Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Sub Rosa

Sub RosaSub Rosa by Robert Aickman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wouldst thou like to write sentences deliciously, like this?

I might compare them, though a little distantly, with the once controversial last works of the late Charles Sims: apparently confused on the surface, even demented, they made one doubt while one continued to gaze, as upon Sim's pictures, whether the painter had not in truth broken through to a deep and terrible order.

Of course, you would. You're tired of Lovecraft's confused, adverb-sodden descriptions. Bored with his hundreds of pale imitators. But you still want to capture that eerie sense of something missing.

You, my friend, want to read Robert Aickman.

Aickman's clarity and ability to plunge the reader under the water of the mind and personality of his narrator here locks the reader in and provides confidence that the author is going to deliver something special. Reading this is a lesson in writing. A graduate seminar, no less. Like any class, there is at least one "slow" point, but this might be a mercy, rather than a failing. Given the height of literary airs here, one must come down into the atmosphere to breathe, at least once. Given the depths of subtly-hypnotic writing that draws the reader down like a long-missed lover on a warm bed, one must, for a moment, come up for air.

The opening breath, "Ravissante" is, at turns, wonderfully subtle, then ridiculous, then embarrassing, then horrifying. There may or may not have been a supernatural element to the story - a black poodle that was as much spider as dog, a domineering crone who stoked the bellows of lust in the narrator for a girl that may or may not have been real, an insect-demon, all of which might have just been occlusions of the mind - or not. Marlowe is banging his head against his sarcophagus because he knows what Faust could have been, since Aickman has shown the world how to best portray the invasion of the demonic into the banality of life on planet earth. Five stars that may be either real or imagined. You decide. Aickman isn't telling.

As the trees around me became yet bigger and thicker, fear came upon me; though not the death fear of that previous occasion, I felt now that I knew what was going to happen next; or, rather, I felt I knew one thing that was going to happen next, a thing which was but a small and far from central part of an obscure, inapprehensible totality. As one does on such occasions, I felt more than half outside my body.

"The Inner Room" is a creepy dollhouse story. Take the best of Danielewski, Angela Carter, and Brothers Quay, stir it together, make the syntax perfectly exquisite, the imagery simultaneously vivid and murky, and each character's mannerisms subtly but thoroughly manifest through their dialogue and actions, with just a touch of philosophical insight into people's hearts, and you have a start. But only a start. Add this bit of inner dialogue, which accurately portrays the strange frisson that children often feel, or at least that I often felt as a child, before an ominous, momentous event:

As the trees around me became yet bigger and thicker, fear came upon me; though not the death fear of that previous occasion, I felt now that I knew what was going to happen next; or, rather, I felt I knew one thing that was going to happen next, a thing which was but a small and far from central part of an obscure, inapprehensible totality. As one does on such occasions, I felt more than half outside my body.

. . . which is reflective of the way I felt as I read this story. Five stars.

"Never Visit Venice" coddles you in hope, warmth, and the promise of love. It lulls you, like a gondola on the water. Then, it thrusts you into the waves and begs, nay, insists the question: Is it preferred to live like a lion for an hour than to live a lifetime like an ass? Five stars above a lilac sky with the waves lapping up against the sides of your wooden gondola.

There's synchronicity in that I read "The Unsettled Dust" at the same time I read Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia. A (un?)happy coincidence(?). Like the landscape it's set in, this is a slow, malingering, matter-of-fact character study intertwined with the supernatural. This one is a little more straightforward for Aickman, but still sprinkled with the dust of uncertainty. Four stars.

"The Houses of the Russians" is a prime example of Aickman's ability to control pace. You think you're coming to a horrific conclusion, then find out you're not. You think you are going to gain some great knowledge, and you do not. You think that the nightmare is over, but it has just begun. Aickman says this is his own favorite story of the collection, but what does an author know about his own work? Nothing, I can assure you. And though this is a fabulous story, I don’t think it’s the best of the collection. Then again, how does one compare one story’s quality against another’s when every story is a miniature master-class in writing? Five eerily-meandering stars to this tale of anachronistic spectres . . . or not.

"No Stronger Than a Flower" is the one disappointing tale in the book; inscrutable, really. Is Nesta a vampire, insane, or merely symbolic? Maybe all three? In any case, her withdrawal seems merely whimsical, perhaps a touch spoiled. A mere three stars here.

AAAAH!!! CREEPY CHILDREN! "The Cicerones" has them. This tale is particularly chilling when compared to the others in this collection. “Sinister” doesn’t even begin to describe the level of paranoia-inducing conspiracy that this tale dredges up from the catacombs. Yep. I've got the shivers now. And yet, this story still has that Aickmanesque power of understatement (unlike my screaming introduction to the paragraph). The ending phrase "especially after everyone started singing," so seemingly innocent when seen alone, is absolutely one of the most terrifying things I have ever read in context. I do not want to hear that hymn! Five stars.

The novella, "Into the Wood," the centerpiece of the book (though it appears last) is one of the most satisfying reads I've had all year. Ostensibly a story about insomnia, it's really a (strange) tale about self-discovery and empowerment of the main characters, Margaret. It's a walk into dreamlessness that blurs the line between night and day, erasing notions of the way things "should be," while remaining gentle and respectful of the needs of those who don't follow the same path. It's about as feminist a work as a man writing in the early 1960s could produce. Consider the thoughts of Margaret, the protagonist, who has accidentally checked in at a Scandinavian resort for insomniacs while her husband attends to business matters in a nearby city:

Margaret took a small pull on herself. Henry must be broadly right and she broadly wrong, or life would simply not continue as it did, and more and more the same everywhere. The common rejoinder to these feelings of rebellion was, as she knew well, that she needed a little more scope for living her own life, even (as a few Mancunians might dare to say) for self-expression. But that popular anodyne never, according to Margaret's observation of other couples, appeared in practice to work. nor could she wonder. It reduced the self in one to the status and limits of a hobby. It offered one lampshade making, or so many hours a week helping the cripples and old folk, when what one truly needed was a revelation; was simultaneous self-expression and self-loss. And at the same time it corrupted marriage and cheapened the family. The rustling, sunny forest, empty but labyrinthine, hinted at some other answer; an answer beyond logic, beyond words, above all beyond connection with what Margaret and her Cheshire neighbours had come to regard as normal life. It was an answer different in kind. It was the very antithesis of a hobby, but not necessarily the antithesis of what marriage should be, though never was.

This paragraph perfectly brings to light the desire and need I have to read and write "spooky" or "strange" fiction, as well as my drive to immerse myself so much into roleplaying games, and my penchant for strange art and hiking alone in the woods. I've learned something about myself and my desires/needs that I couldn't articulate before, but Aickman renders clearly and compellingly into words. Wonderful!

The satisfaction of "Into the Wood" is worth the entire price of the book. And, while Aickman thought "The Russian Houses" was one of his best stories (in this volume, at least), I think he under-rates what he's created here. The depth of insight here, into desire for self-satisfaction (without hedonism) and into the pleasures (not sexual) of losing oneself, is profound. This story is ripe for analysis, whether Marxist, feminist, or what have you. I sense that this story would hold up to any sort of theoretical microscope under which it is examined. It is a writer's story by a writer's writer, nearly perfect in every way. Five stars.

If you are not a writer, have no fear. Well, I take that back. Have some fear, but let Aickman serve it to you in little, enticing doses of unease and just a hint that something isn't right, though it may be; but it probably isn't, unless you look at it in a certain way, which you shouldn't. You think I'm full of vagaries? Try Aickman. The difference is that Aickman's vagaries are as carefully measured and doled out, calculated, really, as mine are flippant and chaotic. Aickman is in control.

Aickman is always in control.

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