A Review of Robert Aickman

Alexander Glass on a biography by R.B. Russell

Robert Aickman is not exactly a forgotten figure; collections of his most significant fiction were reissued by Faber & Faber in 2014: The Unsettled Dust, The Wine-Dark Sea, and Cold Hand in Mine. Other reprints have been published by Tartarus Press and New York Review Books Classics. Yet Aickman may be under-appreciated; certainly he himself seems to have thought so. R.B. Russell’s comprehensive Robert Aickman: A Biography (Tartarus Press, 2023) seeks to rectify that.

Aickman had written two autobiographies: The Attempted Rescue in 1966, and The River Runs Uphill, published posthumously in 1986. Russell draws on both, and on copious other sources, ranging from Aickman’s fiction itself to conversations with people who knew him. He can thus compensate for Aickman’s idiosyncrasies, odd omissions, and even odder inclusions; but Aickman’s life is peppered throughout with little unexplained details that would not have been out of place in his own eerie fiction, hinting – but only hinting – at some dark and sinister force operating just beyond the edge of perception.

Aickman was born in 1914. He maintained that his parents had had sex only once, on their honeymoon, and that his mother had wished for a daughter – though he did not explain how he came to know either of these things. His father – an eccentric, prone to uncontrollable rages – was an architect of country houses, but demand for these was in decline. As Aickman put it: ‘As I grew older, we grew poorer, my Father madder, my Mother tireder, and later iller.’

Aitken’s father – not unusually, perhaps, for the time – seems to have found it difficult to articulate or express love for his son. His mother encouraged in him a love of books: classics, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson. Her own father, Aickman’s grandfather, was Richard Marsh, author of The Beetle – the pulpy 1897 horror sensation that was, for a time, more popular than Dracula.

Aickman would later say that he had been lonely as a child and unhappy at school. Russell notes that he was a capable student – he did not go up to university, but that was because of what it would have cost his father – and that his family had an active social life, making and receiving numerous visits. It is possible, of course, that Aickman was lonely despite these things. It also seems likely that he would have been deeply affected in his teens when his mother was sent away to convalesce (the exact nature of her illness is never made clear) and then left his father rather than returning home. She later died in an air raid in 1943.

Aickman entered his father’s struggling architecture business, but his literary ambitions were already established. His talent needed honing: his first attempt at a book, Panacea, was more or less a rambling non-fiction stream of consciousness; it failed to find a publisher.

He met his future wife, Edith Ray Gregorson, in 1938. They married in 1941, though the relationship seems to have been an unusual one. ‘Ray’, as he called her, was aware of Aickman’s repeated infidelities (he was not conventionally good looking, and had a supercilious manner, but was nevertheless a serial womaniser); for his part, Aickman was happy to have Ray look after him, but made no mention of her at all in his autobiographies.

One of Aickman’s affairs was with Elizabeth Jane Howard, who would become a successful novelist in her own right. She had left her husband to pursue her affair with Aickman, with Ray’s knowledge. She would later leave him, and eventually married Kingsley Amis. Aickman’s first significant professional publication was in tandem with Howard: We Are For the Dark (1951), a collection of six stories, of which Aickman and Howard each contributed three.

Howard left Aickman that same year. Ray divorced him a few years later, in 1957. Oddly, though previously an atheist, she then entered a convent, where she remained for another quarter of a century until her death.

After We Are for the Dark, Aickman had occasional strange stories published, in Tatler and elsewhere; but much of his time was taken up by work (he had started the Richard Marsh Literary Agency in 1941, named for his grandfather; an early client was Reverend W. F. Awdry, author of Thomas the Tank Engine), and by his continually complicated love life. He also devoted much time to the Inland Waterways Association, a group he had co-founded in 1946, and which was concerned with the restoration of England’s canal system. He left, acrimoniously, in 1951, but his interest in the group’s work continued. Russell deals conscientiously with this; after all, Aickman had considered the canals important enough that he devoted his second autobiography largely to them. The River Runs Uphill did not find a publisher in his lifetime, though. Presumably publishers did not see a sufficient market for it. People interested in Aickman’s fiction may not be equally interested in inland waterways.

By 1964 Aickman’s literary career was improving. His novel, The Late Breakfasters, was published that year, along with his first solo story collection (Dark Entries) and his first editorship of an anthology (Fontana’s Great Ghost Stories, which became a series he edited for eight volumes).

Further compilations of his own short fiction followed, along with awards: the World Fantasy Award in 1975 for ‘Pages From a Young Girl’s Journal’ and the British Fantasy Award in 1981 – the year of Aickman’s death – for ‘The Stains’. But Aickman’s work was not easy to categorise. Certainly it was not horror, and though he has been compared (understandably, but not very usefully) to M.R. James, most of his stories were not directly ghost stories either. Had he lived, he might have seen the growth of weird fiction, a subgenre that resists categorisation and thrives on that resistance.

In his first autobiography Aickman wrote: ‘I have occasionally found it cramping to be so compulsorily paranormal. People will not accept, as Shakespeare did, that the “supernatural” is no special enclave in life, but an all-pervasive element in it. When the slight cramp sets in, I can always reflect that I am but following Shakespeare.’

His manner may not have helped him; although his work was championed by Ramsey Campbell and others, and although he was pleased to receive awards, he seems to have alienated many friends and to have had had an inflated view of the value of his work, both artistically and commercially. Negotiations with August Derleth for a collection of Aickman’s work to be published in the USA fell through due to Aickman’s inflated fee demands. A BBC adaptation of his story ‘Ringing the Changes’ in 1968 was seen as faithful and effective by everyone but Aickman, who hated it.

Reading Russell’s careful discussion of Aickman’s politics, it is hard not to wonder whether this might not have been another factor that distanced him from his most obvious literary contemporaries. He admired Franco, Mussolini and Oswald Mosley, though he found Enoch Powell coarse. But he had argued against fascism in the unpublished Panacea. A similar inconsistency can be seen in his view of war. As a boy – too young to fight in the First World War – he had argued passionately for it. But when the draft caught him in 1940, he made a long, rambling, barely-convincing submission as a conscientious objector, based on previously-unnoticed Christian convictions. He succeeded.

As a schoolboy Aickman had been impressed by Norman Douglas’s South Wind, in which Douglas had argued that ‘the unaesthetic is ipso facto bad’, and his later interest in fascism may have been at least partly an aesthetic one. An entire chapter of The Attempted Rescue is taken up with a discussion of his favourite film: The Blue Light, directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Said to be the film that had drawn Hitler’s attention to the filmmaker, The Blue Light is not a political polemic but a romantic tragedy based on a Grimm tale. Aickman felt that fascism incorporated an almost mystical reverence for beauty, culture and tradition. It is not clear whether he ever realised how wrong he had been; his final collection, Intrusions (1980), includes the story ‘No Time is Passing’ which opens with a quote from Gabriele d’Annunzio, the self-declared Duce of the equally self-declared ‘republic of Fiume’ who had declared the city independent and declared war on Italy. But it seems to have been, above all, d’Annunzio’s poetry and plays that drew Aickman to him.

In 1980, suffering the effects of prostate cancer, he refused conventional treatment and instead took injections of mistletoe provided by a homeopath. According to one of his lovers, Philippa Bowley, Aickman had sent her letters blaming his illness on her for leaving him. At his funeral, various women attended who no one seemed to know. Aickman’s death, like his life, and like his work, combined prosaic elements with dark whispers of the strange. ∎

Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in InterzoneThe Third AlternativeBlack StaticAsimov’s Science FictionWeird Horror, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read his story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital, and he has another, ‘Sfumato’, in Interzone #296.

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