Friday, August 2, 2013

FFB: Powers of Darkness - Robert Aickman

1st UK edition (Collins, 1966)
I love reading ghost stories just before I go to sleep. Crazy, isn't it? While most people headed for slumberland will reach for soothing poetry, inspirational passages from the Bible, or any soporific reading material (I recommend 19th century textbooks) I keep a small stockpile of spooky story volumes on my nightstand. Nothing like a little chill or thrill before I turn out the lights and wrap myself in percale cotton. And ironically I never suffer from nightmares. Well, almost never.

Robert Aickman didn't like to call his fiction ghost stories or even supernatural tales. He preferred to call them strange stories. That they are. Powers of Darkness (1966) is a cherished book I found a few years ago at the Newberry Library Book Sale for two bucks. It's Aickman's second collection of tales and has no US counterpart. Only two of the stories that appear in this very scarce volume have been collected in a US Aickman collection. The rest exist only in this book. It's a thrilling mix of the eerie, the creepy, the spine-tingling and -- oh, yes -- the strange.

One of Aickman's more remarkable qualities is his ability to lead you down a familiar path only to watch it veer off into a dangerous detour. For example, you will be reading and come across a character who seems to be yet another female vampire. Before you can grow comfortable with this conceit, before you can manage to outguess the conclusion Aickman grabs you by the wrist and drags you through a fiendish passageway drenched in shadows and sodden with dampness completely disorienting you; you're unsettled, disturbed and yet fascinated.

Among my favorites is "The Visiting Star," probably because it is a theater story. It tells of Arabella Rokeby, an actress, and her return to the stage in a play that was a starring vehicle for her decades ago. The narrator expects Miss Rokeby to be an aging matron, but when she turns up he is shocked to see a beauty of no more than thirty-five. Accompanying her are Myrrha, a mysterious female companion, and Miss Rokeby's sinister manager Mr. Superbus. It's a story of possession, bitter envy, spiritual imprisonment, and power hungry control. The striking climax takes place in a visit to an abandoned lead mine of all places. At times chilling, later puzzling and, in the end, ethereally beautiful. The usual allusions to mythology once again are seen in Aickman's choice of odd character names.

Aickman is a master at reshaping the traditional weird fiction motifs and fashioning them into scenes that look startlingly fresh. Then he inserts those scenes into his world of skewed perceptions and ambiguous mysteries. Reading one of his tales is akin to watching those grotesque contortionists in new age circuses. Such cute little girls who amaze you with their pretzel-like bodies creating human sculptures that simultaneously marvel and repel. The experience of reading Aickman is just as paradoxical. You're smiling at a witty remark uttered by a character on one page and shuddering at what happens to that same character on the next.

Powers of Darkness also contains these stories:

"Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen" -- The familiar horror movie trope of incessant nuisance telephone calls gets the wicked Aickman treatment. Closest to a true ghost story in this collection. Less said the better. A cult favorite among the Aickman fans you can find lot of blog posts and essays about this particular story all over the 'net.

"My Poor Friend" -- An employee in a hydroelectric advocacy group befriends Walter Enright, an unconventional M.P., to help him get a bill passed in Parliament. As their relationship develops it is revealed that Enright is burdened with monstrous children, haunted by a spectral ex-wife, and tormented by vindictive bird-like creatures...or are they something else? One of the more deeply moving stories in the collection. Much of the story is political satire and draws on Aickmans' personal experience with the Inland Waterways Association, an organization he helped found.

UK paperback edition (Fontana, 1968)
"Larger Than Oneself" -- Mrs. Iblis visits a New Age spiritual retreat and meets a unusual assortment of seekers of truth looking for something larger than oneself. All of them ultimately experience more than they ever dreamed of. There is an arcane reference in the main character's name. Iblis is the name given to the Devil in the Muslim faith, or to be more specific a jinn (a spirit creature) that refused to bow down to the first prophet of Islam. Lots of religious satire here and an almost out of place Lovecraftian climax.

"A Roman Question" -- The Wakefields while travelling to an academic conference are beset with more than a fair share of troubles. The story begins more humorously than creepy but with the usual disturbing detour into the Land of Uneasy when a young woman named Deirdre using folklore rituals tries to contact the missing son of Major and Mrs. Peevers, also attending the conference. The turn from light to dark occurs when Mr. Wakefield, the narrator, makes this observation: "But before the session ended, there was a moment, more than just one moment, when I felt that Deirdre was totally and wonderfully different from what I had supposed. It was as if I saw into, or had even momentarily entered into,  her soul."

"The Wine Dark Sea" -- While on a vacation somewhere in the vicinity of Greece a man wants to travel to a forbidden isle but no local will help him. He ventures forth on his own in a stolen boat and finds a private paradise where he falls under the spell of three women who call themselves sorceresses.  More mythological allusions, some sex, and intoxicating descriptive passages.

Several of Aickman's stories appear in the eight volumes of Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories which he edited between 1964 and 1972. Two of the tales in Powers of Darkness are also in the US collection Painted Devils, usually easy to find and affordable in the ubiquitous book club edition. An excellent radio program hosted by Jeremy Dyson, writer for the UK TV show The League of Gentlemen, offers proof that Aickman is "the best writer you never heard of." It can be heard by clicking here.

"Spirit is indefinable, as everything that matters is indefinable, but one can tell the person who has it from the person who has it not."
-- Robert Aickman, acceptance speech for the World Fantasy Award


  1. Fantastic choice (sic) and a perfect 'forgotten' author if ever there was one. Aickman was an incredibly unusual writer and I hadn't heard of him until listening to Dyson's radio profile last year but since then I have also discovered that it can be a bit expensive tracking some of his work down. Just on Wednesday though, as serendipity would have it, I read his typically perverse take on Sweeney Todd, 'Mark Ingestre: The Customer's Tale' which is brilliantly done and reminded me a lot of Arthur Machen. Thanks for the great profile John.

  2. Excellent find, and review. And of all horror fiction writers (macabre story writers), none could ease one into a contemplative frisson-laded sleep better than RA..."The Visiting Star" was the first story I read by him, when I was eight. Though I still need to gather more of his relevant work (though I suspect even his waterways books would be interesting), it certainly hasn't been the last.

  3. This is tantalizing stuff, John. I will keep the title in mind.

    Marvin Kaye, author and anthologist, included "The Hospice" by Robert Aickman in the book 'Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural: A Treasury of Spellbinding Tales Old & New'. Mr. Kaye reveals that he initially omitted the story from an earlier anthology because he "honestly couldn't unravel its meaning." Because "The Hospice" continued to haunt him over the intervening years, Kaye concluded "any work of fiction that exerts such a powerful hold on the imagination must be some sort of masterpiece", and thereby made the decision to include it the second time around. He said, "Its power is undeniable, and some, though not all of the mystery is dispellable upon a second reading. But the terror cannot be banished that easily."
    It's truly a shame Aickman's collections aren't more accessible. But you never know what could turn up 'round the next corner. After your inspired blog about Margery Lawrence, I picked up a copy of her 'Bride of Darkness.'

    1. I probably should've mentioned that many of Aickman's better stories can be found in anthologies like those that Marvin Kaye so expertly assembled. I collect most of those for the Edward Gorey DJ artwork and own about ten of them. Rarely do I ever open those books. I'll go through all of them later tonight and add an addendum to this post if any Aickman stories show up. I’m sure that others will turn up.

      For those looking for Aickman the two most easily found books are the US editions of COLD HAND IN MINE and PAINTED DEVILS. Both were originally published by Scribner and both also were released by BOMC. Book club copies of the first one are all over the place in the used book market; anyone should be able to find an affordable reading copy. PAINTED DEVILS is getting harder to find but an avid book hunter will probably also find one of the book club editions rather cheaply.

      As for BRIDE OF DARKNESS -- Lawrence claimed the story is based on fact. She also claimed that many of the incidents related in the Dr. Pennoyer stories were inspired by true events. Like Dion Fortune Lawrence was an occultist so it's hard for me to credit her. I have a paperback edition of BRIDE... but have yet to read it. Maybe a review will show up here soon.

  4. Cold Hand in Mine and The Wine-Dark Sea are both available on Open Library, both checked out right now, but I'll be watching for an opportunity to get them. The Model is available but I just read a review on GoodReads that said "This peculiar book is odd even by Robert Aickman's standards" so I think I'll skip it for now.

    1. Thanks for that! I don't really spend time researching all the digital and eBook options. They are helpful for so many people who are converting and building their digital libraries. I read on an Aickman tribute site that he wanted Edward Gorey to illustrate THE MODEL, but Aickman died before a contract could be drawn up.

  5. Many thanks for your appreciation of Robert Aickman, probably my favorite author of "strange stories", as he called them. The story "The Hospice", first appeared in the UK Gollancz edition of "Cold Hand In Mine". Gollancz was Aickman's main UK publisher over several years. Some later Gollancz editions of Aickman's stories were: "Sub Rosa" (1968)which includes the following stories: "Ravissante", "The Inner Room", "Never Visit Venice", "The Unsettled Dust", "The Houses of the Russians", "No Stronger Than a Flower", "The Cicerones", and "Into the Wood". I own an original 1968 first edition of "Sub Rosa".
    Then there was a later, and perhaps the last, Gollancz collection of Aickman's stories called "Tales of Love and Death", published by Gollancz in 1977 as part of their "Fantasy & Macabre" series which included other authors apart from Aickman. Gollancz, of course, had achieved considerable success from their sci-fi series of books, including authors like Frank Herbert (Dune) and many others. However, the "Fantasy & Macabre" brand never took off in the same way as their sci-fi brand and only a small number of titles appeared before the series was abandoned or Gollancz went bust or was sold off to another publishing house or whatever. The stories in "Tales of Love and Death" (which probably comprise the last that Aickman wrote) are as follows: "Growing Boys", "Marriage", "Le Mirroir", "Compulsory Games", "Raising the Wind", "Residents Only", and "Wood". I own an original 1977 Gollancz first edition of this book. "Growing Boys" in this collection is a particularly disturbing story with it's intimations of cannibalism and, along with "The Hospice" and "The Swords" are perhaps my favorite Aickman stories, but they are all finely crafted masterpieces of the art of the "ghost story" or the "strange story" as Aickman preferred to call them. They all, or most of them, lead you to expect some final resolution or explanation for
    the bizarre and sometimes surreal events you have just been reading about but this hardly ever comes, Aickman leaving you scratching your head and wondering what it could all possibly mean. But this is the actual strength of the stories and what makes them unique. It is all in the hints of the most terrible and unspeakable things, clothed in often rather mundane language, rather in the academic style of M R James, another master of the "strange tale", that make Aickman's stories so endlessly fascinating.

  6. I love ghost stories too. Hard to find a really good one that is not too gory.

  7. Fascinating post, John! I haven't read enough of Aickman...he's a wonderfully subtle, skillful writer but his stories are sometimes a little too reserved and opaque for me. I definitely need to give him another try...I do know I have a copy of COLD HAND IN MINE somewhere about.

    My preferred ghost story reading material runs more to M.R. James, Le Fanu, F. Marion Crawford, E.F. Benson, etc. My copy of the Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories is well-thumbed.

  8. I'm another Aickman fan, although I tend to prefer reading his stories in small doses. When I wrote a ghost story a while back, I had his example very much in mind.

  9. Please note everyone! Tartarus Press in England is reprinting Aickman, as well as a bunch of other simply wonderful supernatural fiction, in some of the most handsome books I have seen in the modern industry. Do be sure to find them on the Web.


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