Grandson of the Victorian Gothic novelist Richard Marsh - author of the occult bestseller The Beetle - the late Robert Aickman did not lick it off the stones when it came to a quiet, patient spookiness in his masterful stories.
Marriage is an atmospheric story which would appear to be set in the kind of impecunious post-war London years of dutiful civil servants and clerks and shop assistants, of Welsh rarebit, of mustard- and-cress-patterned divans and women’s clothes described with a kind of neurotic attention to detail which only accentuates the zany strangeness of it all. It is as though Aickman took the world of Barbara Pym, his almost exact contemporary - he lived between 1914 and 1981 and she between 1913 and 1980 - and made it utterly strange.
Ponder the playfully resonant names in the stories - the author picks the most unusual handles with which to saddle his creations. The hapless protagonist in Marriage, for instance is one Laming Gatestead, who meets Helen Black one evening in a London theatre. They begin a courtship that mostly involves going to see plays to discuss actors and actresses afterwards and before, a dynamic which enhances the dream or fantasy element in the tale. At Helen's modest flat, Laming meets the mysteriously reticent Ellen Brown, who appears to be Helen’s flatmate and who utterly bedazzles him. Ellen goes on to seduce him, but Laming’s pleasure is tarnished by a fleeting vision of Helen in the quiet corner of a city park where she blankly watches him canoodling with Ellen.
On it goes, the women are like two fantasies, either side of the one coin; Ellen, the sultry seductress who represents sexuality without limits, and Helen who appears to represent a conventional paragon of chaste womanhood.
It is as though Luis Buñuel swooped down into London for a cooler, Northern European version of the film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Neither girl suggests that the other knows anything remotely about the other’s involvement with the young man. Were this a conventional plot, it would have begun to thicken at this point as Laming begins to spot both girls separately around London when and where he least expects to spot them. The story is strange yet runs along logical rails and Aickman has a precise, pithy style and conjures atmosphere with particular skill.
Residents Only is an almost Kafkaesque reading of a bureaucracy gently riven and prodded by the aspirations of borough councillors and a rather self-regarding cemetery committee. The story is set in the confines - or around the borders of - a graveyard that turns into a festering, putrescent jungle before it is finally rescued in a particularly strange Gothic denouement. I am still pondering the ending, it is entirely opaque and off-the-wall.
Yet, as the story begins, it seems entirely plausible and faithful to the characters it sets out to depict but becomes increasingly odd, following the death of a cemetery caretaker, or Controller as he is pedantically termed (Aickman has an eye for such small but telling detail.)
Victoria Nelson, author of a particularly illuminating introduction to this collection and indeed its editor, doesn't draw our attention to Aickman's oddball humour as such. Yet one could imagine the author laughing up his sleeve as he takes the mickey out of the classic London ghost story. In Residents Only, he does this by pulling the reader in various directions to kind of arrive back where we started. We never quite know what’s going on with the various cemetery caretakers who live in the so-called Lodge, and Aickman doesn’t care that we don’t. Who needs progress in a story, or the usual plot development, smirks the author, when you can have instead a delicious satire about self-regarding minor politicians, petty ambitions and risible in-fighting?
Wood is set in `East Anglia' and the use of that ancient term for the region must have had a curiously anachronistic tinge, even for Aickman's first readers 60 or 70 years ago, although I am open to correction on this. The zany yarn becomes increasingly off the wall as it unfolds. Once again, the reader can sense the author having fun and letting his imagination run riot, but it's a controlled riot.
A bachelor, somewhat set in his ways, and living in rooms above a village post office marries an undertaker's daughter. Soured by some bad experience with Revenue, he makes a few bob fashioning weather clocks from straw, curiosities which sell as souvenirs. His fiancée, the more forceful partner, sets in train a conjugal obsession with wood and coffins, or "boxes" as she calls them, showing a distinct lack of empathy of the kind one might reasonably expect from an undertaker's daughter.
The story is told by the groom's best man who, though no longer friends with the groom - the couple move to another district - witnesses, or imagines that he witnesses, a bizarre vision from the life of the married pair, involving the eponymous wood and a life-size weather clock. Totally cuckoo, in other words, but Compulsory Games comes highly recommended.