Vampire

Just as "The Trains" brought Aickman's distinctive devices to certain horror tropes, so too does "The Insufficient Answer" seem to be his variation on two great nineteenth-century tales of vampirism: Stoker's Dracula and Le Fanu's "Carmilla." As "Carmilla" was itself an influence on Dracula, the specific source of some of these similarities can't be pinned down. All three works have English characters in Central European castles, with an emphasis on secrecy, locked doors, and emergence late in the day. All three feature mysterious, powerful characters whose effusive and learned conversation is emphasized. Dracula and Mrs Hastings are both unexpectedly robust and both are shown sleeping in chapels deep inside their castles (though for very different reasons); both castles are without mirrors. Even Miss Franklin's delirious mutterings about Whitby may be an allusion to Stoker's novel, in which that city was the site of Dracula's first landing in England. There's also the mention at both the beginning and the end of the story of the Irving statue near which Benson's gallery is located. That would be Henry Irving, whose friend and biographer Bram Stoker used the actor-manager as an inspiration for Dracula. The most salient direct parallel between "The Insufficient Answer" and "Carmilla" is that in both stories the dominant figure and her victim are female.

Given the absence of explicitly monstrous behavior in the Aickman canon, the question these similarities raise is not so much whether Mrs Hastings is a blood-drinking vampire as it is what subtler form her victimization might take. One need not assume any supernatural manifestation at all; it might be that she is simply a cruel, controlling woman whose behavior drives people to despair. One certainly doesn't know what she might have done to cause her husband's plane crash, or exactly what (if anything) happened to Miss Franklin's sister Lilian, whose belongings are for some reason stored in the castle. But in the case of Felicity, we have a little more to go on.

In the first place, there is something off about Felicity's willingness to travel halfway across Europe to stay at a ruined castle with an older woman she's only just met.  It's perhaps not insignificant that one of the subtexts of "Carmilla," and many other female vampire stories, is lesbianism. The reference to unspecified "talk" about Mrs Hastings could support such a reading (or any number of others, of course), and even the mention of "just a phase" could be so interpreted if one wished. Most interesting in this context is Miss Franklin's explanation of why Mrs Hastings came to Slovenia: "I should say it was simply to get away from the world of men." This, like several of her explanations, appears to be consciously disingenuous, trading on the difference between "men" as a species and "men" as a gender; it is at the very least suggestive. But in any case a sexual reading is hardly necessary, as the strongest intimations of strangeness around Mrs Hastings are not about love but about art.

If Felicity is to be believed, Mrs Hastings imprisons her simply to use her as a model. That could be motivation enough; she has great hopes for the work she does with Felicity's image, and it is, in Cust's judgment, "curious" and "astonishing;" he "had never seen anything like it." The tomb sculpture in her shape is "brilliantly suggestive" and a "masterpiece." More is involved than beauty, though; in one of the story's more bizarre moments, Mrs Hastings' statement that she is learning to paint in the dark "seemed perceptibly to shake the previously assured Miss Franklin." Is there something dangerous about her talent? A now-obscure allusion may be significant here.

When studying Mrs Hastings' library, Cust pulls out a book at random, Chris Massie's Corridor with Mirrors. This is a real novel, published in 1941 and therefore fairly recent at the 1951 publication of We Are for the Dark, but both it and its author are so poorly-known today as to have left little mark on the Internet. Any readers of this essay who are familiar with the book or the author are encouraged to leave a comment, but in the interim I must rely on this summary of a 1948 film version. If it's at all representative of the novel's plot, Aickman's allusion to the story of a woman shaped by an eccentric figure into the ideal female of his imagination may be a hint of how intense, ominous, and possibly supernatural is Mrs Hastings' interest in Felicity. Or it might just be that the title of that novel allows Aickman to bring up the absence of mirrors in the schloss.

Whatever her precise nature, Mrs Hastings is certainly a powerful personality. But by the end of the story one suspects she is not the most powerful woman in the castle. That dubious honor must go to the third member of the story's peculiar triad.

Miss Franklin: The Witch

I've suggested that Miss Franklin's answers to Cust's questions are sometimes dishonest. Three times she pauses before replying to him: when asked about the loud noise, when asked about Mrs Hastings' reason for leaving England, and when asked if she has any control over Felicity's appearances.  In the first instance, her answer is a lie with a hint of the truth; in the second, it's so ambiguous as to be meaningless. I would argue that the third answer is also dishonest: that Miss Franklin is in fact the source of the apparition of Felicity, and since that apparition is (savor the irony of her name) the reason the older women "must absent ourselves from that felicity [of leaving the schloss] a while," she has therefore imprisoned Mrs Hastings as thoroughly as Mrs Hastings once imprisoned Felicity. Cust himself, remembering Felicity's "fear and hatred" and "constant references to her rather than the sculptress," is on the verge of a similar conclusion, and back aways from it only out of fear.

Before going over the evidence for this proposition, it's worth looking at the relationship between the two older women. Felicity says, "They hate each other, of course," and Mrs Hastings' indifference to Miss Franklin's potentially fatal illness ("It's very tiresome of her and quite unnecessary") backs up that contention on one side. On the other, Miss Franklin shows no sign of warmth toward or about anything or anyone. It's unlikely such enmity was there from the beginning; Miss Franklin would hardly have taken so solitary a job with a woman she despised. One might speculate, then, that the mutual hatred began when Miss Franklin saw what Mrs Hastings was capable of, what she did to Felicity, to her husband, or to Miss Franklin's sister Lilian. Possessed of that knowledge, Miss Franklin apparently armed herself against becoming the next victim. As she says to Cust, after inexplicably unlocking her door without a key, "I have no intention of being trapped."

There are a few signs that she is linked to Felicity's appearances. It's Felicity herself who observes that Miss Franklin is always ill at these times, and Miss Franklin is said to have woken suddenly in the middle of the night, presumably around the time Felicity appeared or disappeared. But the largest clue is her amusement when Cust suggests a mundane cause for her illness, and the exchange that follows.
"Pneumonia?" Cust might have said rabies.

"I recollected your cold when we last met."

"Oh yes. That." Miss Franklin laughed. "I followed my sister Lilian's remedy."

"Your sister Lilian?"

"Two heaping tablespoonsfull of salt in a tumbler of water piping hot and drink it down."

"I see. It certainly seems to work like a charm."

"Well, it works, Mr Cust. Charms often don't and when they do you oftener wish they hadn't." She still looked extraordinarily ill and her hair was a disorganized heap; but she was fully dressed in an ugly brick-coloured frock.

"You know about charms?" inquired Cust lightly but, all recent events considered, fearing for the answer.

"I've been asleep for goodness knows how long. That's something I'm not used to at all. I think there must have been magic in the air." The sentimental cliche sounded ludicrously sinister.
Magic indeed. In this light, Miss Franklin's unflappable calm (I think especially of her "neat ladylike figure" and amused laughter during Mrs Hastings' fitful response to Felicity's appearance), and the statement that she loves her job, make a grim sense, as does her fear of Mrs Hastings' ability to paint in the dark: if the two women are in some way dueling forces, an unexpected advance on the part of one might endanger the other. And their relationship is psychologically rich as well; one hardly need invoke the supernatural to imagine dangerous power games, driven by secrets, in the dynamic between a servant and her mistress. Possible sexual interpretations of Mrs Hastings' behavior become interesting again here: Miss Franklin as abandoned lover, Miss Franklin as willing or unwilling procuress.

But whether one prefers a reading that involves sex or one that emphasizes other deep, mysterious drives, the psychological element is a constant. It's often true of Aickman that even when the narrative details of a story remain obscure, the philosophical and psychological weight is clear. Whatever the specific connections and secrets that were involved, all three of the story's female characters are trapped in the Schloss Marcantonio by networks of mutual need and loathing, and each is, despite evident flaws, tragic or pathetic in her own way. There is, as Miss Franklin suggests, no end in sight to their suffering, and Cust, who only spends a week with them, loses his job as a result of the contact. Not all Robert Aickman's stories are bleak, but the world of this one does seem to be an inescapable and permanent hell.

Open Questions

1. As mentioned above: how similar is Massie's novel to that film version? What further connections might be made by one who had read the book?

2. Names are important in Aickman. "Cust" is probably related to constancy and perseverance, which is rather funny in the circumstances, and the irony of "Felicity" has already been mentioned, but what about Lola Hastings and Poppy Franklin? Is there anything there? And why is it called the Schloss Marcantonio? A reference to the engraver? The composer? Someone else? My guess would be the first, but what would be the reason? Is there a specific work of his that might be relevant?

3. Is something particular meant by that bit about painting in the dark?

As ever, comments on these or any other aspects of the story are welcome.


  1. I haven't read the Chris Massie novel mentioned above, but Massie has a rather "Aickmanesque" short story called "A Fragment of Fact" in the first Pan Book of Horrors (published 1959, but I'm not sure if the story itself appeared somewhere else previously). I think it contains some resemblance to both "The Hospice" and "The Same Dog", although it's possibly (probably!) a coincidence. The story can be downloaded quite cheaply from Amazon if anyone's interested.

    Just wanted to add, this is a fantastic essay!