Dark Entries, by Robert Aickman, Faber, RRP£7.99, 238 pages
Robert Aickman’s literary reputation, like that of MR James, rests on the few dozen horror stories he published during his lifetime. Like James, Aickman was a cultured aesthete, delivering scares in a precise, somewhat lofty style as though addressing the reader from behind a veil of erudition. But Aickman belonged to a later, more liberated generation, and was freer to introduce deep, swirling undercurrents of sexuality into his haunting tales.
Indeed, sex is what leads people astray in almost all the stories in Dark Entries, a collection originally published in 1964 and now appearing in a new edition as part of a reissue by Faber of Aickman’s books to mark his centenary. As protagonist after protagonist is undone by temptation and lust, one can’t help but divine a sinister double entendre in the book’s title – something nocturnal and obscene.
In “Choice of Weapons” a man abandons his heiress girlfriend, and the secure future she represents, to chase after a girl he glimpses across a restaurant. His obsession leads him to cross swords with a dangerous otherworldly rival for her love. The hero in “The View”, meanwhile, meets a beautiful, enigmatic woman on the ferry from Liverpool to the Isle of Man and is soon sharing her stately home and her bed. Such is his infatuation that he is not deterred by the way the landscape around the house is constantly changing or the weird, shambling figure – like some sort of nameless pagan god – who roams the grounds.
In perhaps the best-known and most anthologised tale in the collection, “Ringing The Changes”, Gerald Banstead and his new, much younger wife Phrynne are honeymooning in a remote East Anglian seaside town where the church bells peal insistently one night a year. The purpose is gradually revealed: the bells are summoning the dead from their graves. Common sense urges Gerald to flee before it is too late but Phrynne’s amorous demands – “Lie still instead, and love me” – persuade him against his better judgment to stay. A grotesque danse macabre of animated corpses and townspeople wends its way into their hotel room, sweeping them both up in it. Phrynne emerges with “a nightdress so torn that she stood almost naked” and an erotic flush to her face. The experience, it is implied, will for ever colour the rest of their marriage.
Cold, wintry settings contrast with the heat of passion. Neuroses become embodied as ghosts, caged demonic entities, doppelgängers, shape-shifters. Aickman’s peculiar talent as an author is never making explicit the nature of the evil that ensnares his characters; what he does show is that they are at least half complicit in their own doom, drawn towards the hideous and the unknown as though in a dream, like sleepwalkers.
These “strange stories” (Aickman’s preferred description) are supernatural detective mysteries without a clear solution, each ending on a plangent, cracked note of ambiguity.
Often it is hard to decide whether the hauntings are genuine, or merely signs of psychosis projecting themselves outward on to the world. In that respect they speak to a modern reader more vibrantly than, say, James’s donnish, Christmas-sherry entertainments. These are emanations manifesting from the dark heart of a fearful, uncertain century.