I recently read two books of Robert Aickman’s “strange stories” (as he himself called them), Painted Devils and Cold Hand in Mine, and I’ve been having a terrible time phrasing my thoughts on them in any succinct way. To begin with, Aickman’s stories are mysterious in the extreme. Although much of my job involves textual analysis, I was simply unable to understand what happened in some of the stories, let alone what it meant. It took me some time to realize that some of them are simply not to be resolved by the reader: like the protagonists, if you fight the supernatural forces in the stories, if you try to reason with them or force them into a mundane explanation, you are doomed. If, however, you can be content not to understand, or almost to understand, then you may even benefit from the encounter.
None of this is to say that I didn’t like the stories, or found them irritating. On the contrary, I thought they were wonderful — exquisitely written, full of fascinating themes of yearning, of relationships between men and women, and of the kind of fear that is all the worse because there is no way of coming to grips with it. What is real and what is delusion? What does the protagonist really see and what is he led to believe he sees, in the dark, in the mist, in the woods? There are small, ghastly, unbelievable happenings (a girl’s hand comes off during sex, and then she puts it back on), inexplicable situations (a hospice in the back of beyond that seems to be part asylum, part prison, and perhaps a trap), and beings that may or may not be ghosts (a dog that menaces the same boy after twenty years’ absence.) The dead come to life. There is an abyss in the back yard that reveals an infernal metropolis. Everything to do with the passage of time and the mechanization of society is ruination and despair. And only by surrendering to this fast-flowing river of the eerie can Aickman’s protagonists survive, let alone prosper.
If you are the kind of reader who likes a nice, neat story, in which every piece of the puzzle is in place by the end, I advise you to stay far, far away from Aickman. If, however, you can move comfortably with mystery, if you love good writing and a sense that the mystery lasts longer than the explanation, then run, don’t walk, to a good used bookstore and find some of Aickman’s strange stories. I’d suggest starting with his oustanding collection The Wine-Dark Sea, but I haven’t read anything of his I didn’t like.
Incidentally, I was given The Wine-Dark Sea by a dear friend. I love it when I’m given books that I wind up re-reading and recommending to others. What’s the book you tend to give other people, to get them hooked on something you love?