Dark Entries by Robert Aickman
To say that Robert Aickman is a Master-Craftsman may be redundant. If you are unaware that I consider Aickman to be one of the best writers of the 20th-century, you haven't been reading my reviews. Or, perhaps, you think I'm engaging in hyperbole. Make no mistake about it: Go into Aickman's work with high literary expectations - they will be met and, many times, exceeded. I hate to rely on Neil Gaiman as any kind of authority, but even he states, about Aickman: "He really is the best". If that doesn't work for you, read the last section in here by Ramsey Campbell, who was a friend of Aickman's. Not only is it an intimate look at the author himself, it shows, quite clearly, the high standards of writing he set for himself (and expected of others).
This does not mean, however, that Aickman's greatness comes from an effusive use of descriptors or the perfectly placed "reveal". Quite the contrary. While Aickman's sentences are masterful works of art, they oftentimes only serve as a frame for what is missing. It is in what is not there, that which remains unsaid, that the horror of these stories festers and grows. Aickman creates voids that act as pocket dimensions of potentiality, as outlined in both David Peaks The Spectacle of the Void and Mark Fisher's The Weird and the Eerie.
Take, for example, the first story in the collection Dark Entries, "The School Friend". Hear, about halfway through this story of old "friends" returning, one expects a jump scare as the protagonist, Mel, explores the strange home of her friend. The abandoned, then reclaimed house, the strange friend, Sally, who disappears and comes back changed in a twisted sort of way (and who currently owns the dilapidated house), the dismembered stuffed animals strewn on the floor - any reader can see these as signposts of some sort of abject horror about to reveal itself in full horror. Sally discovers Mel inside the house, and Mel hears ". . . and animal wailing above . . . [and] a noise resembling that of a pig scrabbling."
Sally, who is decidedly insane at this point says "Do you love children, Mel? Would you like to see my baby? . . . Let me tell you, Mel . . . that it's possible for a child to be born in a manner you'd never dream of . . .Will you be godmother? Come and see your god-child, Mel."
A scuffle ensues and then . . . no more mention of the baby. At all. Nothing. The potentiality that is left in the air, as it were, is positively haunting, a terrifying possibility out there, in the darkness, just around the corner, or upstairs . . . somewhere. The words in the final sentence, ". . . shall probably . . .," usually banal to the point that we don't even acknowledge that they have been read, have now become two of the most horrifying words in the English language.
And yet, in the next story, "Ringing the Changes," we get a sentence like:
Her expression indicated that she was one of those people whose friendliness has a precise and never-exceeded limit.
I cannot describe that expression to you, but I know it. I see it and, more importantly, feel it. That one sentence does more to explain the attitude of the character than paragraph after paragraph of blatant description could ever convey. It is exactly the right sentence to convey what Aickman wants us to know about this woman.
One must note here, also that "Ringing the Changes" must have had a profound effect on movie director David Lynch. Awkward, stilted conversation, the growing presence of a looming something, the unspoken, willfully-unacknowledged terrors felt by strangers in a community that seems to have "gone wrong," and the permanent, but unknown changes that come to those who have experienced true horror, are all Lynch's hallmarks. They are all present here.
Does all this mean that Aickman is absolutely comprehensible all of the time? No! I was left completely baffled by "Choice of Weapons". Is it a story of mesmerism? Vampirism? Hallucinatory madness? All of these? None? Lust and unrequited love, or a test of love, are at the heart of it, though there is an overtly political element to it, with its emphasis on caste and class. Despite my confusion, it is an engulfing story, especially at its twisted, unresolved ending. It left my brain churning. I loved this vortex. Or maybe it was lust?
At other times, his plots are pretty stock (though this is rare, I must admit). One of the more straightforward and predictable stories of Aickman's tales, "The Waiting Room" makes up in execution (pardon the pun, yes, it was intentional) what it lacks in originality. You know the plot (though I'm not going to reveal it), you've read it before, but you don't know with what exactitude and precision Aickman can write such a tried and true story until you read it yourself. His deft crafting adds a dimension lacking in other stories of its ilk, but it's not a mere embellishment of existing tropes. Aickman truly makes it his and his alone by the way he exercises his auctorial pen.
"The View" returns us to the labyrinth of imagination. There are few way-markers here, and the story roils in on itself, much as the house in which it takes place and the hostess of the house baffles the protagonist. We have here a house every bit as complex as the House of Leaves (though much less inimical). But, whereas Danielewski uses hypertextual methods to open the house to exploration and the reader's imagination, Aickman does so with a single sentence:
Apartments of the most various shapes and sizes led into one another in all directions without doors; and as no two apartments seemed to be decorated alike, the mirrors set up a chiaroscuro of reflections co-existent with but apparently independent of the rich and bewildering chiaroscuro of the apartments themselves.
Take a moment and digest that sentence. Who but Aickman could use the word "chiaroscuro" twice in the same sentence and make it feel like it's the most natural, sensible thing in the world? It enables the imagination without jilting the reader's thoughts. Yes, one may have to read it twice, carefully, in order to let the image fully bloom in one's mind, but it is worth a patient reading and meditation.
Even in describing the subtleties of the relationships between lovers, Aickman shows a deft hand:
. . . he . . . did not risk another of those so natural interrogatives she so lightly made to seem so heavy and unnecessary.
This sentence speaks volumes about the tension between the two characters of "The View," but also of the sensitivities of each character toward one another. One should not be surprised, then to find that "The View" is winsome and absolutely heart-rending. It has caused in me a genuine fear of growing old, something I have never really felt before. This is more from the sense of things past and lost than worry about future decrepitude. This is the empty hole at the center of nostalgia, a true existential dread. This story bit deep into my heart. It hurt, and I am better for it.
Finally, Aickman descends into decadence with "Bind Your Hair," a story about one innocent's introduction to what really goes on in a rural English village. This is folk horror with an Aickmanesque touch - the ending leaves us at a precarious point as to what to expect for the heroine; this unpredictability engendering a more lasting dread. Fear for her safety and innocence continue to rise after the last word is read. The potential is there for both good and bad in her future (short and long-term), and we agonize to know what she will choose, and which path she will go down, and what the consequences will be. We know the stakes are high, but the answers to all those questions are obfuscated from us.
Only the reader can supply the final narrative.
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