Monday, 18 February 2019

THE TROUBLE WITH ROBERT AICKMAN

Although acknowledged as an influential stylist of contemporary 'highbrow' horror, there is something not quite right about the work Robert Aickman. After listening to an audio reading of 'The Hospice' on the BBC a short while ago I was reminded very strongly of this. Indeed, given the ongoing '#MeToo' awareness campaign, it now feels more than appropriate to address this concern, which broadly summarised is this: Robert Aickman took a sadistic and indefensible pleasure in depicting sexual violence against women.

The contribution that Mr Aickman has made to contemporary 'strange' fiction has been quietly immense - at least among some male writers. Aickman's intellectual capabilities qualified him to compose prose tales of a high and culturally-informed quality which stand comparison with the best that contemporary mainstream literature had to offer e.g. William Golding, Peter Ackroyd et al. Furthermore, Aickman was an accomplished stylist, a writer who created a new domain for himself within the genre of psycho-supernatural horror. In particular, he dispensed with the formal ghost-story tradition of ending a story neatly - or indeed, of even bothering to construct a story which followed an established conventional format in its middle section. Beneath very serious and articulate prose he often painted eerie and disturbing images, murky and suggestive dream-like pictures which stood at one subliminal remove from the meticulously-crafted words on the page. To read one of his stories is to be dizzily conveyed into a disorientating world of murky psychological nightmare.

Robert Aickman is very much like M.R. James with regard to method - both writers lure the reader into their imaginary trap with an initial creation of an ordinary prosaic world before an uncanny sense of creeping dread begins to descend - but in terms of sheer atmospheric description, he is perhaps more like Franz Kafka or Angela Carter, what with the blurring into surreal nightmare which then ensues. Quite how Roman Polanki or David Lynch have resisted filming his work still eludes me.

Yet despite this dazzling stylistic brilliance there is still something about his work which does not rest entirely comfortably on the conscience. Barry Humphries referenced Aickman's "sly, morbid eroticism" in the introduction to the posthumous collection 'Night Voices', and he was perfectly right to do so. Indeed, I think that Mr Humphries' comment was very knowing, and that he was being diplomatically generous, because for me this eroticism goes way beyond that; for me it treads with deliberate sinister guile into the realm of sexual violence, and in doing so, seeks to depict disturbing incident with oblique, voyeuristic relish.

Is this acceptable? I personally think not. We permit such gratuity in the work of Hubert Selby Jnr ('Last Exit To Brooklyn') only because of the all-important context. In contrast, Robert Aickman does not contextualise his sexual violence, he merely describes it in an oblique, teasing manner.

In "Ringing The Changes" for example, the ageing Gerald Banstead takes his considerably younger new wife Phrynne to a remote seaside town to consumate their relationship. This honeymoon coupling is however quickly ruined by constant demonic ringing of church bells which slowly drives all of the characters into a state of delirious terror before quite literally climaxing with the resurrection of a terrifying mob of dead sailors from the sea, stinking of saltwater and and covered in seaweed (and what bodily secretion might reek of salty seaweed?) These rapacious marauders abduct Phrynne and drag her off screaming into the night while her husband whimpers impotently in their hotel bedroom, too ineffectual to intercede himself. The narrative then abruptly cuts to the calm of the following morning where everything appears to have returned to normal - apart from a very primal change in Phrynne, for she now glows with new secret knowledge, calm and satiated, a carnal smile painted upon her glowing red lips. The implication is less than subtle: Gerald's young wife has been gang-raped by an army of dead seamen - and judging from Aickman's authorial perspective, she seems to have very much enjoyed the experience.

In 'The Hospice', a lost motorist runs out of fuel and then seeks shelter in a strange residential home where he is alarmed to find that some of the weird inmates are kept chained by their ankles to a dining table. After then meeting an older sexually alluring woman in the lounge, she gives him her room number, suggesting he pay her a nocturnal visit. The married protagonist does not quite know what to make of this. An orderly ushers the woman away and so he turns in for bed himself, disconcerted to learn that he will have to share a room with one of the strange male residents. A sharp series of traumatised female screams abruptly wake him in the middle of the night; naturally he is terrified but he does not actually bother to investigate the matter (more symbolic ineffectual masculinity here). When the screams finally abate, his absent room-mate sneaks back into their shared bedroom reeking of the woman's perfume, with another one of those satiated smiles plastered across his face. In the morning as the protagonist attempts to leave the strange hospice he is informed that a guest died during the night, and he then sees evidence of the body being transported from the premises. We can only assume that the implied 'off-camera' molestation of the woman resulted in her death. Aickman has cast both the lost stranded driver and his unwitting reader as collective voyeurs in this erotic sex-murder.

In 'The Swords' (which is perhaps Aickman's darkest tale) a sexually-naive young salesman randomly chances across a weird circus type-show on the wasteland fringes of a Midlands city. He pays to enter a grubby tent where he finds a small crowd of seedy middle-aged men taking turns to plunge swords into a scantily-clad sexualised young woman who appears to take submissive orgasmic pleasure from the cruel violence inflicted upon her. The metaphor for prostitution is obvious, as is the imagery of sadistic & masochistic sexuality. The protagonist is both aroused and repulsed by what he witnesses. When he returns to the tent at a later date - pretending to himself that he is motivated simply by curiosity rather than burning lust - the woman's manager aka pimp arranges for her to visit him privately in his lodgings, where the young man then has a very tawdry and dispiriting sexual experience. Again, Aickman plays both voyeur and creator, conjuring up the powerful dark sexual imagery that deliberately seeks to titillate both protagonist and reader. To one degree he strives to be an impartial observer but given the fact that he created the seedy and twisted set-pieces himself, we are entitled to read more into the scenarios portrayed.

I could go on - and I possibly would if someone was paying me to write this - but I feel these three examples are sufficient to prove the point. Robert Aickman seems to have taken some not-so-secret pleasure in inflicting sexual violence upon his female characters while ensuring that his impotent protagonists invariably fail to intervene to save them in a timely fashion. Women are regularly sexualised in his tales before being raped and often murdered; indeed, some of those who escape death seem to enjoy the sexual molestation. Arguably Aickman even views himself as the tortured victim, for he can only ever be a frustrated voyeur narrating erotic fantasies from one remove via his prose. I was once told by someone who knew him that he wrote in a half-drunk, half-dreaming state, lucidly committing his subconsciously-inspired dark fantasies to paper, and I can well believe it. However, the weird and disturbing thread of gender-specific sexual violence which exists in much of Aickman's fiction is the one aspect of his work that leaves a sour taste in my own reader's conscience.

'Ringing The Changes' [from 'Dark Entries', 1964]
'The Hospice' [from 'Cold Hand In Mine', 1975]
'The Swords' [from 'Cold Hand In Mine', 1975]

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