Robert Aickman wrote some of my favorite … what to call them? They’re not ghost stories, necessarily. He called them his “strange stories.” He wrote 48 of them over about three decades, from the 1950s to the early ’80s. What I like about them is how unsettling and haunting they are – because they’re so calm and level-headed. The classic Aickman story is a character study of someone coming to terms with their choices in life (in relationships, in work, in what they’ve done or failed to do) at some in-between location in the suburbs, or a foreign city where they don’t speak the language, or a holiday destination in the rainy off-season. Aickman, like his characters, is bitterly precise and unsentimental about the melancholy details of down-at-heel everyday life, middle age, and mixed feelings; everything takes place in the same steady, even light. Then the horror begins.
Aickman’s stories are about brushes with a terrible, alien logic at work inside ordinary life, with glances through a half-open door and details that stay with you like a bad dream: the overheated dining hall, with its hot plates, where one patron has his ankle chained to a rail under the table; the portrait of the furiously enraged man, postage-stamp size, hanging in the dollhouse; trying to find the water at low tide at night and going farther and farther out into the dark; the wide-awake insomniacs walking through the moonlit forest; the pile of dull grey swords on the sideshow stage; the fog blowing through the house.
This my favorite story of his, from the early 1960s. It’s bleak, deeply creepy and disturbing, and also, quietly, a love story. I had a few spare minutes today, so I recorded a reading of it – good listening, I hope, for walking alone at night as the winter comes on. Two notes about this story:
It has some very ’50s English attitudes about propriety and gender which the narrator holds and which take some getting used to – and they’re partly where the darkness of the story begins, in her own unhappiness.
Older UK houses of Sally’s kind often had the kitchen in the basement.