You Hear The Strangest Things: The Eerie Stories Of Robert Aickman

The midcentury English author's dark stories have been making a comeback — and are ideal for fireside listening on dark nights.

The self-described “strange stories” of Robert Aickman feature protagonists who are travelers, indulgers of long meandering walks, or at the very least deeply at odds with the reality they inhabit. Operating within the established tradition of the classical English ghost story, as developed and entombed in cold, dank stone by M.R. James, Aickman writes a subtle, elegant, and deeply upsetting kind of horror.

When hearing Aickman’s stories, especially with the fluidity of actor Reece Shearsmith’s (co-creator of The League of Gentlemen) vocal performance, the listener is unable to place a barrier between themselves and the relentless momentum of the narrative. Shearsmith doesn’t hold hands in the narration, nor does he adopt the pseudo-Shakespearian inflection which often stands in for “British.” He speaks quickly (with a regional accent described by some English people as “soft Hull”) and lets the occasional off-kilter pause add to the disquiet. The result is truly chilling.

While Faber & Faber is republishing a great quantity of Aickman’s stories, both this autumn and next spring, the only way of getting The Wine Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust this Hallow’s Eve is via Audible.

Cold Hand in Mine

Perhaps Aickman’s most well-known collection opens with “The Swords," a grotesquely sexual coming-of-age story in which a young traveling salesman is exposed to a disquieting sideshow act. While most Aickman stories function well enough on evocative atmosphere and the slow accumulation of dread, “The Swords” is startling enough that the less is relayed about its actual plot the better. “The Hospice," an almost comical Kafka-esque piece, centerstages Aickman’s obsession with the perversion of hospitality. (If you’re gifted something in an Aickman story, or find yourself having purchased an object rather too cheaply, you will eventually be made to pay a higher and more personal price for it.) In “The Same Dog," a childhood friendship is destroyed by a countryside exploration that ends with a crumbling house and the “shapeless, slithery dog” who guards it.

The Wine Dark Sea

Aickman’s hauntings are obscure, partially due to the self-imposed isolation of his characters. Their ability to appreciate reality often seems as damaged as that reality itself; thus, the ultimate truth of whether or not an actual haunting has happened seems relatively unimportant, merely because the experiences are so visceral. In “The Inner Room," a gothic doll’s house is acquired for a young girl, whom it begins to disturb deeply. Her family disintegrates almost casually after its removal. Later in life, she will find it again while alone and lost in a marsh — and it has grown to her size. The collection’s titular story, while of interest to completists, is not among Aickman’s most effective work and best skipped by new listeners. Skip ahead to “The Trains," which The Millions calls his “most conventionally plotted but characteristically opaque work of horror.”

The Unsettled Dust

The titular story touches upon Aickman’s other great obsession, conservation, which is crystallized in the phrase, “interest in the paranormal phenomena appears to be growing steadily partly no doubt as an escape from a way of life that seems every day to grow more uniform, regulated, and unambitious.” A late masterpiece, “The Stains" details the story of a middle-aged widower, Stephen, who is visiting his brother. While on one of his favorite “long solitary walks in the uplands," Stephen encounters a young woman, Nell, whose brief glance makes him temporarily feel part of the “mass of mankind." A rare Aickman character who is actually capable of forming a relationship, Stephen dearly misses his wife, who “had been part of him," but he is fascinated by the younger woman, who appears ignorant of contemporary life and seems “part of nature." Slowly, Nell will disorder his world, bringing it to a terminal point.

Cold Hand in Mine

Perhaps Aickman’s most well-known collection opens with “The Swords," a grotesquely sexual coming-of-age story in which a young traveling salesman is exposed to a disquieting sideshow act. While most Aickman stories function well enough on evocative atmosphere and the slow accumulation of dread, “The Swords” is startling enough that the less is relayed about its actual plot the better. “The Hospice," an almost comical Kafka-esque piece, centerstages Aickman’s obsession with the perversion of hospitality. (If you’re gifted something in an Aickman story, or find yourself having purchased an object rather too cheaply, you will eventually be made to pay a higher and more personal price for it.) In “The Same Dog," a childhood friendship is destroyed by a countryside exploration that ends with a crumbling house and the “shapeless, slithery dog” who guards it.

The Wine Dark Sea

Aickman’s hauntings are obscure, partially due to the self-imposed isolation of his characters. Their ability to appreciate reality often seems as damaged as that reality itself; thus, the ultimate truth of whether or not an actual haunting has happened seems relatively unimportant, merely because the experiences are so visceral. In “The Inner Room," a gothic doll’s house is acquired for a young girl, whom it begins to disturb deeply. Her family disintegrates almost casually after its removal. Later in life, she will find it again while alone and lost in a marsh — and it has grown to her size. The collection’s titular story, while of interest to completists, is not among Aickman’s most effective work and best skipped by new listeners. Skip ahead to “The Trains," which The Millions calls his “most conventionally plotted but characteristically opaque work of horror.”

The Unsettled Dust

The titular story touches upon Aickman’s other great obsession, conservation, which is crystallized in the phrase, “interest in the paranormal phenomena appears to be growing steadily partly no doubt as an escape from a way of life that seems every day to grow more uniform, regulated, and unambitious.” A late masterpiece, “The Stains" details the story of a middle-aged widower, Stephen, who is visiting his brother. While on one of his favorite “long solitary walks in the uplands," Stephen encounters a young woman, Nell, whose brief glance makes him temporarily feel part of the “mass of mankind." A rare Aickman character who is actually capable of forming a relationship, Stephen dearly misses his wife, who “had been part of him," but he is fascinated by the younger woman, who appears ignorant of contemporary life and seems “part of nature." Slowly, Nell will disorder his world, bringing it to a terminal point.

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