Robert Aickman was a British writer, editor and conservationist born in 1914. He described his own stories as ‘Strange Tales’ and they display a distinctive style all his own. He also edited the first eight volumes of the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories. In 1979 he won the World Fantasy Award for his short fiction story “Pages From a Young Girl’s Journal”. Aickman died of cancer in 1981. Today we’re going to take a look at ten of his tales, the majority of which are novelettes.
Something else that stood out to me upon reading these stories is what interesting names Aickman gives his characters – Mrs. Iblis, Arabella Rokeby, Mr. Oxenhope and my favorite – Mr. Superbus for example. Of these stories below, my favorites were: “The School Friend”, “Larger Than Oneself”, “Visiting Star”, “The Same Dog” and “The Hospice”.
1. “The Waiting Room” (1956) – After missing his train, a man is forced to take another which is slower and not normally for passengers. Unfortunately, he falls asleep on it and misses his connection. At the end of the line he must disembark. With no lodgings nearby, a strange porter lets him stay inside the station’s empty waiting room until the next train departure in the morning. His uncomfortable respite leads him to dreams of other passengers from different eras sharing the room with him. He later learns disturbing truths about the station.
2. “The School Friend” (1964) – A woman named Mel is surprised to find a friend named Sally from their days at school at her front door after having not seen her for many years. Sally tells her that she’s moving into her reclusive father’s house down the street following his recent passing. Sally, who was brilliant at academics, always seemed oblivious to her own natural beauty. Her focus on writing studious books rather than socializing led to Mel being her only real friend before she moved away. Upon her return to her father’s house, she began to hide away there, not taking care of herself and avoiding contact with her friend. When Sally gets hit by a car crossing the street one day, Mel is contacted by hospital officials who knew they were friends and asked if she could look after Sally’s house. Mel’s exploration of the ugly place opens up more mysteries to both Sally and her late father’s lives. This is an excellently chilling novelette that’s well paced, has interesting characters and builds suspense as it flows toward its frightening finale.
3. “Ringing the Changes” (1964) – A man and his much younger wife go to a peculiar town for a vacation, but when they arrive the place seems closed up and practically deserted. The whole time they are there they hear the loud tolling of bells from every direction. When asked about them, the innkeeper’s wife says they are “practicing”. As the day grows late the only other tenant in the inn informs them they have arrived on the night of a special annual tradition.
4. “Larger Than Oneself” (1966) – This novelette follows the strange things a woman named Mrs. Iblis experiences when she goes to a forum of people interested in various forms of spiritualism, new age and psychic practices. As it turns out, she wasn’t suppose to be in attendance for it, but the cancelation of her reservation for that date wasn’t sent so she’s invited to stay anyway. She meets several very strange people there and feels out-of-place with them as they all seem to share some unknown secret. Her final night there she witnessed a truly bizarre occurrence. This is a very interesting tale with cool but weird ending.
5. “Visiting Star” (1966) – This novelette is set in a small town where the manager of an acting troupe plans to produce a play during the Christmas season which had been written by a writer who used to live there. He’s brought in a legendary actress named Arabella Rokeby to perform in it. The story is told through the viewpoint of a man named Colvin who’s in town to gather information on a book about lead and plumbago mining. Colvin meets a strange, vaguely sinister man named Mr. Superbus who arrives ahead of Miss Rokeby to make sure everything is in order for her. When Colvin later meets the famous actress herself, he’s taken by the seeming agelessness of her appearance and her strong personality. Miss Rokeby has a companion with her, a sickly-looking woman named Myrrha. As the Christmas Eve performance grows nearer, Colvin gets to know more about Miss Rokeby, Myrrah and Mr. Superbus as peculiar mysteries seem to surround the trio. The descriptions of Miss Rokeby and her attendants are masterfully portrayed here, painting a perfect mental picture through Aickman’s choice of words. This excellent story also presents a supernatural idea which isn’t often used but which is a favorite of mine. As I don’t want to spoil the story’s end, I’ll say no more about it.
6. “The Cicerones” (1967) – A tourist inside a Belgian cathedral viewing its paintings is shown by a child into an area containing much darker art than he expected to see, but that isn’t the worst of what awaits him.
7. “The Unsettled Dust” (1968) – The Special Duties Officer for the Historic Structures Fund named Mr. Oxenhope goes to review Clamber Court, an estate presided over by two sisters, Olive and Agnes Brakespear, that is open to guests in this novelette. He notices the place is covered in dust which always returns whenever it’s cleared away. The two sisters share an unusual, strained relationship with each other for which Oxenhope often bares witness. He also sees other things which indicate the house may be haunted.
8. “Pages From A Young Girl’s Journal (1975) – This novelette is told in the form of entries in a young, English girl’s journal as her father and mother take her to Ravenna, Italy to stay with a Contessa. While there she encounters a handsome man at a party after which she begins to subtly change, becoming pale, baring scars on her neck as her personality begins to alter as well.
9. “The Same Dog” (1974) – As a young man, Hilary and his girlfriend Mary stumble across an old house with a rotted, deteriorating wall around it where they are confronted by a strange dog which stares at them through the iron bars of its gates. Mary seems entranced by the dog and they notice a mysterious man peering at them from the wall. Soon they both become very ill. When Hilary eventually recovers, he learns that Mary has died, but no one will tell him how it happened. Years later, when he returns to the old house, he is shocked by what he finds there. This is a very strange tale which I enjoyed but can’t say I understand what it’s supposed to mean.
10. “The Hospice” (1975) – A man who wishes to return home to his family from a work assignment takes a shortcut suggested to him by a car agency which leads him to become lost in an unfamiliar area with rapidly diminishing fuel. He comes upon a hospice where he is forced to spend the night. The people staying there are all very odd, being primarily obsessed with finishing the huge meals they are served and seeming out of place with the world. Things become stranger that night when a number of weird things occur which cause him to get little sleep and develop a strong desire to leave. This is a tale with no clearcut answers in it. It has a strong sense of dread and things that are not right throughout, but you are never presented with an explanation as to what exactly is going on in the hospice.
Article by Matt Cowan