Quick: think of three or four authors of really good short horror fiction. I’m going to guess that most folks would come up with Stephen King, with some H. P. Lovecraft, Peter Straub, Edgar Allan Poe, and perhaps even some Shirley Jackson thrown in. Those folks are all fine, and quite good. But none of them write in a way that scares me more or more consistently than a British author who remains mostly unknown to the world. His name was Robert F. Aickman.
In the few bits of biographic information about him that can be found online, it appears that Mr. Aickman was probably kind of a dick. Admiring peers describe him as “prickly” and “crusty”. He could be fussy, condescending, and blunt to the point of social ineptitude. Though he was born in 1914, he seems to have possessed an almost Victorian bearing about himself, though he insisted on living in the heart of Swinging London in the 1960s, where his primness must have seemed completely out of phase.
Born in 1914, like most lads in their twenties Aickman likely “did his bit” during World War II. The first time he was published was in the early 1950s. He had a few stories appear here and there in magazines that weren’t much elevated above pulps. He finished a novel and novella in the 1960s, published a few volumes of short stories in the ’60s and ’70s, and died in 1981 of cancer, with perhaps 50 short stories to his name. His story collections sold decently in his native England, but went out of print rather quickly. He never had any impact in the States.
He wasn’t completely unknown in his time, though. A number of young horror writers knew him and were in awe of him. Fellows like Peter Straub and Neil Gaiman specifically. Perhaps the best tribute to Aickman’s genius at crafting horror fiction was paid him by Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory among other works.
Dahl had been commissioned by an American television network to come up with an omnibus television series in the early 1960s. The network wanted him to be the creative force behind a series that was envisioned to be something like The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. Each week would be a new, half-hour or hour-long filmed teleplay, based on a horror short story. Dahl agreed to sign on for this, under the stipulation that he, and only he, be allowed to pick the 30-odd short stories that would be featured in the various shows. As Dahl tells it, he spent nearly a year reading nearly 740 scary short stories from the national library in London. In doing so, he came to an alarming conclusion: none, or at least precious few, of the stories were particularly scary at all. He concluded on the spot that there simply were too few scary stories. He bowed out of the project.
A few stories did have an impact on him, and Dahl collected those for his own anthology, the utterly wonderful Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories. Dahl chose 14 stories for this collection, including works by esteemed and well-known authors like Edith Wharton and J. Sheridan Le Fanu. He also chose a story by Robert Aickman, a clever and shivery tale called “Ringing the Changes.”
It’s easy to see why Aickman never caught a break from his publishers in the ’60s and ’70s when you read him now. His style is mannered and stately, though rarely florid and obtuse. He sounds like a gentleman out of time, as if Charles Dickens had suddenly plopped into the era of Nixon and Vietnam protests. With some shortsightedness, publishers likely figured that audiences would prefer something more…lurid. Explicit. Modern.
The success of J. R. R. Tolkein and H. P. Lovecraft show how little publishers understood their audiences. If Aickman can be a bit stuffy at times, he’s nowhere near as stilted as either of those aforementioned writers. And Aickman uses his stylistic gestures to excellent effect. His wonderfully British prose is an effective stage patter to distract while the writing magician works to pull a rabbit from his hat for us.
Most of all, though, Aickman is just a damn good writer of scary stories. He always preferred the term “strange stories” to describe his work, and I suppose that fits the best. His stories are interesting, ingeniously plotted, and all have a clever, if often chilling twist in the plot. You get the feeling as you read his work that the reason he wasn’t prolific is due to him constantly polishing his stories to a high gloss finish before deciding they were done.
In the past few years, Aickman’s undergone a bit of a renaissance. Many of his short story collections have come back in print, as more and more modern horror authors cite him as every bit the foundational genius that Lovecraft, M. R. James, or Poe were for the genre. First edition paperbacks of his collections from the 1970s will fetch upwards of $70 in used marketplaces these days. I personally first heard of him when, during a discussion of great horror fiction, a fellow posting online under the handle DrCrypt suggested that there was Aickman on one tier, and everyone else sitting well below. DrCrypt did more than that, though. He’d gotten his hands on an HTML version of one of Aickman’s best short story collections, a chilling anthology called Cold Hand In Mine. Someone had lovingly transcribed all of the book back in the early days of UseNet and posted it online. It’s long gone, of course.
Except I saved a copy and converted it to PDF. And because it is Halloween, and because I love giving out treats for the season, I’m sharing that with you all right now. Here it is in all its chilling glory, Robert Aickman’s Cold Hand In Mine. Give the story “The Same Dog” a read, if you’re looking for a good entry piece. If you like what you’ve read, consider buying the book and other Aickman collections from Amazon or the online retailer of your choice. Happy Halloween!