Title: Cold Hand in Mine
Published: 2014, Faber & Faber (Originally published in 1975)
I had never heard of Robert Aickman until last month. John C Nash of When Churchyards Yawn recommended him to me after I posted my review of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I am so glad he did – I really loved this book. I borrowed this from my local library but I enjoyed reading it so much that I think I’m going to get my own copy.
This is a collection of short stories, or “strange tales”, published in 1975. The eight stories that make up this volume all share a real sense of dread and disquiet. The foreword by Reece Shearsmith does a great job of introducing the key elements of Aickman’s style (though I would recommend new readers to skim over this to start with, in order to avoid spoiling the details of some stories). The excellent foreword and the quality of the stories here makes for a very good introduction to Aickman, I think – even though this was his fifth published collection of short fiction.
It would be incorrect to describe these stories as “ghost stories”, but I’d argue that they are definitely horror. With perhaps one exception, no story here fully subscribes to the usual tropes and devices usually found in horror fiction. This is a major part of the appeal for me – the tales are horrific, and creepy, and unsettling, but rarely do they rely on the familiar shock or gore of other popular horror. To paraphrase Shearsmith’s foreword, you find yourself disturbed by the tales, but you may not know exactly why. In many ways, his style is similar to Shirley Jackson’s style, in that real, true horror can be pulled from everyday life, rather than from crumbling castles or forgotten forests.
Another strong aspect of these stories is their common theme of mystery, or more specifically – unsolved mystery. I won’t go into details here as any discussion would probably spoil a good deal of the stories in the volume. Nonetheless, I’ll write up my thoughts of the individual tales below without giving too much away.
A salesman tells the story of his “first experience”. In Wolverhampton he encounters a strange carnival with a particularly strange act involving swords. The salesman begins to obsess over this, and after another chance meeting the following day decides to enter into an agreement with the carnival staff back at his hotel room.
A great introduction to Aickman. The narrator is instantly unlikable, but Aickman makes him an engaging protagonist in spite of this. Aickman’s description of a dark and gloomy Wolverhampton creates a fantastic sense of disquiet, and the introduction of the mysterious and otherworldly carnival in a back lot really pushes this tale into the realm of nightmare. Initially I was unsatisfied with the ending, but when I finished the whole volume, I realised it was typical Aickman – ambiguous, unsettling and deliberately vague.
The Real Road to Church
A young woman who lives alone in a house is made aware of the local tradition of the “changing of the porters”. She doesn’t quite understand the tradition, given that her housekeeper and neighbours are unable to accurately describe it in their native dialect.
A fairly short tale, and one of the weaker stories from the collection, in my opinion – though that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. One of the strengths of this story however is the middle section, where the woman meets a clergyman on the coast who provides her (and the readers) with cryptic details about the “changing of the porters”. Aickman’s sense of landscape is very powerful here, as the description of the woman on the coastline is as foreboding and unsettling as anything else in this tale. The story could be seen as having quite an optimistic ending, but as always with Aickman, the reader is never sure either way.
A German nobleman is distraught after a recent love affair. He is also affected by the memory of his cousin’s mysterious injury sustained during a boat trip. The nobleman becomes a recluse, living in his family’s castle on an island in the middle of the lake.
A tale with some very blatant supernatural imagery and horror conventions, but that does not detract from the story’s strength. The initial description of the narrator’s attempted suicide and the vision he experiences at the lake really give the story a sense of utter despair from the very beginning. The imagery of the narrator’s vision, as well as the terrible mystery of the cousin’s accident is truly frightening. Other reviewers have highlighted the idea that this story is an allegory of the Great War of 1914-1918.
Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal
A young girl, on holiday with her parents in Italy, keeps a journal of her travels, and the subsequent events that occur.
This story won the World Fantasy Award in 1975, and is something of an oddity in this collection, as it more closely resembles typical Victorian horror stories, as opposed to “Aickmanesque” mystery and suspense. Still, it’s highly unsettling but hugely enjoyable to read. Aickman does an excellent job of changing the voice of the narrator as the tale goes on, and his presentation of the events in a journal format brings the reader even closer to the horror of the story. There are many extremely creepy images and events in this tale, so for those of you who have a soft spot for classic vampire stories might find this a good introduction to Aickman’s style.
Whilst driving home from work in the dark, a man finds his car has run out of petrol. After experiencing an attack by what he assumes to be a cat, he seeks refuge in the nearby “Hospice”.
This was one of my favourites from this collection. I found The Hospice to be thoroughly chilling from the very start. The whole story is filled with anxiety and dread from start to finish. Most of the other stories in this volume exist in a kind of dream state, but I found this story in particular to be the most horrific. It’s as though we’re privy to the narrator’s personal nightmare, and that is probably one of the possible interpretations that is hinted at by Aickman in the text. One of the most frightening passages is when the narrator finds himself in a dark neighbourhood, attacked by what he thinks is a cat – but no more details are forthcoming. Aickman does not expand on this section at all, he simply writes that some unseen creature causes physical harm to the protagonist, and even the protagonist accepts it and moves on. It’s surreal and horrific and very powerful. I won’t write very much about the actual “Hospice” section, as I feel as though I will not do it justice. I’ll just recommend this story to anyone who hasn’t yet read any Aickman!
The Same Dog
Two childhood sweethearts, who enjoy walks in their nearby forest, find a ruined house with a large wall surrounding it. Behind the wall, is a shaggy, shapeless yellow dog.
Another of my favourites, though perhaps the second half of the story suffers slightly from a somewhat unnecessary plot direction and a fairly flat ending. Still, the trademark Aickman disquiet exists throughout the pages, especially in the section at the beginning of the story, where the titular dog appears near the ruined house. Again, there are elements of the surreal here (and perhaps surreal horror?), but the really frightening part for me is when the narrator runs from the house, only to look back and see a (possibly) naked man within the walls of the house. I think Aickman’s tales are deliberately presented as these unsolvable mysteries, but in this story specifically I found as though there were sexual themes and concepts that were hidden beneath layers of terror and strangeness which made reading it even more uncomfortable.
Meeting Mr. Millar
An editor of pornographic pamphlets, who lives on the top floor of an apartment block in London, describes the goings on and his meetings with his new neighbours.
The unnamed narrator, who is in the middle of a seemingly passionless affair with one of his neighbours, is similar in many ways to the narrator of The Swords. Mostly unlikable and hard to empathise with, we nonetheless experience the strange happenings in his home with him. As with most of Aickman’s stories, there is the suggestion of the supernatural here, but this tale reads more like a tale of seedy, underground, possibly illegal businesses. Mr Millar, who enters the story fairly late, is one of Aickman’s most unsettling characters so far. Unwilling to make eye contact, and answering almost every question cryptically, Millar is presented as neither the good guy or the bad guy – he seems to just represent the mysterious goings-on of the house.
The Clock Watcher
An ex-soldier, who marries a German girl, returns home to Britain. He soon finds his wife has a strange obsession with clocks.
Another “strange story” and another unpleasant protagonist. Again, the inclusion of a German character suggests some kind of metaphor for war-time relations – though I’m unclear as to what Aickman is trying to say with this, if anything. The narrator, who is seemingly just a paranoid husband, also appears to be a pushover. It’s hard to empathise with him at all, yet again we experience the story along with him. As his wife’s clock collection grows, and he becomes more paranoid, we become paranoid with him. It’s as though Aickman is using the trope of the ominously ticking grandfather clock, but turning it about face (…) by filling the character’s home with these strange timepieces. As usual, the climax of the story does not get near to explaining the events, but it’s horrific to read all the same. The element of the supernatural is apparent once more, but Aickman leaves the story hanging, as he always does, and the (possibly frustrated) reader is left to ponder what he or she has just read.