by Robert Aickman
NYRB Classics (2018)
I hadn’t read anything by Robert Aickman until listening to a great episode of Backlisted Pod that featured Aickman’s work (see it here). In it, they read one of Aickman’s stories. It struck a chord, and I started reading Aickman here and there. What I found were stories that felt, as they began, quite mundane, normal but that, with slight shifts in tone, a sentence just slightly off, twisted and flickered into . . . I don’t quite know how to put it . . . something eerie, unsettling. They’re fantastic.
Unsettling is a distinct feeling, personal, intimate, and yet it’s the word I come across again and again as I search for other reader’s responses to Aickman’s stories. His stories get into us. He takes the recognizable world of seemingly mundane interactions and disassembles its internal logic bit by bit, in ways that feel all too real, just too uncomfortably recognizable, like a nightmare seeping into the quotidian.
Here’s a bit of what I mean. His story “Hand in Glove” begins this way:
When Millicent finally broke it off with Nigel and felt that the last tiny bit of meaning had ebbed from her life (apart, of course, from her job), it was natural that Winifred should suggest a picnic, combined with a visit, “not too serious,” as Winifred put it, to a Great House.
That’s a matter-of-fact way to express a matter-of-fact event: a woman has just broken it off with her boyfriend. But we notice that perhaps it’s a bit too matter-of-fact with things like a buried “and felt that the last tiny bit of meaning had ebbed from her life” and then the strange parenthetical “apart, of course, from her job.” It’s just slightly off.
As Millicent and Winifred visit the Great House (Winnifred has playfully chosen Baddeley End), they keep noticing things that seem slightly off, too. There is a church door with no handle, mushrooms sprouting up where they weren’t a moment before, and cows. Yes, the cows are slightly off! They meet a woman who knows the area and understands what Millicent is going through, telling her she knows the one way to mend a broken heart.
“Tell me,” said Millicent. “What is the one way to mend a broken heart?” She spoke as if in capital letters.
“You know what it is.” said Miss Stock. “It is to kill the man who has broken it. Or at least to see to it that he dies.”
“Yes, I imagined it was that,” said Millicent.
Soon Nigel shows up, uninvited, and also slightly off! It’s all very strange, indeed.
I was ecstatic when NYRB Classics announced they’d be releasing a collection of fifteen of his stories, including the aforementioned “Hand in Glove.” That collection, Compulsory Games, is now out, and I think it’s a must-have.
Compulsory Games presents story after story where the scaffolding that seems secure is missing a few screws, threatening to come down, though maybe just with one slippery board at a time. In doing this Aickman primarily explores human interaction, particularly between couples. In the title story, a man’s wife starts to become indistinguishable from a neighbor he and his wife used to look down on: “It was becoming quite difficult to detach, or even distinguish, the memory of Grace from the memory of Eileen. Incredible! But after life has begun to run away from us, nothing is ever again really credible, nor does it matter.” The story ends with some threatening events from the sky.
So, yes, there are many things that turn out to be unnatural, but the unnatural is used to manifest the psychological warping in the physical world. In “Le Miroir,” for example, a young woman’s reflection becomes out of synch. Or so she thinks. It’s a nicely unsettling — that word — set up for something much more poignant:
How long could it have been before Celia, despite her precautions, caught her own eye in the glass and realised that she must be middle-aged and beyond all chance of concealment? And, needless to say, it had happened at that same dreadful morning hour when the brightness of the sun is equalled only by the blackness of the heart.