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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Monday, February 7, 2011

Who's for the dark?

I must have read hundreds of ghost stories when I was a child. For years they were my favourite reading; I especially enjoyed the Armada collections for children, in which I encountered classics like 'The Monkey's Paw', a brief tale that never loses the power to shock. M R James is the supreme master of the supernatural tale, and the impact of 'Lost Hearts', augmented by a terrifying TV adaptation, resonated for years. I loved ghosts, but eventually moved on to the looser category of the supernatural or 'strange' story, where nothing so straightforward as an errant spirit explains the action.

Such tales are fiendishly difficult to pull off; the best must combine literary elegance, a degree of novelty and most of all a devastating payoff. Reading voraciously, I tended to remember stories, not authors; two in particular took up permanent residence in my brain. In one, 'The Inner Room', a young woman visits a strange house which, she gradually realises, resembles a doll's house she possessed as a child. I couldn't even remember the name of the other story, but it involved two female hikers, a house by a railway line and a murder. Both stories were hauntingly unresolved. It wasn't until years later that I rediscoved them, and found that they had both been written by the same man: Robert Aickman.

With the collection The Wine-Dark Sea I dipped into a rich and compelling oeuvre. Although he is the least formulaic of authors, many of the stories involve the simple device of a person moving to a strange environment and finding there the perfect setting for their undoing. 'Never Visit Venice' breathes new death into that hackneyed (in literary terms) city, as an unwitting tourist accepts a free gondola ride. (Robert Girardi's superb ghost novel, Vaporetto 13, is a longer riff on the theme.) In the title story, a man discovers a Greek island suspended in a dreamlike state of hedonism; 'The Trains' (so that's what it's called) clearly went right over my head first time round with its brooding atmosphere of sexual coercion and perversion, and 'Into The Wood', perhaps Aickman's masterpiece, is a novella worthy of Thomas Mann, about a woman who discovers an eerie sanitorium for people who never sleep.

The more I investigated, the more small masterpieces I found: 'The Cicerones' features a man who encounters a series of peculiarly insistent guides in a cathedral near closing time, with a glorious last line; 'The Swords' and 'The Same Dog' seem to break all the rules of weird fiction and indeed the laws of physics. Neil Gaiman has aptly commented that with Aickman, it's as though a magic trick is being performed; not only do you not know how the trick has been done, you don't even know what the trick is. One of Aickman's characteristics is to put in a great deal of seemingly irrelevant backstory, which has the effect of having you search fruitlessly for clues (he isn't going to do anything as obvious as plant them there). But the elaboration all forms part of the total effect, adding richness and depth. His method is always oblique.

Aickman is so good at creating horrible images from purely verbal effects that it had to be pointed out to me by a fellow enthusiast that he can also be very funny. The predicament of the tourist in 'The Cicerones' is comical as well as horrifying, and there is a dark humour even in 'The Trains', although it's the godlike humour of an indifferent creator laughing at his creations.

Elizabeth Jane Howard was a close friend to this rather odd fish and collaborated with him on an anthology, We Are For The Dark (1951). Her story, 'Three Miles Up', about a hellish canal journey, is thoroughly Aickmanesque in tone, worthy to set alongside the master. As he also wrote books about inland waterways, its subject is also clearly an affectionate homage.

Aickman has always been a hard author to track down, a name murmured only by the conoscenti. Faber Finds has come to the rescue and reprinted some of his collections at a modest price. They are highly recommended. Part of me wants everyone to read him, and part of me wants to keep him as a secret known only to the few.

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