Thursday, August 22, 2013

Robert Aickman, Political Strangeness

One of my favorite writers of weird and ghost stories is Robert Aickman. He did not refer to his output of fiction as "weird" or "ghost" stories. He called them strange stories. And, of course, he was right.

Like many of my favorite authors, Aickman had a unique style that is exceedingly difficult to replicate. It's just not done. I discovered his fiction when I was fairly young, through Stuart David Schiff's incomparable Whispers Magazine. And then, later, I located a couple of hardback collections of his work in my parents' bookstore.

His style of writing is rather dense, and some people don't care for it. But the way he wrote was necessary for the effect he wanted to convey to the reader. He needed to construct the lush detail of wandering about in the psyche of Aickman's lost protagonists. It was a unique take on creating weird fiction and no one else did it quite the way he  did.

Early in my reading of his work I figured him for holding right wing political ideas. There were just little things that would appear from time to time to let the reader know where his political sympathies were lodged. And none of those bits of phrases ever reached the level of dogma, and so it wasn't a thing that could interrupt the flow of his stories.

Recently, however, I finally located a copy of one of collections for which I'd been searching for quite some time: THE WINE DARK SEA. The stuff in that volume were new to me (with one exception) and I was very happy to find it. And in that volume is what I assume is his single most overtly political work, a short story entitled: "Growing Boys".

One has to keep in mind that Aickman was completely British in his culture and his outlook. So almost all of his politics are deeply rooted in not just European politics, but that of the UK. While by no means am I that knowledgeable about such topics, I have gleaned enough from reading to appreciate the things he says in his stories (even if I do not agree with his conclusions). "Growing Boys" is a brilliant work. It's a strange story, for sure, but also a horror story in every way.

Aickman often used female protagonists in his fiction and he does so again with this work. We see this lost woman at the mercy of males. The hinge of the story are her two horrible sons, described brilliantly as enormous and insatiable beasts. This pair are genuinely hideous creatures. We meet her uncle, who wishes to protect his niece and we at once recognize in him the archetype of the British Conservative. And then, lastly, comes her husband toddling along, the classic bleeding-heart liberal. With a few paragraphs Aickman creates in her husband one of the single most annoying and insufferable characters I've ever seen in fiction. The result is literary genius.

One would think, after witnessing the ravaging of the UK's Labour Party that he would then lavish nothing but love and admiration on the character standing in as the personification of the Conservative Party. You would be wrong. He, too, is a monster with violent bursts of energy and anger and what is obviously incestuous obsession. Neither side emerges from this work in anything approaching a positive light.

I don't encounter many discussions these days of the work of Robert Aickman. This is a shame, of course. He wrote some of the best strange stories I've ever encountered. I'm hoping that there are still a few pieces of fiction by him that I have yet to read. I'll miss not having anything original to encounter from his pen.

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