The successful ghost story does not close a door and leave inside it still another definition, a still further solution. On the contrary, it must open a door, preferably where no one had previously noticed a door to exist; and, at the end, leave it open, or, possibly, ajar.
Over some childhood holiday, visiting relatives, I discovered on their bookshelf a collection of Charles Dickens’s ghost stories. I opened it at random to the tale of a traveler at a roadside inn who discovers the oddly carved chair in his room comes alive and speaks to him.[i] Fortunately, his intentions are revealed to be selfish, rather than malevolent. The prose is standard Dickens, but the premise was so strange and compelling I remembered it, and still do.
The short stories of Robert Aickman have a similar appeal. They take place in an ordinary world (albeit that of the previous century) in which bizarre, supernatural events unfold with real originality. His storytelling is good, his writing is clean, he’s funny but understated, and the stories themselves are striking. Compulsory Games is an apt title. From the start, the style is endearing and playful, and yet that very lightness inherently implies its opposite. The story of Winifred and Millicent picnicking in the countryside begins very matter-of-factly, but after a few pages things start getting odd. As Millicent puts it, “Everything was absolutely for the best until the mushrooms came.”
Indeed, Aickman’s stories have more in common with surrealism than horror or fantasy. In the especially surreal “No Time Is Passing,” our protagonist—perfectly named Delbert—discovers a stream running alongside his property, along with a rowboat named SEE FOR YOURSELF. He proceeds to have a truly bizarre adventure. At one point, Delbert’s repartée with a creature named Petrovan morphs into something that approaches an Aickmanian version of Bilbo and Gollum riddling in the dark:
“…would you rather be living or dead?”
“Oh, living. I’ve had a topping life so far, and mean to go on while the luck lasts.”
“Do you feel ready for bed?” asked Petrovan.
“I thought you’d asked your last question.”
To that Petrovan said nothing. Perhaps Delbert had caught the demon by its tail. That is said only to happen inadvertently.[ii]
Skirting facts and intentions, avoiding unnecessary description and commentary, Aickman denies us much that Dickens, for example, provides in abundance. The plot—like the dialogue—of a story can at first seem drawn out, abrupt, or incomplete. He constructs his sentences with obvious care, but includes details selectively rather than exhaustively. We might know more about a woman’s outfit on one page than we know about our protagonist’s entire appearance (likely the woman is more important to the story). This our introduction to Oswald Crickmay:
“By vocation, he was a paleographer…He had neither parents, nor siblings, not even a fiancée, so that at least there was only one to pay for and provide for and worry about.”
Oswald is one of the more sympathetic protagonists. The person we follow in an Aickman story is often unremarkable: usually a man, generally a civil servant of a solitary disposition, who’s not particularly useful or skillful, and seems to be of ambivalent sexuality. Female protagonists, on the other hand, are generally much more capable than their male counterparts, noticing odd occurrences more quickly or surely and fighting more fiercely or cleverly when the time comes. When not cast in a starring role, the women in Aickman’s stories are often versions of Lady Death: sinister, seductive, and mysterious.[iii] Regardless of the character at hand, Aickman’s descriptive choices are confident and effective. He is master of his own game.
Aickman’s writing reminds me of reading literature in translation. In these stories, as in many translations, I often come across a word choice just off enough to make me look more closely, drawing me in to search for more clues in an effort to get the best picture of the work’s meaning. As with all writing, literary translation involves tough choices. One translator might prioritize “accurate” linguistic precision, descriptive reconstruction of the signification in the target language. Another might concentrate on preserving tone, adjusting some word choice here and there to preserve voice and mood. Still another translator might prize above all else conveying the overall gesture, and modify specific language liberally while staying faithful to the aesthetic, philosophical, or rhetorical spirit of the original.
At first it may seem tempting to cleave to each word, carefully re-painting it in the second language on the second canvas. Ultimately, though, that approach often produces a mere echo, a shorthand, a sketch of the original, rather than an artistic work in its own right. Aickman is concerned with the brooding unknown behind what we call reality. He is a chronicler, a historian and occasionally a sociologist, including what’s most important and letting his omissions be heard. His role is that of an interpreter, a translator, in this sense, and he performs it well. He doesn’t settle for a sketch, but instead conveys his slippery subject with style and verve. Aickman’s noir impressionism is gestural and intriguing; anything that seems to be missing here is actually part of the picture.
Just as Aickman’s characters are drawn forward inexorably within their stories, I found it difficult to slow down or stop once I began. The ordinary strangeness of it is like the work of John Bellairs—sophisticatedly charming and casually occult. The immediacy and storytelling is a bit reminiscent of the supernatural fiction of Claude Seignolle, who has been called a twentieth-century Edgar Allan Poe.[iv]
More than anything, though, Robert Aickman is Robert Aickman. Truly original, his stories both delight and haunt; they are unforgettable. The poet Paul Éluard wrote, “There is another world, but it is in this one.”[v] Aickman pulls back the curtain just long enough to give us a glimpse into that lively and shimmering dark.
Compulsory Games by Robert Aickman
Edited by Victoria Nelson
New York Review of Books Classics
Published May 8, 2018
Robert Aickman (1914–1981) In addition to eight collections of “strange stories,” as he dubbed them, his writing includes a short novel, The Late Breakfasters (1965), a posthumously published novella, The Model (1987), and various unpublished fiction, dramatic, and nonfiction works. He published two memoirs, The Attempted Rescue and The River Runs Uphill, and two popular nonfiction books about the inland waterways. Victoria Nelson is a writer of fiction, criticism, and memoir. Her books include Gothicka and The Secret Life of Puppets and Wild California. She teaches in Goddard College’s MFA creative writing program.
[i] Dickens, Charles. “The Queer Chair” from The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens.
[ii] “No Time Is Passing” from Compulsory Games by Robert Aickman p.108
[iii] As Victoria Nelson points out in the foreword.
[iv] “Claude Seignolle en ce siècle est notre Edgar Poe, notre Nerval” Jean Contrucci, Le Provençal
[v] “Il y a assurément un autre monde, mais il est dans celui-ci” Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.