Friday, June 5, 2015

The Strangers and Other Writings

I've thought for a while now that one of the great desiderata in the analysis of supernatural fiction is a biographical-critical study of Robert Aickman. Of course there are his autobiographies (as yet, alas, unread by me), and there's been a fair amount of quality analysis of his superficially baffling stories, but many aspects of the man's life and thought remain obscure, and as those who knew him best grow older, it seems more and more likely that they'll remain so. That's not the worst thing in the world-- with a writer like Aickman, the notion even offers a fitting irony-- but it is a shame. Happily for Aickman devotees, Tartarus Press has recently offered the next best thing to a full analysis: a collection of unpublished and uncollected work by Aickman, both fiction and non-fiction, accompanied by a documentary on his life and work. The Strangers and Other Writings is, like Tartarus's Sarban miscellany Discovery of Heretics, interesting not so much for the intrinsic merit of the included writing (though in both cases some of its is very fine) as for what it reveals about its author. It scarcely needs saying that no reader seriously interested in Aickman should miss their chance to own this collection.

The fiction will likely be of more interest to most readers, and it is, to my mind, more consistently rewarding than the non-fiction, even though a higher percentage of the former is early work. Five of the seven stories unquestionably date from the late 1930s and early 1940s, before Aickman took to the allusive, psychologically suggestive strange stories for which he is best known. Most of these are horror stories of one type or another, and certain elements of both plot and atmosphere are recognizably Aickmanesque, but the overall impression is of a writer casting around for his voice. "The Case of Wallingford's Tiger" is a bit of a conte cruel, not dissimilar in plot to something Roald Dahl might have written a couple decades later, but told in a style that tries for compressed comic effect and instead comes off clotted and off-putting. The same is true of "A Disciple of Plato," a sort of historical romance and the longest of these early stories, though still quite short by Aickman's usual standard. There's a kind of comedy that works by describing simple situations in delicate or elaborate language, amusing with its verbosity and covering over the familiarity of its tropes; but in inexpert hands the approach becomes tedious, and the young Aickman was far from a master. Ill-executed attempts at cleverness are uniquely vexing. The concept of the story is not without interest, and there are flashes of competent writing, but this was clearly not Aickman's forte.

More rewarding are the other three early stories. "The Whistler" is, I think, accomplished enough that it would be a well-regarded if minor story even apart from the Aickman connection. It's a kind of intensely stylized psychological horror that's miles away from what Aickman would do later (in fact it reminds me of some other author or work in particular, but I can't at the moment think just who or what), but the disjointed, unsettling stream-of-consciousness is quite well achieved. It could stand to be fleshed out a little further, but it more than any of the other early works it has merit in its own right. "The Coffin House" feels like a precis of a full Robert Aickman story-- travelers, a mysterious residence, social unease with eerie overtones, and a horrible revelation, all within six pages-- though the psychological intricacy has been traded off for luridness of plot (and an ending that is far from ambiguous). "The Flying Anglo-Dutchman" has a lighter tone than most Aickman, social comedy rather than social unease, though its setting and subject matter are more familiar.

The last two stories in the fiction section are of later vintage. The title story is listed as "date unknown," but an internal reference appears to set its terminus a quo as 1955 at the earliest, and more probably 1960,* so it belongs with Aickman's more mature work. And it is, in fact, recognizably a strange story, though the narration has more of a casual, comic touch than is usual in mature Aickman, where the humor is of a more brittle variety. Certainly the interplay of high culture, sex, and death is classically Aickmanesque. Readers who admire the fiction but don't care much about the writer or his development should still consider buying the collection for this story alone. It lacks, perhaps, the air of sophistication and polish of stories that he prepared for publication, but make no mistake: this is fully-fledged Aickman, and as such inimitably atmospheric.

The fiction ends with "The Fully-Conducted Tour," written for radio broadcast in 1976 and published in Tartarus' journal Wormwood several years ago. Even more recognizably Aickman than "The Strangers," it is nonetheless less satisfying. Sometimes very short Aickman stories work quite well ("The Cicerones" comes to mind), but at other times they feel underdeveloped, and that's especially the case here, though an echo, or a ghost, of the full effect can still be felt.

The non-fiction, which makes up more than half of the volume, can be difficult going. There are essays we read for insights into the subjects discussed, and there are essays we read insights into the one doing the discussing. Aickman's are the latter. There are good points here and there, but his was not, I think, a mind well-equipped for subtle commentary on many topics; his convictions were too wide and too deeply felt. At times, as when he pronounces that "every time you buy a washing machine or a motor car instead of a Shakespeare or a guitar you bring [Orwell's] 1984 nearer," he sounds like a tedious if erudite old crank. But it's fascinating to see him responding to the high and low culture of his day, from Animal Farm to Gentleman's Agreement, from Delius to Russell Kirk. And there are moments of genuine pleasure: his evisceration of the high-minded stiltedness of major American films, his rambling verbal tour of the river Avon, and "Some Notes on Delius," which may or may not have anything to say about Delius (I wouldn't know) but which certainly illuminates Aickman's aesthetic sensibilities as well as anything he ever wrote. The section is rounded out by excerpts from Aickman's writing for the bulletin of the Inland Waterways Association, which certainly capture his zeal for the organization's ends. There are also a couple poems.

The accompanying 53-minute documentary, Robert Aickman, Author of Strange Tales, provides a solid overview of the life and work. The visual presentation isn't flashy, but it more than gets the job done; brief clips from film and TV adaptations provide a balance to talking heads and static images. Personal friends Jean Richardson and Heather and Graham Smith provide insight into Aickman the man, while writers Jeremy Dyson and Reggie Oliver talk about the impact of his writing. Dyson is charming and enthusiastic, Oliver thoughtful and insightful. I suppose neither really has much to say that will surprise those already well-acquainted with Aickman, but then that level of discussion is outside the remit of a project like this. The most tantalizing part of the documentary is clips from audio recordings of Aickman reading his own stories. While he was not by any means a natural reader, there's something fascinating about his delivery, and one can only hope that eventually these recordings will be available in their own right.

In the past few years Tartarus Press has done Aickman readers a great service by bringing out virtually all of his writings in handsome, durable, comparatively inexpensive editions. The Strangers is the capstone to that achievement. Someday, perhaps, we will have that full-length study of Aickman I dream of. If it is ever to be written, the work collected in The Strangers will doubtless prove invaluable. As a "behind-the-scenes" look at the evolution of a writer and a quasi-philosopher, this volume could hardly be bettered.

*Unless, that is, there's another song with the lyric "Where have all the young men gone?" than the US folk song written in the earlier year and not widely performed or recorded until the later one.