The Void Behind the Face of Order: Robert Aickman’s Strange Stories

A new collection of rare ghost stories by a British master of the form.

By Gregory MorrisonMay 29, 2018

The Void Behind the Face of Order: Robert Aickman’s Strange Stories

Compulsory Games by Robert Aickman. NYRB Classics. 368 pages.

HOW MANY HORROR STORIES are worth rereading? As with police procedurals, half the fun is in puzzling out the clues that lead to the denouement. But once the gears of plot have been exposed, and the mechanism has shaken the reader’s nerves, most horror stories are all used up. What’s left behind is a grotesque caravan: scarlet blood, snapping bones, and chilling screams, appearing with predictable regularity.

The English writer Robert Aickman didn’t deal in horror’s typical treats. If you wanted a good “sadistic thrill,” he once pointed out, you’d be better off reading the newspaper than the type of story he preferred. Aickman specialized in what he called “strange stories” — but what makes them so “strange,” exactly? Compulsory Games, a new collection of Aickman’s tales edited and introduced by Victoria Nelson, goes a long way toward answering that question.

Aickman was born a day before the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. In one of his memoirs, he wrote that “[n]othing that has happened in modern history, perhaps in all history, has approached in importance the strange debacle of 1914, when man ceased to run his own world.” There again, that crucial word — “strange.” By the time he was a grown man, there was another war. He did no service, having somehow convinced the British government that he was a conscientious objector. Yet the war came to him: a German bomb struck his mother’s house and killed her. Aickman heard the explosion; he was visiting, out on a walk with his wife.

It is perhaps not so surprising, then, that Aickman would devote his life to writing “strange stories.” What else could better express the nature of reality? He grew up in the shadow of his parents’ unhappy marriage (only when she signed the register did Aickman’s mother discover that her husband was 30 years older than she was), and Aickman found himself the prey of their thwarted longings for love and affection. He turned to books for companionship, and his bond with writing seems to have been his most permanent relationship; when he married, he claimed it was not out of love but due to “sympathy.”

Aickman’s stories take place “somewhere between psychic investigation and psychiatry.” The phrase comes from one of his critical essays, searching for the parameters of the ghost story, yet this definition fits his own writings very well. The stories in Compulsory Games are as eerie as folktales and as plausible as a crime scene report. In one, a young man finds himself in a love triangle, poised between two equally fascinating women. It seems like mere farce — until he starts confusing the two women, and catches someone watching him. And if this seems too clichéd — doppelgängers, temptresses — nothing prepares the reader for the last page, where the young man finds that his dream woman has always been waiting for him, at home.

For all his frissons, Aickman is also a remarkably comic and subtle writer. The effect is both hilarious and unnerving, as though there were some alternate universe where Kingsley Amis wrote The Turn of the Screw. He is the kind of writer to describe trees as “prematurely senile.” He refers to the “chatter of water,” describes the sun shining “as if for publicity.” He deploys a shrewd parody of the vampire hunter, a man with shellacked hair and powdered white skin, who claims “to have participated personally in all the most preposterous ceremonies with stakes, relics, and all that; all perfectly traditional in their way.” Nothing is more stinging than that final phrase, which makes all the Van Helsings seem as quaint as a bluegrass convention.

By the time that Aickman wrote, novels, movies, and pop culture had mined traditional folklore until everyone knew as much as the most devoted antiquarian. Every monster has their traditional weakness, each one predictably dispatched by the end. Once a vampire has disintegrated in sunlight, he becomes less than supernatural, more like an electrical appliance doused in water. All the routine solutions to supernatural problems had demolished real dread.

Hence Aickman’s “strange stories.” For him, the word “strange” seems to have been heavy with meaning. In one of the stories collected here, Aickman points out that strangeness “only happens when you’re not looking.” Perhaps it is something like Freud’s “uncanny” — that terrifying moment when everyday life suffers a sea change. Aickman was fascinated by incidents that rip apart the “foggy tissue of things seemingly under control,” when we glimpse “the spirit behind the appearance, the void behind the face of order.” This “foggy tissue” of rationality holds together because nothing domesticates like the conscious mind. Every decade produces its peculiar combination of the incredible, the grotesque, and the monstrous; and each new generation grows up taking those things for granted. To recover the strange means to scrape away the familiar, and it is no simple task to see again, with fresh eyes, what we witness every day.

In order to capture the strange, Aickman turned to dreams. From dreams came a new source of terror, a peculiar blend of anticipation and worry. Instead of treading the familiar paths of the horror story, Aickman made startling swerves into dream logic, where knowledge arrives without speaking, where today is both Tuesday and last Wednesday, where you are married already to an old cuckoo clock. Aickman uses dreams to transform the reader’s most basic question — “What happens next?” — into a desperate plea: “What is happening?”

Every monster was once a dream. Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein after a horrifying “waking dream,” and she realized that “[w]hat terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.” Dracula was born from a nightmare, after Bram Stoker ate too much dressed crab at dinner. Robert Louis Stevenson yelled at his wife for waking him from a nightmare, crying, “I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.” That “bogey tale” became The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. H. P. Lovecraft, the king of cosmic horror, also drew upon his dreams. He wrote in his commonplace book that “[m]an does not remember except in dreams”; more than 20 of his stories take place in a mysterious realm called the “Dreamlands,” an alternate reality that can only be entered in sleep.

Lately Lovecraft has been everywhere; his stamp is on HBO’s True Detective, probably the most popular example of cosmic horror in this century. His epigone Thomas Ligotti got written up in The New Yorker, and Penguin issued two of his story collections. An entire philosophical school has appeared, inspired by Lovecraft’s descriptions of “unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it.” His style of horror — full of ominous allusions, grotesque bodily distortion, and encounters with timeless alien races — has never been more popular. Lovecraft excites modern audiences because he breaks the chains of cause and effect. If the only real memories are in dreams, then when did those events happen? Which part of us saw those things happen? And what are those sectors of our souls doing while we submit to what we tend to think of as our real lives? In Lovecraft’s stories, readers can touch a new order of reality, a universe where “with strange aeons even death may die.”

So if Aickman also bends and twists our familiar reality, why is he nowhere near as famous as Lovecraft? Aickman is not a writer of sensation; he does not blare excitement into the corners of every sentence. Perhaps as a result, his books have become absurdly rare. As obscure authors tend to do, Aickman’s work has inspired a devoted coterie; even certain volumes of ghost stories are made precious by the fact that he wrote their introductions. The 2001 limited edition of his The Collected Strange Stories, published by Tartarus Press, now goes for over $500 on the used book market. Compulsory Games is only the third Aickman book that I have seen, as it were, in the flesh.

Also unlike Lovecraft, Aickman does not have a system. Lovecraft always hints at a vast supernatural architecture, one so dark and incomprehensible that it is hard to state explicitly. There are gods who have outlived death at the bottom of the ocean, creatures who have bred with humans to create weird hybrids, monsters who have left mysterious ruins in Antarctica. Lovecraft trots out his monstrous beings to explain things he finds inexplicable or awesome, such as the differences between races or the spectacular depths of human history. His stories are almost entirely devoid of overt sexual content.

Aickman, by contrast, is fascinated by sex, especially the lurking fear that men are more vulnerable than they might think. More often than not, Aickman’s male characters are inept or diffident, while his female characters are resourceful and curious. They’re also more often than not his tales’ villains. Yet, as Nelson points out in her introduction, Aickman is not a Victorian prude obsessed with femme fatales. He can describe sex in surprisingly fresh ways, and his stories suggest that, if men are often snagged by sexualized monsters, that condemns the men more than anyone. As he said about being haunted, “[g]hosts don’t hit you over the head; you do it yourself when you’re not thinking about it, and blame them for it because you can’t understand yourself.”

Even the hardcore Aickmanite will be tempted by this collection, since it includes several previously unpublished stories. Nelson has avoided the stories gathered in Cold Hand in Mine (1975), probably the author’s best-known collection. For the new reader, however, Nelson has made some odd choices. Rather more often than one might expect, the stories here include the familiar ghouls and vampires that Aickman generally tended to avoid. Puzzlingly, she has included the overlong and unsuspenseful “Residents Only,” in which mysterious events keep happening at a cemetery, with hints that the story will tie up loose ends, only to leave them frayed at the conclusion.

Nelson’s taste seems to favor the more fantastic side of Aickman. There are several stories that are more eerie and unsettling than terrifying. “No Time Is Passing,” “Just a Song at Twilight,” and “Raising the Wind” come to mind — tales that flip rationality over like an old log, dessicated on the surface but teeming underneath with a chaos of lizards and insects. Even her choice of the title story is revealing. In “Compulsory Games,” the spook that haunts the main character does not wear a sheet or layer of dirt from the grave; instead, Aickman finds terror in that most familiar white noise — the sound of an airplane crossing the sky.

In a spellbinding story about courtship, “Hand in Glove,” two young women explore what appears to be an abandoned rectory in the English countryside. They are surprised by the appearance of a drab, mysterious woman, who speaks in enigmatic, riddling phrases. Struggling with a broken heart, one of the young women says that “the whole thing seems so trivial, so unreal. So absurd, even. Never really there at all. Utterly not worth the melodrama.” To which the sibyl replies, “And the same is true of faith, of poetry, of a walk around a lake, of existence itself.”

Absurdity, in Aickman’s stories, refuses to stay locked up. As soon as the ridiculousness of one small piece of existence is admitted, the rot spreads; pretty soon, the most durable parts of daylight life seem to be no more real or trustworthy than the flitting fragments of a dream. Aickman’s stories encourage the reader to open up Pandora’s box and see what happens next.


Gregory Morrison lives in Virginia.

LARB Contributor

Gregory Morrison lives in Virginia.


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