Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Robert Aickman - Cold Hand in Mine
Shortly after 3 A.M., when the September air was thinly strewn with drizzle, the young Prince Albrecht Von Ellendor, known as Elmo to his associates, because of the fire which to them emanated from him, entered the Tiergarten from the Liechtensteinallee, leaping over the locked gate; then found his way to the shore of the big lake to his left; and there, in the total darkness, made to shoot himself. (p. 44, Niemandswassser)
Cold Hand in Mine is the fifth collection of legendary author Robert Aickman, and it's one of his only volumes still available to the fan without a six figure book budget. Reading Robert Aickman is stepping into a dream. His tales are ephemeral and powerful, filled with disquieting oddities and hints of impossibility. These are subtle tales. They are not horror, but it is clear that they do not belong in the realm of the comfortable or the mundane.
Cold Hand in Mine opens with The Swords. Our narrator is adrift on his uncle’s pay, stopping mid shipping route to stay at lodgings he doesn’t chose for himself. A carnival swings on the other side of the town, and in a grimy tent, our protagonist finds men indulging in sadism and lust. The tale builds to its crescendo from Aickman’s careful handling of his protagonist, the contrast between the narrator’s measured narration and the primal desires and hesitations he’s filled with. The Swords isn’t unique in its focus on character. Aickman’s stories are about people coming, or failing to come, to grips with themselves, and his narrators’ catharsizes are bizarre and grotesque intrusions that forever alter lives. Aickman is, too, conscious of setting and its impact on characters. The Real Road to the Church shows the protagonist's increasing disconnect from her surroundings, and all surroundings. Amidst ominous hints and portents, the reader is grounded by Aickman’s ear for dialogue and the richness of localities depicted. Most of Aickman's characters have his skill at maintaining the line between profundity and pretentiousness, and they manage to discuss important concepts while retaining human warmth:
"I come here daily," he said in the end. "I like to contemplate the immensity. There is a lack of immensity in the world. Do you find that also?"
"Yes," said Rosa. "I suppose I do. but I don't look very much for it. I don't look very much for anything."
"It is perhaps odd," he continued, "that we have not met until now. I believe that you too walk along the cliff."
"Yes," said Rosa. "And I may have passed you without noticing. I do that often."
"I should think I should have noticed you," he said, as if seriously thinking about it. (p. 35, The Real Road to the Church)
The Real Road to the Church is not the only story where isolation plays a role. Many of the tales here are supremely melancholy, and many feature protagonists cut off from the main part of society. The key difference from the works of an author like Ligotti is that, in Aickman, there clearly is a world to be cut off from. There is happiness and beauty in Aickman's stories, even if we can only glimpse it from the periphery.
These are all deliberately paced, building stories. Pages From a Young Girl’s Journal and The Hospice in particular focus on the steadily accumulation of minor details. The former is, if you only look at the plot, one of the most traditional tales here, focusing on a young girl’s encounter with a vampire in an exotic locale. In actuality, however, almost none of the tale’s power comes from the direct contact with such a creature. It is, instead, a story of homesickness and adopting to one’s present conditions, and the fashion that the protagonist’s twisted love gradually overtakes the rest of the narrative is disturbing to watch. As the transformation continues and grows more obvious, the other characters shy away from the narrator, but they seem to do so more out of shame and disgust than terror as the girl’s newfound love dissolves her sense of duty and decorum. The Hospice, however, is the star of the collection. The narrator is a married man that, in the midst of his lengthy drive home, is forced to stop at an unfamiliar lodge. What’s so remarkable about the story is how disconcerting it becomes despite the total lack of obvious action. By the tale's end, every word feels prophetic, every action menacing, yet it's difficult to recall a single concrete threat in the whole thing.
The occasional tale is too deliberate. The collection’s two final pieces – Meeting Mr Millar and The Clock Watcher – are both too drawn out to retain their power. In Meeting Mr Millar, A business moves into the building where the main character lives, and, though its employees seem supremely busy at all times, they never accomplish anything at all. It is a coy tale that introduces hints but never connects the dots. Such an approach could work, but in a forty page story and without any particular climax, it just adds up to an unsatisfying piece. The Clock Watcher is meatier but suffers badly for its length. The narrator’s foreign wife’s obsession with the strange clocks of her homeland is an interesting concept and metaphor, and Aickman creates several unsettling scenes with the chiming of those clocks, but by the time the tale reaches its expected conclusion the reader’s become desensitized to the idea.
The prose throughout the collection is excellent and surreal, but it’s also surprisingly logical. The strangeness here comes from the oddities in the events depicted, not from any haziness depicting them. The Hospice is perhaps the best example of this, as it consists entirely of clearly described and mundane actions that add up to something that is, somehow, existentially terrifying. Near the story's beginning, our narrator describes a curious bowl of soup:
There was an enormous quantity of sup, in what Maybury realized was an unusually deep and wide plate. The amplitude of the plate had at first been masked by the circumstance that round much of its whole rim was inscribed, in large black letters, THE HOSPICE; rather in the style of a baby's plate, Maybury thought, if both lettering and plate had not been so immense. The soup itself was unusually weighty too: it had undoubtedly contained eggs as well as pulses, and steps have been taken to add "thickening" also. (p. 101)
Aickman’s characters, too, are often exceedingly rational in their approach to the impossible. After being driven away from his adult life, the distraught Prince Albrecht Von Allendorf in Niemandswasser returns to his memories of childhood and seeks to finally understand the experiences that formed him. To understand the lake that inexplicably injured his friend, NAME consults maps and testimonies before heading out to confront – and, potentially, be consumed by – his past.
Robert Aickman reads like no other writer I've yet experienced. Throughout this collection, he's far more concerned with atmosphere and character than any sort of storytelling in the traditional sense, but his skills at both of those and his urbane but effective prose keeps his stories gripping. While I can't say that every piece in Cold Hand in Mine performs flawlessly, I can say that they're all well worth trying.