Robert Aickman was an English writer best known for his “strange stories,” as he termed them, which were subtle and poetic and concentrated more on the emotions of horror rather than material terror. He also wrote longer fiction as well as non-fiction and was an editor and conservationist.
Robert Fordyce Aickman was born in London on June 27, 1914. His father, William, was “the oddest man I have ever known.” William had married at age 53 to a woman 30 years his junior and, being deeply set in his bachelor ways and accustomed to living alone, could not adapt to married life. This resulted in a family environment that was chaotic and emotionally empty, with the parents constantly bickering. Aickman’s rancorous home life is mirrored in his stories “The Clock Watcher,” “Ringing the Changes,” “The Stains,” “The Fetch,” and others. When Aickman was a teen-ager, his mother deserted the family. His father also eventually left, living Aickman living at home alone.
Aickman was originally schooled in architecture, which was his father’s profession. However, his interests were more in the arts. Apparently, writing was in his blood as his maternal grandfather, Richard Marsh, was a prolific Victorian novelist, who wrote The Beetle (1897), an occult novel that was almost as popular as Dracula in its time. Aickman’s mother encouraged him to write. He stated, “My mother aimed from the start to make me an author.” He started reading the classics early and began writing while in school.
His first publication was the collection We Are For The Dark: Six Ghost Stories (1951), which contains three of his stories and three he wrote in collaboration with Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Critics have compared his work to that of Walter de la Mere and M.R. James. Peter Straub writes in his introduction to The Wine-Dark Sea: “What attracted Aickman to ghosts was not the notion of dripping revenants but the feeling – composed in part of mystery, fear, stifled eroticism, hopelessness, nostalgia and the almost violent freedom granted by a suspension of rational rules – which they evoked in him.”
The protagonist in “The Visiting Star” (1966) is an author who spends a winter in a desolate English town while researching a book on the mining industry. A famous actress shows up to star in a play at a local theater. The actress has a split personality – literally – with a mysterious character accompanying her embodying that personality.
“The Inner Room” (1966) tells of Lene, who visits an old shop and buys an odd doll house, the windows of which are shut fast, except for one from which a doll is partially protruding. When Lene gets the doll house home, she finds all the windows are tightly closed, and the doll is nowhere to be seen. She cannot remove the roof or any of the walls, and the only access she has to the inside of the doll house is the front door. Her exploration of the interior reveals many strange and unsettling sights. During a thunderstorm, she has a dream of the doll house and awakens to hear unfamiliar footsteps and then to see life-size dolls skulking about in the darkness. Nevertheless, she keeps the doll house, which affects her strangely for the rest of her life.
In “The Hospice” (1975), a traveling businessman loses his way in a maze of rural roads and ends up at a mysterious inn, where he has a series of strange encounters. The protagonist in “Into the Wood” (1968) has a similar strange stay at a hotel in the Swiss Alps, but unlike the businessman, is changed by the experience.
“The Next Glade” (1983) is about a strange hidden glade in a small wooded area in which a woman, Noelle, loses a friend, John, while strolling with him. Months later, while walking there with her husband, Melvin, she finds John standing next to a small house and digging a garden trench. Melvin is mortally wounded by a knife he is using to clear the path. At the funeral, John appears and takes Noelle for a walk in the woods. When they reach the glade, the small house and trench are gone, replaced by a huge pit in which hundreds or thousands of men are working–or is it just a vision? John again disappears. This story reflects Aickman’s preference of nature over industrial progress.
Aickman’s short stories – he published a total of 48 – have been gathered into eight original collections and four reprint collections. Besides We Are For The Dark, the other original collections are: Dark Entries: Curious and Macabre Ghost Stories (1964); Powers of Darkness: Macabre Stories (1966); Sub Rosa: Strange Tales (1968); Cold Hand in Mine: Eight Strange Stories (1975); Tales of Love and Death (1977); Intrusions: Strange Tales (1980); and Night Voices: Strange Stories (1985). The reprint collections are Painted Devils: Strange Stories, which contains revised stories (1979); The Wine-Dark Sea (1988); The Unsettled Dust (1990); and The Collected Strange Stories, two volumes containing all of his published stories (1999).
“The Fully-Conducted Tour,” a previously unpublished story, appeared in the Autumn 2005 issue (Issue 5) of Wormwood.
Besides short stories, Aickman wrote three novels: The Late Breakfasters (1964), about lesbian love, ghosts, and the reviled inhabitants of a mysterious mansion; The Model: A Novel of the Fantastic (1987), a fairy tale set in pre-revolutionary Russia; and Go Back at Once (unpublished).
On the non-fiction side, Aickman wrote The Story of Our Inland Waterways (1955) and two autobiographies, The Attempted Rescue (1966 and reprinted by Tartarus Press in 2001), which relates his early years, and The River Runs Uphill: A Story of Success and Failure (1986), about his involvement with the Inland Waterways Association. He was also a theater critic for The Nineteenth Century and After, but his reviews have not yet been collected in book form.
Aickman edited eight volumes of the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, from 1964 through 1972. He included a story of his in six of these anthologies, and he wrote introductions for all but one.
Some of his writing remains unpublished. Among these works are three plays, Allowance for Error, Duty, and The Golden Round; Panacea, a philosophical work, which runs to over a thousand pages in manuscript; and Go Back at Once. The manuscripts of these works are among the papers preserved in the Robert Aickman Collection at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
A few of Aickman’s works were adapted for other media. In 1968, “Ringing the Changes” appeared as “The Bells of Hell” on the BBC2 television program Late Night Horror. The same story was adapted for the CBC Radio drama series Nightfall on Halloween in 1980 and for BBC Radio Four on Halloween in 2000. “The Swords” was filmed in 1997 for the television horror series The Hunger. “The Same Dog” premiered as a musical play in 2000. “The Cicerones” was made into a short film in 2002 (which can be viewed at: The Cicerones).
As a conservationist, Aickman was best known as one of the co-founders of the Inland Waterways Association, whose aim was to restore and preserve England’s canal system. Another co-founder, L.T.C. Rolt, was also a writer of weird fiction.
Aickman won the 1975 World Fantasy Award in short fiction for his vampire story “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” and the 1981 British Fantasy Award for his story “The Stains.” The Collected Strange Stories won the 2000 British Fantasy Award for best collection.
Aickman developed cancer and refused conventional medical treatment. He died on February 26, 1981.