Robert Aickman worked in what he described as “strange stories”. It’s an oddly reductive description, inherently self-deprecating, and about as English as you’d expect from a man whose other great enthusiasm was the restoration of the inland canal system. But to think the stories are somehow lesser than more grandiose weird tales would be to underestimate their power.
This edition of Dark Entries is one in a series of rereleases to celebrate the centenary of the author’s birth. It collects a couple of tales which are powered by the idea of an English way of doing things; a concept of how one should behave, how the world should work. Except in the stories here, nothing ever works as it should.
The tales aren’t horror in the sort of blood-dripping, decapitated-head manner you’d expect of a King or a Koontz. They’re more weird fiction than straight-out horror – drawing their power from the magnetism of the odd, of the power of nature. The English landscape, unreadable and unstable, thrumming with psychic power and import, is a major motivation. This is stuff to file with MR James, say – it’s creepy, not because of something as artless as the pornography of violence but because the psychogeography of the place has leached into your body along with the evening damp.
That’s not to say there’s a lack of broader, cosmic themes: one of the stories, set in a small seaside village (seemingly devoid of sea) couldn’t be more Lovecraftian if HP had banged it out himself. It’s just that for the most part, the stories are content to provide thumbnail sketches of distinct places. A possible criticism would be that the stories seem to be fairly monochrome – Aickman is keen on exploring the same mood rather than creating worlds anew – but I didn’t find this to be a worry. The author’s keener on capturing the note of sadness which sags over a locale, rather than in telling a grandiose tale. (Fittingly, one of the stories lands in Tasmania, where the landscape slyly changes, just out of view.)
Have the stories dated? Sure, there’s some phrasing and views which point to the collection’s original 1960s publication. But overall, these are remarkable stories if you’ve a penchant for the slow creep. I can’t wait to read more.
(There is also a Bauhaus song called ‘Dark Entries’ which is presumably no relation. However, I couldn’t help but hear it while reading Aickman’s words, though I assume from Ramsay Campbell’s afterword that the author would hate it. So enjoy!)