I drafted this mid-2014 and for some reason never got around to posting it. A recent train journey back to East Anglia led my partner to enquire as to why we should travel ‘so slowly when Norfolk is so flat’, reminding me of the opening passages to Aickman’s ‘Ringing the Changes’. This in turn led me back to this post. I’ve made a few updates so as to keep the writing relevant. There is, without question, a great deal more I could say about Aickman, about his particular type of horror and moreover of the rich sense of geography he evokes in his writings, but I’ve neither the desire nor the urge to create spoilers (for those unfamiliar with the tales) to do so here. Instead I hope that the few words and suggestions that I have put to the page might pique interest and introduce Aickman to a few new readers….
Robert Aickman is a master of British horror. His writings are every bit as disturbing as those of other writers in the genre, in many cases I would say they are more so. What makes Aickman’s work particularly unsettling is that he rarely provides a definite ending; the tales themselves are short but often without a terminal narrative. Rather the reader is left in a continual state of suspense and this itself, I believe, proves far more frightening than the horrors described within the text – this sense that they have been created to endure, even after the tale has been read.
Describing his work as ‘strange stories’, Aickman wrote 48 supernatural tales before his death in 1981, most of which were published within a series of 7 collected works released between 1951 and 1980. Despite the number of works he produced, Aickman has remained relatively unknown, gaining far less notoriety for his writings than the likes of M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare, Dennis Wheatley and so on. There has been something of a resurgence in Aickman’s writings over the past few years, with notable horror enthusiasts such as Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss bringing attention to Aickman in their own work. Gatiss provides a particularly haunting (and haunted) performance in Dyson’s eerie short film adaption of Aickman’s ‘The Cicerones‘ (2002). Two years prior to ‘The Cicersones’, Dyson and Gatiss had worked together on a radio adaption of Aickman’s ‘Ringing the Changes’ for BBC Radio Four. The adaption isn’t all that easy to track down but I’m aware that there are a few digital versions floating around online and it is definitely worth a listen if you can track one down.
The collected works themselves have been fairly difficult and expensive to get hold of in recent years, cheaper alternatives being available in the form of Fortana’s Book of Great Ghost Stories, which Aickman compiled a good number of. Now however, one need not search so hard to find Aickman’s writings as Faber & Faber began republishing the key titles in June 2014. The first to be printed was Dark Entries, which contains two of my favourite tales; ‘Ringing the Changes’ and ‘The Waiting Room’. The second collection, Cold Hand in Mine, was published in July and boasts ‘The Hospice’ and ‘The Real Road to the Church’ – all the tales are worth reading but these two in particular are most unnerving. Two further collections The Wine-Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust, published in August and September respectively, complete the Faber Finds series of Aickman’s works. Each of the books is beautifully adorned with updated cover art by Tim McDonagh and echoes the style of Ed Gorey who illustrated some of the original cover’s of Aickman’s works.
As a geographer, what strikes me about Aickman’s work and particularly his construction of the uncanny is his attentiveness to the description of place as well as an emphasising of movement in and between places and times.
Like all forms of storytelling, ghostlore is constructed from a series of key components; characters, dialogue, repetition, setting and so forth. There are of course narratival similarities between many of the ghost stories belonging to the British Isles, however the settings (or rather, the places) that spectral entities frequent are intrinsically linked to spaces of habitus as much as they are to the types of narrative that describe them. Ghosts appear to prefer specific places in which to haunt, notoriously sharing a penchant for stately homes, cross roads, old pubs. ruins, churchyards and various other historical sites.
Davies (2007) describes this ‘geography of haunting’ as being complicit with spaces of liminality, of sites that ‘are on the border or threshold of two defined states of existence’ (p.45). Liminal spaces are those that are imbued with a sense of duality, of binaries, they are spaces that allow for a transgression or moving in and between two states of being. Churchyards are an obvious example of such a site; existing at the thresholds of life and death; decidedly awkward, churchyards act simultaneously as spaces of materiality and immateriality, of fixedness and transcendence, they are out of sorts with landscape and time, both heterotopic and heterochronic (Foucault, 1974).
Indeed, Western ghostlore tends to develop phantoms that are attached to certain places. Though there are some exceptions to the theory of the fixed ghost (some spirits are indeed far more mobile than others, such as that of East Anglia’s Black Shuck), most tales tell of ghosts whom are static, frequenting staircases, bedrooms, hallways and the like. The anchoring of the ghost proves to stricken its sense of spatial autonomy and thus allowing for the haunted to leave the situation, usually at the their own (hastened) speed. Aickman’s spectral entities however are decidedly more mobile. Like the conjurings of James (see A Warning to the Curious, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You), Aickman’s terrifying concoction of the spectral and the mobile creates a ‘geography of haunting’ that works towards an emancipation of the ghost, an unchaining of spirit from place.
As roaming entities, Aickman’s phantasms are capable of moving through landscapes, of following and terrifying the protagonist within a multitude of environs. Such is the case in the ‘The School Friend’ which, like so many of Aickman’s works, is not so much a traditional ghost story but better described by that category of the ‘strange’ which Aickman himself used to talk about his works. ‘The School Friend’ makes use of multiple locations and situations of supernatural terror through which to draw the reader in; moving between homes and hospitals, and indeed room to room within the school friend’s home allows Aickman to develop a sense of mobility that not only creates a ‘geography of haunting’ but allows for multiple locative points through which the hauntings might occur.
‘Ringing the Changes’ is another tale indebted to landscape, specifically that of the East Anglian coast and moreover an emphasis on a movement within it. Making use of traditional rural/urban dichotomies (like those seen in Pinner’s Ritual), Aickman weaves a tale of ritualised horror that depicts a sheltered coastal community committed to an annual ringing of the church bells in order to wake the dead. In just a few pages the plot moves from train line, to platform, to hotel, to beach and back again. Street names, along with descriptions of lighting and sound are all used to give a sense of distance and time in and between places rather than to elaborate on the implied character of the locations themselves.
Both space and time important for Aickman, they allow his particular rendering of the uncanny to function; illustrative of a return of the repressed, an unexpected calling forth of place and time. As such we might view Aickman’s writings as hauntological, necessitating a return and making an all to often ‘other’ present in their absence. Further still, the role of mobility here not only sets up the distance required to dichotomise cosmopolitan/ coastal existence, but further constructs a space through which Aickman’s monstrosities move through, a space of wildness and savage tradition. The dead stalk the landscape, moving from beach through to town; their singing, calling and dancing echoing throughout the streets as they go. Even as day breaks and the tale concludes the reader is left ill-informed as to why the events of the previous evening have even occurred, only in the knowledge that they will again. Aickman’s works are topographically rich, allowing for an almost unrivalled spectral dynamy, where the strange is not so much preternatural but rather part of the landscape itself.
Robert Aickman was born in London, 1914. As well as being a prolific writer of supernatural tales, much of his life was dedicated to the conservation of England’s (then mostly derelict) canal system and he was co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association. Aickman died of poor health in 1981. Further information on Aickman can be found online at Aickman Data as well as in the recently developed journal Aickman Studies