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“They Were Stacked Criss-Cross, Like Cheese Straws…” BOOKS! Sometimes I Fancy A Change!

John Kane

I didn’t really get around to any comics this week what with one thing and another. But I did read some prose and I ended up writing about that. It was a couple of books of short stories written by the co-founder of The Inland Waterways Association. Sounds gripping, huh? Well, if you’re going to let preconceptions hold sway then, I guess, this one’s for me. I know! The gall of the man, the sheer, wicked nerve! Anyway, this…

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By Robert Aickman
Faber, £12.00 (2008)
By Robert Aickman
Faber, £13.00 (2009)

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The written work of Robert Fordyce Aickman (1914-1981) was a staple of my young life via his collections of, to use his preferred term, “strange stories”. Memory, ever unreliable it should be noted, maintains a plenitude of these books populated the stacks of the library around which much of my young life revolved. For the child library books have their own unique wonder. The primary source of this wonder being the sure discovery, on a page turn, of the, seemingly obligatory, trapped and flattened hair of an oddly pubic cast. So inevitable did such lightly disquieting discoveries seem that a youth possessing an imagination lightly foxed by morbidity might consider it not entirely beyond the pale that, down a quiet and municipally taupe corridor, there could not fail to be some secluded room within which, ill-lit by a crackling bulb, some hirsute creature crouched, snuffling wetly while delicately plucking and pressing a single hair from its own plentiful fund between the pages of a book. Said volume having been taken from the piles mazed around the bristling creature, doctored as stated and finally replaced upon the shelves by a man with a strangely fungal pallor and slurred gait. And upon this book the hand of a child would alight…

…Some three decades later and deciding to add some agreeably bound volumes of Mr. Aickman’s work to my own modest, and largely hairless, personal library I was aghast at the lack of availability of such volumes. O, they existed; their existence could be in no doubt but then nor, alas, could the height of the prices they demanded. Existence and availability should never be assumed to be twinned as many a convicted sex offender has discovered to their chagrin. After a little piggish truffling I did, however, find the paperback volumes noted here which, while not precisely cheap, are at least within reach of most budgets. True, they are a bit on the perfunctory side, with the only variation design wise being the name of the collection in question. A biographical note is also lacking; so one would not know that Mr. Aickman was renowned in his time for his efforts to reclaim Britain’s inland waterways and edited the first 8 volumes of the Fontana Book Of Great Ghost Stories; modestly excluding his own work from vol.s 4 and 6. Proof reading, particularly, with The Unsettled Dust, leaves something to be desired; Aickman being a most fastidious writer this is not groundless carping. Nor are there found hereabouts any testaments to the high regard with which Mr. Aickman’s work is held by today’s fantasists and fabulists. So, the modern reader would not be attracted by the fact that such as Peter Straub (who attempts to write in the key of Aickman upon occasion), Neal Gaiman (whose less fey work can approach the Aickman-esque) and the British dark comedy practitioners The League of Gentlemen (whose work is sodden with Aickman’s influence) are amongst the many who flit around Aickman’s darkly warming flame still.

With rare exceptions Aickman’s shorter works are primarily allusive and flee from concrete meaning with a singularity of purpose akin to a man who has bolted from his home upon noticing his wainscoting labours as though breathing and, indeed, has done so for some time…But, fret not, it does this in a welcoming rather than an exclusionary way. Aickman’s lithe use of language and precise prose draw the reader in before baffling and unsettling them to pleasantly discombobulating effect. Recently I, perhaps unwisely and certainly rather blithely, posited that the popularity of British war comics in the 1970s was not a result of us being a nation of blood thirsty racists backwardly yearning for The Empire, but rather the result of complications born of adjusting to the unavoidable upheavals such a prolonged period of warfare prompts. Had I finished these books in time they would, perhaps, have helped mitigate the apparent inanity of my premise. For, it soon becomes apparent, that much of Aickman’s work is concerned with the inadequacy of the brittle social conventions of the time (these collections date from 1975 onwards) to endure in the face of the psychic mayhem unleashed by two debilitating wars in quick succession. Aickman’s stories mostly document minds and lives as they intersect with subtly chaotic and leisurely overpowering forces and, as a consequence, dissipate with the tranquil violence of paper separating in a puddle. In doing so he also attempts to convey the dislocation and unease felt by a society as paradigms shifts far too suddenly for comfort.  I feel no shame in revealing that as a child all this completley passed me by. It appears that Aickman’s work is work that grows with you, how simply marvellous! There’s another collection in this series, The Wine Dark Sea, now I haven’t acquired that one yet, but be assured I shall. For now I must return down this municipally taupe corridor to my room, ill-lit as it is by a crackling bulb, and bend my back to my task…

Oh, and how does Robert Aickman bear up? Well, brace yourself and let me pour you a stiff brandy because it appears, to all intents and purposes, that Mr. Robert Aickman remains…EXCELLENT!

Next time, probably, – COMICS!!!

5 Responses to “ “They Were Stacked Criss-Cross, Like Cheese Straws…” BOOKS! Sometimes I Fancy A Change! ”

  1. “their existence could be in no doubt but then nor, alas, could the height of the prices they demanded.”

    Compared to the even more unavaiable Charles Birkin Aickman is sold at bargain prices :-)

    The Aickman I read was often a bit too vague for my taste. But his work is very well written, surpasses a lot of his contemporaries in this regard.

  2. @AndyD: I’d never heard of Charles Birkin before! I had a decco and, yup, that’s some pricey business. Hopefully someone will e-book folks like him and R Chetwynd Hayes or something involving cheap availability. Can’t have them slipping off the map now can we?

    Oh aye, Aickman’s (usually) all about the vague but it is so well written that the prose is often worth the trip alone.

    In a move which smacks of the sulphurously uncanny it appears I am to spend this very day wandering around a stately home with my family. Unless I get trapped in a dolls’ house or stalked by a painting I’ll be wanting a refund.

    Cheers very much now!

  3. What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, Understanding, War, Hate, Confusion, and Rape? “Gimme Sopor” “5-4, baby, 3-2-1/Gimme Sopor/Gimme Sopor” INSIDE MY BRAIN E.P. 1979 Angry Samoans USA

  4. @Darius Smith: Hello! The site’s a bit wonky lately so I took the liberty of removing your dupes and your correction as your last post was in fact correct with regard to your stated intentions viz. the final word. We now have the author’s intended text as editors might say. Well, you didn’t tell me to “Get Off The Air” so, I guess, thanks? Cheers!

  5. […] “Aickman’s stories mostly document minds and lives as they intersect with subtly chaotic and leisurely overpowering forces and, as a consequence, dissipate with the tranquil violence of paper separating in a puddle.” On the works and influence of Robert Aickman. […]

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