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Robert Aickman Criticism-40 Great Ghost Stories

Robert Aickman Criticism-40 Great Ghost Stories

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Published by lethe
Robert Aickman describes his choice for the greatest ghost stories collected in The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories
Robert Aickman describes his choice for the greatest ghost stories collected in The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

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Published by: lethe on Dec 26, 2011
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Introduction"There are only about thirty or forty first-class ghost stories in the whole of western literature."So opens the introduction to The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, the first of eight volumesRobert Aickman was to edit for the series. The year was 1964, & Aickman had himself had twobooks of his own ghost stories published to that point: We Are For the Dark (featuring threestories by Aickman & three by Elizabeth Jane Howard) & 1964's Dark Entries, Aickman's first solostory collection. For each of his Fontana volumes, save the Sixth, Aickman provided aninformative, engaging introduction, & all of the volumes, save the Fourth & Sixth, feature anAickman story. While the series carried on for an additional dozen volumes post-Aickman, our interest lies with those edited by Aickman.The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories"The Travelling Grave" L.P.Hartley. "One of the greatest stories in its field" says Aickman, & I for one won't disagree. A dinner party in the country turns into a deadly game of hide & seek. Whilethere are no overt supernatural elements in the story, the machine of the title is infused with analmost animate presence, seeming "to have no settled direction, & to move all ways at once, likea crab". As is usual with Hartley, the prose is finely polished, the dialog often witty & humorous, &character's motives deadly."Squire Toby's Will" J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Aickman's selection of this fine tale is just another of itsendorsements. Henry James called it the finest ghost story in the English language, & M.R.James asserted that it, "The Familiar", & "Mr Justice Harbottle" were the best ghost stories in theEnglish language. And to think the story languished in anonymous obscurity in a periodical untilM.R. James included it in his collection of "lost" Le Fanu stories MADAM CROWL'S GHOST. Thestory of a family feud caused by the title document, it positively reeks of gloom, decay, & guilt:Looking up its somber & lifeless avenue from the top of the London coach, as I have oftendone, you are struck with so many signs of desertion & decay — the tufted grass sprouting in thechinks of the steps & window-stones, the smokeless chimneys over which the jackdaws arewheeling, the absence of human life & all its evidence, that you conclude at once that the place isuninhabited & abandoned to decay. The name of this ancient house is Gylingden Hall. Tallhedges & old timber quickly shroud the old place from view, & about a quarter of a mile further onyou pass, embowered in melancholy trees, a small & ruinous Saxon chapel, which, time out of mind, has been the burying-place of the family of Marston, & partakes of the neglect & desolationwhich brood over their ancient dwelling-place.In the night the butler investigates a receeding shadow that appears to have disappeared into anold carved cabinet:In the center panel of this is a sort of boss carved into a wolf's head. The light fell oddly uponthis, & the fugitive shadow seemed to be breaking up, & rearranging itself oddly. The eyeballgleamed with a point of reflected light, which glittered also upon the grinning mouth, & he saw thelong, sharp nose of Scroope Marston, & his fierce eve looking at him, he thought, with a steadfastmeaning.Old Cooper stood gazing upon this sight, unable to move, till he saw the face, & the figure thatbelonged to it, begin gradually to emerge from the wood. At the same time he heard voicesapproaching rapidly up a side gallery, & Cooper, with a loud "Lord a mercy on us!" turned & ranback again, pursued by a sound that seemed to shake the old house like a mighty gust of wind.Le Fanu's stories possess a & timeless quality that set him apart from other Victorians, & everybookshelf of the weird should have a volume of Le Fanu as its cornerstone.
 
"Three Miles Up" Elizabeth Jane Howard. This story first appeared in WE ARE FOR THE DARK,as mentioned above a book containing three stories by Howard & three by Aickman. The pairingis a good one, as the styles of the two writers mesh together very well. "Three Miles Up" tells thestory of two friends on holiday together, said holiday consisting of a boat journey on England'sinland canals (it bears mentioning here that both Howard & Aickman were involved with theInland Waterways Society). The journey has not gone all that well, being primarily a series of misadventures. Along the way they encounter a mysterious woman, Sharon, who — seeminglyhomeless — joins the two (male) friends on their journey. Once Sharon is aboard, all seems to govery well, until a subtle wrongness begins creeping into the landscape & eventually leads to thestory's chilling ending. A wonderful example of "quiet" horror."The Wendigo" Algernon Blackwood. I'm not sure who the real star of this tale is, the creature of the title, or the story's setting (the Canadian backwoods). Blackwood evokes the immensity &indifference of the deep woods with an authority that brings to mind the vast, uncaring cosmos of H.P. Lovecraft:The bleak splendours of these remote & lonely forests rather overwhelmed him with the senseof his own littleness. That stern quality of the tangled backwoods which can only be described asmerciless & terrible, rose out of these far blue woods swimming upon the horizon, & revealeditself. He understood the silent warning. He realised his own utter helplessness.A party of five on a hunt for moose encounter far more exotic game in the form of a forestelemental. A fine story, Blackwood's descriptions of the scenery are wonderful. (I could be wrong,but I'm pretty sure the Wendigo was the inspiration for one of the gods in the Derleth Mythospantheon.)"The Trains" Robert Aickman. In Aickman's introduction to the first Fontana he describes ghoststories as being "allied to poetry", & makes the case that they make contact with the unconsciouspart of the mind. He was fond of referring to his stories as "strange stories" rather than ghoststories. I try to keep all of this in mind while reading Aickman's tales, which can often be verystrange indeed (for Aickman fans this only adds to the charm & allure of Aickman's work). Thestrangeness can however be quite frustrating to readers used to more traditional storytelling, &"The Trains" would perhaps not be the best story for someone giving Aickman a read for the firsttime. "The Trains" is another story that appeared in WE ARE FOR THE DARK, & like "ThreeMiles Up" tells the story of two friends on holiday together, in this case a walking tour in the northof England. Inclement weather & impending nightfall cause the friends to seek shelter for thenight at a solitary house located by some busy rail lines, & while perhaps not the Bates Motel, theRoper House in Quiet Valley has its own share of weirdness as our protagonists discover. Onething about Aickman's stories, while they can be difficult they almost always lend themselves tore-readings, as often details missed earlier come to light. While Aickman is very much his ownman, I can't help but think that his work owes something to both L.P. Hartley & Walter de la Mare(& note that both authors feature in this first Fontana volume)."Seaton's Aunt" Walter de la Mare. My first encounter with "Seaton's Aunt" was in THE NIGHTSIDE, third of a series of three anthologies edited by August Derleth, featuring eerie illustrationsby Lee Brown Coye. I have fond memories of the book because it seems as if de la Mareanthology appearances are far & few between, & "Seaton's Aunt" has remained a constantfavorite over the years. As with Hartley, de la Mare's prose is finely polished, a joy to read. Thereis humor too in de la Mare, but a more subtle sort. As with Aickman, de la Mare rewards theattentive reader & is very re-readable. Here, as Seaton & his bride-to-be take a stroll in themoonlit garden, his aunt plays the piano for Seaton's friend Withers:She sat down at the piano & ran her fingers in a flourish over the keys. "What shall it be? Howshall we capture them, those passionate hearts? That first fine careless rapture? Poetry itself."She gazed softly into the garden a moment, & presently, with a shake of her body, began to playthe opening bars of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. The piano was old & woolly. She played
 
without music. The lamplight was rather dim. The moonbeams from the window lay across thekeys. Her head was in shadow. And whether it was simply due to her personality or to somereally occult skill in her playing I cannot say; I only know that she gravely & deliberately setherself to satirize the beautiful music. It brooded on the air, disillusioned, charged with mockery &bitterness. I stood at the window; far down the path I could see the white figure glimmering in thatpool of colourless light. A few faint stars shone, & still that amazing woman behind me draggedout of the unwilling keys her wonderful grotesquerie of youth, & love, & beauty. It came to an end.I knew the player was watching me. "Please, please, go on!" I murmured, without turning. "Pleasego on playing, Miss Seaton."Indeed, poetry itself.The Second Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories"Playing with Fire" Conan Doyle is the story of a seance gone wrong, & I wondered to myself howmuch of it was taken directly from Doyle's mystical beliefs. A (unintended?) comic bit happenswhen, upon things going dreadfully wrong, all the men bolt from the seance room, leaving themedium (a woman), who had passed out, in the room with *that* which they had summoned.Upon realizing she's still in the room, they do go back & retrieve her..."Man-Size in Marble" Edith Nesbit shows the dreadful consequences of a young married couple'schoosing the wrong cottage to live in. What is interesting is that the couple have no hidden evildeeds in their past that are being punished; no morality agenda here, they quite simply were inthe wrong place at the wrong time. Nesbit aligns herself here with Le Fanu rather than MrsGaskell. The story's atmospherics are nice, with the moonlit church & woods. I found myself thinking of some of the scenes in Steve Duffy's work, & would have to think Duffy's "The Ossuary"owes something to "Man-Size in Marble". Available online: Man-Size in Marble"How Love came to Professor Guildea" Robert Hichens. After reading certain comments on "HowLove came to Professor Guildea" I was dubious approaching it. Partway in, I thought to myself "this is quite a different animal indeed", & after finishing it I stared at the wall for about fiveminutes... It is not really a scary story, though the antics of the parrot are disturbing (more so thanthe ghost I felt). I really like Hichens writing style & would put him in company with Hartley, W.C.Morrow & de la Mare. I found the story an interesting counterpoint to Le Fanu's "Green Tea":where Le Fanu has the kindly man of the cloth Jennings hounded to his demise by a ghostlyinfernal monkey, Hichens has the misanthropic, brillant Professor Guildea pursued by the love-sick ghost of an idiot. Where only Jennings can see the monkey, Guildea's ghost is manifested byway of the parrot, Napoleon, to Father Murchison & Pitting, Guildea's butler, as well as Guildea.While there might be a temptation to say this tale of a cold, aloof man who distains the love of others being haunted by a love-sick ghost is imparting a moral lesson, I'm inclined to see thesituation as one of horrid irony. Guildea is not a evil man really, he just happens to focus a littletoo much attention to a dark shape on a distant park bench which brings the intruder into hishome (it's Le Fanu & Nesbit all over again, otherwise innocuous actions bringing about horror &doom). I can see why Aickman likes this story, it features his favorite combo, Love & Death, & ithas a strange off-kilter feel to it."Our Distant Cousins" Lord Dunsany. I've always liked Dunsany's fantasies, & have all of hisearlier collections from the BOOK OF WONDER era. This story was the first Jorken's tale I'veread, & I have to say I prefer the fantasies. What I found the most jarring was the science fictionalelements, as I had a hard time accepting that someone could fly an aeroplane to Mars (this alsoshows how fantasy & supernatural works tend to hold up better over the years than some sciencefiction). But there was one scene from the story that's still "haunting" me weeks after the reading.The protagonist, having landed on Mars (in his plane!) comes across a compound inhabited byhumans. These humans are described as seeming far advanced in development over their cousins on earth. The compound is fenced in, seemingly to protect the dwellers within from

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