|1st UK edition (Collins, 1966)
I love reading ghost stories just before I go to sleep. Crazy, isn’t it? While most people headed for slumberland will reach for soothing poetry, inspirational passages from the Bible, or any soporific reading material (I recommend 19th century textbooks) I keep a small stockpile of spooky story volumes on my nightstand. Nothing like a little chill or thrill before I turn out the lights and wrap myself in percale cotton. And ironically I never suffer from nightmares. Well, almost never.
Robert Aickman didn’t like to call his fiction ghost stories or even supernatural tales. He preferred to call them strange stories. That they are. Powers of Darkness (1966) is a cherished book I found a few years ago at the Newberry Library Book Sale for two bucks. It’s Aickman’s second collection of tales and has no US counterpart. Only two of the stories that appear in this very scarce volume have been collected in a US Aickman collection. The rest exist only in this book. It’s a thrilling mix of the eerie, the creepy, the spine-tingling and — oh, yes — the strange.
One of Aickman’s more remarkable qualities is his ability to lead you down a familiar path only to watch it veer off into a dangerous detour. For example, you will be reading and come across a character who seems to be yet another female vampire. Before you can grow comfortable with this conceit, before you can manage to outguess the conclusion Aickman grabs you by the wrist and drags you through a fiendish passageway drenched in shadows and sodden with dampness completely disorienting you; you’re unsettled, disturbed and yet fascinated.
Among my favorites is “The Visiting Star,” probably because it is a theater story. It tells of Arabella Rokeby, an actress, and her return to the stage in a play that was a starring vehicle for her decades ago. The narrator expects Miss Rokeby to be an aging matron, but when she turns up he is shocked to see a beauty of no more than thirty-five. Accompanying her are Myrrha, a mysterious female companion, and Miss Rokeby’s sinister manager Mr. Superbus. It’s a story of possession, bitter envy, spiritual imprisonment, and power hungry control. The striking climax takes place in a visit to an abandoned lead mine of all places. At times chilling, later puzzling and, in the end, ethereally beautiful. The usual allusions to mythology once again are seen in Aickman’s choice of odd character names.
Aickman is a master at reshaping the traditional weird fiction motifs and fashioning them into scenes that look startlingly fresh. Then he inserts those scenes into his world of skewed perceptions and ambiguous mysteries. Reading one of his tales is akin to watching those grotesque contortionists in new age circuses. Such cute little girls who amaze you with their pretzel-like bodies creating human sculptures that simultaneously marvel and repel. The experience of reading Aickman is just as paradoxical. You’re smiling at a witty remark uttered by a character on one page and shuddering at what happens to that same character on the next.
Powers of Darkness also contains these stories:
“Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen” — The familiar horror movie trope of incessant nuisance telephone calls gets the wicked Aickman treatment. Closest to a true ghost story in this collection. Less said the better. A cult favorite among the Aickman fans you can find lot of blog posts and essays about this particular story all over the ‘net.
“My Poor Friend” — An employee in a hydroelectric advocacy group befriends Walter Enright, an unconventional M.P., to help him get a bill passed in Parliament. As their relationship develops it is revealed that Enright is burdened with monstrous children, haunted by a spectral ex-wife, and tormented by vindictive bird-like creatures…or are they something else? One of the more deeply moving stories in the collection. Much of the story is political satire and draws on Aickmans’ personal experience with the Inland Waterways Association, an organization he helped found.
|UK paperback edition (Fontana, 1968)
“Larger Than Oneself” — Mrs. Iblis visits a New Age spiritual retreat and meets a unusual assortment of seekers of truth looking for something larger than oneself. All of them ultimately experience more than they ever dreamed of. There is an arcane reference in the main character’s name. Iblis is the name given to the Devil in the Muslim faith, or to be more specific a jinn (a spirit creature) that refused to bow down to the first prophet of Islam. Lots of religious satire here and an almost out of place Lovecraftian climax.
“A Roman Question” — The Wakefields while travelling to an academic conference are beset with more than a fair share of troubles. The story begins more humorously than creepy but with the usual disturbing detour into the Land of Uneasy when a young woman named Deirdre using folklore rituals tries to contact the missing son of Major and Mrs. Peevers, also attending the conference. The turn from light to dark occurs when Mr. Wakefield, the narrator, makes this observation: “But before the session ended, there was a moment, more than just one moment, when I felt that Deirdre was totally and wonderfully different from what I had supposed. It was as if I saw into, or had even momentarily entered into, her soul.”
“The Wine Dark Sea” — While on a vacation somewhere in the vicinity of Greece a man wants to travel to a forbidden isle but no local will help him. He ventures forth on his own in a stolen boat and finds a private paradise where he falls under the spell of three women who call themselves sorceresses. More mythological allusions, some sex, and intoxicating descriptive passages.
Several of Aickman’s stories appear in the eight volumes of Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories which he edited between 1964 and 1972. Two of the tales in Powers of Darkness are also in the US collection Painted Devils, usually easy to find and affordable in the ubiquitous book club edition. An excellent radio program hosted by Jeremy Dyson, writer for the UK TV show The League of Gentlemen, offers proof that Aickman is “the best writer you never heard of.” It can be heard by clicking here.
“Spirit is indefinable, as everything that matters is indefinable, but one can tell the person who has it from the person who has it not.”
— Robert Aickman, acceptance speech for the World Fantasy Award