Halloween Season Reading
James J. O'Meara
“Aickman, Robert. Man of Mystery”
The Late Breakfasters and Other Strange Stories
London: Victor Gollancz, 1964; Bath: Cedric Chivers, 1978; London: Faber Finds, 2014.
Richmond, Va.: Valancourt, 2016 (with 6 additional stories and a new Introduction by Philip Challinor)
“Those, if any, who wish to know more about me should plunge beneath the frivolous surface of The Late Breakfasters.” — Robert Aickman
It had to happen.
Constant Readers, noting my interest in Lovecraft and other weird writers, have from time to time suggested that I write something on Robert Aickman, or, if I haven’t read him, I should do some instanter. With typical mulishness, I’ve resisted until now.
But with 2014 being his centenary, several reprints have appeared, of which, not unexpectedly, the most valuable and interesting is provided by Valancourt with this republication of Aickman’s first novel (actually, the first publication in the USA) along with six of his “strange stories” (as he preferred to call them).
Here’s how his main publisher, Faber, describes him:
Robert Fordyce Aickman was born in 1914 in London. He was married to Edith Ray Gregorson from 1941 to 1957. In 1946 the couple, along with Tom and Angela Rolt, set up the Inland Waterways Association to preserve the canals of Britain. It was in 1951 that Aickman, in collaboration with Elizabeth Jane Howard, published his first ghost stories in a volume entitled We Are for the Dark. Aickman went on to publish seven more volumes of ‘strange stories’ as well as two novels and two volumes of autobiography. He also edited the first eight volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories. He died in February 1981.
Perhaps it’s typical British reticence, but one can’t help but notice the absence of, well, awards, which the “science fiction and fantasy community” seems to give out with some velocity, to judge from the way they crop up on paperback covers. And indeed, there is a Science Fiction Awards Database, consulting which we learn that Aickman was nominated for the World Fantasy Awards’ Lifetime Achievement award in 1975, losing to Robert Bloch, but also — weirdly — winning that same year for the story “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal”; then, in 1981, winning the British Fantasy Award for “Stains.” Before and after, bupkis, although the posthumous Collected Strange Stories (Tartarus/Durtro) was again nominated for the BFA in 2000.
Aickman, then, seems to be one of those curious characters who is not really “unknown,” but emerges from obscurity to recognition among his peers without, actually, achieving much fame. Indeed, Mike Ashley, who wrote Aickman’s obit in the Times, writes elsewhere that
Aickman’s writings are an acquired taste like fine wines. I have no doubt that his work will always remain unknown to the majority of readers, and perhaps he would have wanted it that way. He wrote what and how he wanted, for expression, not for popularity. In another of his letters to me he said ‘I have received a good deal of esteem, but never a big commercial success, and am usually wondering whether anything by me will ever be published again.’ . . . It is astonishing that someone of Aickman’s stature should have difficulty in selling his work. Perhaps now, too late for Aickman’s benefit, someone will have the sense to publish it.
Sounds quite a bit like Lovecraft, that; though Aickman did get a lot more conventional success during his lifetime, and the “someone with sense” has been established publishers like Faber and, now, Valancourt, rather than a fan in Wisconsin. In fact, we’ll soon see that there’s very little the two share in common.
One thing they do share is an aversion to the modern age. The clever reader will recall that Aickman was born in 1914, which fact apparently determined his whole mentality, if not his whole life.
“Nothing that has happened in modern history, perhaps is all history, has approached in importance the strange débâcle of 1914, when man ceased to run his own world.”
Lovecraft, of course, thought himself a man out of his proper time, which seemed to be the 18th century, but that would seem to be a personal idiosyncrasy, though amplified by his father’s death and the family’s eventual expulsion from the house of his wealthy grandfather, beginning a spiral into ever-increasing though genteel poverty that continued right until his early death at 47.
In Aickman’s case, few would dispute that 1914 was the great watershed for Western civilization, Europe, the White Race, take your pick. Nevertheless, he too had personal reasons to fixate on “what he regarded as an idyllic past,” involving a rather different but equally distressing parental unit:
Twenty-three when she married William Aickman, she [Mabel Violet] discovered, much to her surprise, upon signing the register, that her husband was fifty-three. The marriage was very distressing for Mabel. Robert was conceived on her wedding night. Mabel later told her son that “it was worse than I could ever have believed possible.” Robert later wrote “My father remains the oddest man I have ever known. . . . As I knew him he was impossible to live with, to be married to, to be dependent upon.”
Challinor, in his useful Introduction — which conveys a maximum of biographical and critical information in a minimum of space — adds that “his mother hinted strongly that the ordeal was never repeated,” and that the father was “impractical, inconsiderate, utterly self-centred and prone to daily tantrums . . . an object of dread to his son and festering resentment from his wife.”
Now here was my first experience of the weird in reading Aickman; like one of Lovecraft’s time-shifted narrators, I was face to face with my own biography!
Anyway, apart from Crawford’s just-mentioned Robert Aickman: An Introduction (an excellent work, by the way, and not at all one of those tedious 900 page modern biographies), I also prepared for my encounter with Aickman by returning to Joshi’s The Modern Weird Tale.
Joshi’s chapter on Aickman — “Robert Aickman: ‘So Little is Definite’” appears in Chapter V, distressingly entitled “Pseudo-, Quasi-, and Anti-Weird Fiction” — is a mixed bag, which starts by telling us that Aickman is “an exceptionally odd writer” and goes on to say that
There are few writers who are as purely pleasurable to read, regardless of their subject matter or the success or failure of their actual work. . . . His major literary influences . . . appear to be M. R. James and Walter de la Mare, yet he excels the former in richness and variety of texture and the latter in the sustained intensity of all his literary work.
and concludes that
His purely literary gifts — a prose style of impeccable fluidity, urbanity, and elegance; a high sensitivity to those nuance and detail productive of a weird scenario; a keen insight into all aspects of human psychology, not merely those touching upon the strange; and some very powerful weird conceptions that do not require copious, or any, bloodletting for their effectiveness — make his work a triumph.
But Joshi has some grievances with Aickman, and in between those quotes he airs them pretty fully. Here as elsewhere in The Modern Weird Tale and indeed throughout his writings, Joshi is one of those “rational” sort of people who get extremely upset if someone should disagree with, or simply think otherwise than, Joshi himself.
First off, for Joshi, Lovecraft set the criterion for what weird fiction is, and woe betide the writer who proceeds otherwise. Science is accepted in toto and at its most materialistic and deterministic level; the weird effect arises from an apparent exception to the rules.
Aickman, like Machen and Blackwood, is so intent on shaking us from our ingrained rationalism that he wishes to present the inexplicable simply as such.
He seems to have felt that the mere creation of a sense of the inexplicable was a sufficient purpose for weird writing.
The only philosophy I can detect in the mass of Aickman’s fiction is the idea that the world is a little odder than it seems to be.
As for the stories that don’t “make sense,” it seems that their effectiveness will depend, firstly, upon a given reader’s tolerance for the lack of explanation and, secondly, a sensitivity to the particular images and symbols utilized by Aickman in the story in question.
Tolerance is not Joshi’s strong suit. Thus, although “My Poor Friend” is one of the few stories here that really achieves something of a weird effect (more on that later), it drives Joshi to near distraction:
If the children are birdlike creatures, how can they be the offspring of a woman who appears to be more or less human? Aickman has simply failed to provide a sufficient rationale for the birth of these anomalous creatures. Contrast Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth”: the idea of fish creatures mating with humans to produce loathsome hybrids is probably equally ridiculous scientifically, but it contains that aesthetic logic which the supernatural tale requires if it is not to lapse into absurdity and unbelievability. Because Aickman has not laid the foundations properly, the result seems arbitrary: why bird creatures as opposed to anything else?
Secondly, and relatedly, Joshi is also, unsurprisingly, a dogmatic “skeptic” and atheist, always on the look-out for those who stray from the party line that “it’s all just make believe.” So when Aickman, in one of his eight Fontana Great Ghost Story collections, says that
It is my belief and my experience that “paranormal phenomena” do occur; and my opinion that the future well-being of man might be forwarded by more attention being paid to them. There is evidence that a mystical, clairvoyant faculty of a most practical kind is commonly taken for granted in many “primitive” societies . . . and is merely bred out and killed off by industrialism, compulsory education, and the belief that every question has an answer.
Joshi sneeringly refers to this as a “confession” and tartly retorts:
I hardly know how to respond to this farrago of nonsense . . . it never seems to occur to Aickman, foe to all modernism that he is, that clairvoyance has been beaten out of modern man because it is very likely to be false.
“Beaten out” — there’s the voice of pure rationality! Challinor provides a far less dogmatic and choleric suggestion for reading Aickman; rather than merely accepting the post-1914 world and consoling oneself with some cosmic thrills, Aickman challenges the modern age and its “hollowed-out pettiness” and offers at least an attempted cure, a pathway back home:
[Aickman] wrote . . . that a good ghost story, by transcending mechanical modernity, “can bring real joy.” . . . [He] conceived the weird tale to be an art form related to poetry; and his own best fictions are less stories of supernatural events than stories which induce a sense of the supernatural, whether threatening, transcendental or both. Anyone can write about a ghost, but with Aickman’s work it is the tales themselves that haunt.
Although he occasionally slips into an outright, blunt denunciation of the stupidity and boredom of the modern world — and who can blame him? — and the seeming impossibility of even a moment of even the most banal promesse de bonheur, Aickman’s basic tack is to simply ignore the beastly world (his geography, unlike Lovecraft’s, is quite vague) and its paltry logic, and just create what he called “strange stories” in which, now and again, someone is vouchsafed some brief moment of wonder or at least terror. As Joshi says, he is “intent on shaking us from our ingrained rationalism.”
Can it be coincidence that two stories in this collection of six alone have a major character retort some variation of “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies”?
“So,” he said, summing up everything. “So there it is.” (“Rosamund’s Bower”)
Well then, what of these tales themselves?
I have to say, there are quite a mixed bag — though not nearly as deadly as Trump Jr.’s bowl of Skittles.
The aforementioned “My Poor Friend” is probably the most weirdly effective, the bird-children, while being disturbing in themselves, serving to provide at least a glimpse of another reality than the dreary world of postwar British parliamentary bureaucracy that provides the setting; the details based, no doubt, on Aickman’s experiences as the chairman of the Inland Waterways.
Despite Joshi’s alarm, Aickman is hardly a paranormal crank, and “Larger Than Oneself” is an effective satire of mystical tomfoolery and “ersatz spirituality, which are” — says Challinor — “so grindingly trivial and mundane that not even the Devil’s own wife — herself the very soul of banality — can put up with them for long.”
There’s even a passing swipe at our favorite New Thinker, Neville:
“And what do you make of it all?” The accent was transatlantic. . . . “There’s just nothing that can’t be had if you’ll give your soul for it. . . . And what do you think?”
“You know, Neville, I’ve found that much of the best modern thought, the really deep stuff, now comes from inside the Salvation Army.”
Yet the mystical element isn’t the Devil’s wife but rather a climax of “transcendent illumination, accessible [again, note the elitist presumption] to a select few and comprehensible to even fewer.”
Other tales are, well, just meh. “Mark Ingestre: The Customer’s Tale” is a pointless exercise of re-writing Sweeny Todd in Olde Tymey prose worthy of Lovecraft at his worst, while “Rosamund’s Bower” sticks to modern lingo but really just re-writes Orlando.
“That depends upon whether you are sleeping or waking,” said the page, who, though arrayed as a boy-page, was very obviously a girl-page.
All, however, have those “characteristic touches” that Challinor evidences from “A Roman Question” (which he calls “perhaps the nearest thing to a conventional ghost story in this book”), such as
The séance carried out with the perfectly logical aid of sugar lumps [or] the apparently extraneous oddity (this case, the dead body of a horse), which later takes on a new and chilling significance.
Ah, “chilling,” there’s the rub. Is all this “chilling” or even the nearest thing to it? Well, far be it from me to disagree with everyone from Joshi to Ramsey Campbell to Peter Stroud, but it’s not really all that “chilling.” The stories do create a mood of sorts, especially if read one after the other, and one keeps waiting for the payoff, but it never really arrives.
And I’m hardly a fan of what Joshi calls the “slovenliness, crudity, and gratuitous violence that increasingly passes for weird fiction nowadays” to which he finds Aickman to be “a wondrously refreshing contrast” yet if “his younger contemporaries could learn much from him about . . . the weird tale; but I do not think many of them are listening,” I think I can see why.
It’s rather like the stories told by the guests at Beams in the novel, The Late Breakfasters:
The endless stories tended to begin admirably and to hold out real promise; but after a time it always became apparent that there was to be no climax, point, or even real conclusion. The stories were simply long rakes, designed to turn over as many memories as possible.
So, let’s turn to the novel, which, after all, my kindle tells me takes up about exactly 2/3s of the book.
Impressed by Aickman’s first few stories, the literary agent Herbert van Thal — to whom the book is dedicated — suggested tackling a novel; then as now, and as in Lovecraft’s time, publishers or at least agents seem possessed by the idea that the public will only go for novels, not short stories or even “the dear, the blessed nouvelle” of Henry James.
Here, though, the instinct seems correct; despite writing 40 or so “strange stories” and one, early, novel, I think the latter is preferable, at least to the stories here.
I don’t mean for the reader to infer that these tales are not worth reading — certainly not in comparison with that “weird fiction nowadays” stuff. But, the real pleasures here less those of Valancourt’s other weird fiction, such as John Metcalfe’s The Feasting Dead (reviewed here) or The Beetle (written by Richard Marsh, Aickman’s grandfather, it out-sold Dracula) and more like those of their reprints of mid-century British fiction, such as Michael Nelson’s A Room in Chelsea Square.
Indeed, while Nelson’s novel is a jaundiced morality tale of decidedly un-gay homosexuals, Aickman’s novel is — “surprisingly,” as Joshi says — a “sensitive and poignant story of lesbianism.” Aickman himself called it “feminist tract, a lesbian love story, a spoof of the upper classes, a screed against communism and the unwashed masses, and I suppose the death of a particular way of life.”
What it really resembles is one of those midcentury, Angry Young Man picaresques, such as Lucky Jim or John Wain’s Hurry on Down (another Valancourt, a study of downward mobility worthy of Lovecraft). You might not think the picaresque has much to do with the weird or strange tale, but in Aickman’s case it’s a surprisingly good fit.
You see, the picaresque — from Lazarillo de Tormes to Lucky Jim, or James Purdy’s Malcolm, or even such academic favorites as John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor or even William Gaddis’ The Recognitions — depends more or less self-consciously on large amounts of luck, pluck, and coincidence to move its plot along, which seems to go well with stories of young heroes setting out to make their way in a heartless world, kicking against the pricks.
Thus, for example, there’s usually an elderly, eccentric millionaire, perhaps a relative of the love interest, who provides a do-nothing job in London at just the right moment, so that the hero can escape his provincial life and elope with the girl.
Shorn of the need to provide shamefacedly absurd explanations along such lines, as well as Joshi’s demand for “logical explanation,” Aickman is free to move his plot along, using weird little set pieces that are rather like mini-strange tales.
In its sudden disappearances, strange, inexplicable events, and a completely surreal ending, it presents the same world-view expressed in the ghost stories.
Indeed, it is little more than a “train of events” that the heroine, Griselda “never got to the bottom of” any more than the reader does.
The “Envoi” with its conclusion that “she knew that if only Louise were there, then indeed would she be whole” recalls Fr. Rolfe’s Desire and Pursuit of the Whole; and while Rolfe’s novel again bears more of a resemblance to A Room in Chelsea Square with its love lost-and-regained-sort-of plot and roman a clef format, The Late Breakfasters, which eschews with Classical pudor even the pretense of a romantically “happy ending,” also has something of Rolfe’s classically informed elegiac style:
Society was inevitably too strong for her, and ate her improper passion at a gulp. Leander doubtless never expected anything else, and therefor possibly suffered less, but of this there is little record.
Counter-Currents readers who have no love for the picaresque genre, or feel put off by the “feminist tract and lesbian love story” angle, should nevertheless dive right in, because, as I’ve said before, the real charm of the midcentury novels Valancourt reprints lies in the return to a world before the (temporary?) triumph of neo-Stalinist political correctness and compulsory social “liberation.” That’s my, and perhaps your, “pre-1914,” and I think Aickman would approve.
1. “Mike Ashley reported that at the time he compiled his Who’s Who in Horror and Fantasy Fiction, Aickman objected to the inclusion of his date of birth. Instead he said that the entry should read “Aickman, Robert. Man of Mystery.” “‘That,’ he said, would be helpful. I should approve entirely.” Ashley, Mike. “In Memoriam: Robert Fordyce Aickman,” Fantasy Newsletter (June 1981), p. 13.
2. See the essays collected as The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014) and others that will soon be collected as The Old, Weird Critick.
3. Ashley, Mike. “In Memoriam: Robert Fordyce Aickman,” Fantasy Newsletter (June 1981), p. 13.
4. “For all my life I have felt as if I might wake up out of this dream of an idiotic Victorian age and insane jazz age into the sane reality of 1760 or 1770 or 1780.” S. T. Joshi, “The Horror on the Wall,” in The Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft by Andrew Migliore and John Strysik (Nightshade Press, 2000).
5. Crawford, Gary William. Robert Aickman: An Introduction (Baton Rouge: Gothic Press 2003).
6. See, for instance, “The Shadow Out of Time,” which has what Joshi calls ‘the most chilling climax in literature” (at least I think he does, somewhere). For some hints, see Greg Johnson, “Interview with James J. O’Meara” reprinted in The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012). No wonder he never learned to drive, and loved the music of Delius!
7. S. T. Joshi, The Modern Weird Tale (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001).
8. “It should be obvious to any reader that one of my objectives in this book is to lay down a canon of modern weird writing.”
9. As the crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 tell us, “If you’re wondering how he [Joel/Mike] eats and breathes /And other science facts /Then repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show, /I should really just relax.’”
10. “I wonder whether Aickman’s belief in the occult has anything to do with this.”
11. For an effective rebuttal, given reasons why clairvoyance and other “psychic” powers are too heavily documented to be doubted at all, see Jason Reza Jorjani, Prometheus and Atlas (London: Arktos, 2016), reviewed here; especially, Chapter Two.
12. “Aickman’s best tales operate according to a precise and intricate logic of poetic symbolism.” –Challinor.
13. Ever the small-c conservative, in Aickman’s tales “only a select few are able to fill the resulting void with a larger and deeper reality.” — Challinor.
14. See my Afterword to Neville’s Feeling is the Secret (Amazon kindle, 2016).
15. At this point my attention started to wander to the Blackadder II episode “Bells.”
16. Again, my mind wandered to the cockamamie séance conducted by “Mr. Krasker” in The Dead Talk Back, involving a razor blade in a wine glass. Also in typical Aickman fashion, we never learn what the medium does with the sugar lumps when she spirits them away, but we can be sure its nasty.
17. Aickman would likely have not cared less for Joshi’s opinions. Ramsey Campbell tells of delivering the World Fantasy Award to Aickman back in England: “He chortled politely at Gahan Wilson’s bust of Lovecraft…. Subsequently, he had the bust separated form its stand, and after his death only the bse bearing the ward plaque was found to have survived. He was, to put it mildly, no admirer of Lovecraft, or indeed of any fiction he regarded as horror.” “Robert Aickman Remembered” published as the Afterword to Faber’s 2014 reprint of the Aickman collection Dark Entries. One does wonder what he would have thought of the SJW crusade against the award, or of the Counter-Currents H. P. Lovecraft Prize for Literature, designed by Charles Krafft.
18. Constant Readers will recall my oft expressed preference for the novella, a taste shared with James, Lovecraft, and Mickey Spillane.
19. No wonder he said that “Those, if any, who wish to know more about me should plunge beneath the frivolous surface of The Late Breakfasters.”
20. Rather like the window display in the bookstore that attracts the job-hunting Griselda: “a well-chosen selection of books published during the preceding fifty years or thereabouts.”
21. Reviewed here and collected in Green Nazis in Space! (Counter-Currents, 2016).
22. Although one character’s mother was another’s “fag” at school.
23. Those who have noted and puzzled over the “fish mouth” appearance of SJW’s will be pleased to note a character who is “one of those girls whose mouth is seldom entirely closed.” Is this related to Joshi’s worrying about fish/human hybrids in Lovecraft?
24. Aickman, though he despised modernity, was no puritan, and in fact espoused “free love,” at least in his youth.
25. Or “you sam,” as Jim Dixon’s nemesis Bernard would articulate it.
26. Recalling Beckett’s first novel, Murphy, and to an extend all his novels. One might even mention the role of divine providence in Brideshead Revisited, providing the “twitch upon the thread”; Waugh’s earlier novels are more purely picaresque in their absurdist plots.
27. I might compare the effect of these plot-advancing weird moments to the early scene in Sunset Boulevard, where Joe Gillis’ blown tire puts him in front of Norma Desmond’s weird estate just in time to be mistaken for an undertaker summoned to attend to a dead pet . . . chimp. And indeed Late Breakfasters plot is set in motion by the death, mourning and burial of a pet dog
28. Bradford, op. cit.
29. Valancourt has reprinted several of Rolfe’s other works, including Stories Toto Told Me, Hadrian the Seventh, and Don Tarquino, as well as A. J. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo; see my review of their budget-priced kindles of the last three here.
30. Though not “racist” in any meaningful sense, no modern reviewer would let a novelist get way with something like “There emerged two apparently identical Negroes in clerical dress. Small, compact and beautifully polished, they looked like marionettes. They smiled and bowed in unison to the new arrivals, then walked off in step, conversing enthusiastically in some African tongue”; or “The assistant struck me as being pretty well all black, after the style of a Negro, but that might have been only because the whole shop was so dark and smoky.” Again, although by no means an anti-Semite, he allows characters to say things like “[Rabbi Morocco] and Mr. Stillman seem to be somehow different kinds of Jews. I don’t really get it. They always seem to cause some sort of trouble, don’t they?” Or that one must pay attention to “The Avant Garde Synagogue. Something entirely new. It’s a great mistake to ignore what the Jews are doing.”