Compulsory Games by Robert Aickman

A review

I was prompted to buy this book after reading a review of it in the New Statesman.  It highlighted an author I’d never heard of whose short fiction was likened to MR James, Arthur Machen and HP Lovecraft – except that he displayed characteristics that set him in a category of his own. After reading this collection, I would add another author that his style reminds me of: Philip K. Dick. If you’d like a quote that probably sums up his style, you need look no further than Neil Gaiman: ‘Reading Robert Aickman it’s like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully.’

Many of these stories take a bit of ‘getting into’ as they start with the mundane, and their titles don’t reveal their relevance until you’ve finished them. This is a good thing as it heightens the sense of mystery. They also seem to feature women a lot. Not surprising as Aickman appears to have had few male friends and many female lovers. When he fell ill in the latter months of his life, a number of women friends who had never known each other before, came together and looked cared for him until he died in 1981.

I also learned many new words – not so many as to overpower the work, but I always like an author that stretches my word limits. For example, mulcting – did you know that it means to extract money by fine or taxation or by fraudulent means. Exactly the right word for the context it was used in while reading one of Aickman’s tales.

Aickman encapsulates the ethos of the time he lived in (not that long ago in the 20th century), yet also accurately predicts the future. He states in one story: ‘all the remaining days of our lives seemed to drop upon us like dried out snowflakes or like daily leaves from the dead calendar of a past and forgotten year…  Life has become more rigourous than it was then; though it is likely to become more rigourous still.’ Again, this is a style that attracts me – where metaphor and prose-poetry are able to convey a particular feeling so aptly.

Anyway, on to the stories themselves. I’ll leave the longest reviews for the stories that have not been covered as much by other reviews I have read.

Compulsory games

A story about a married man living next door to a peculiar spinster who works for the civil service. This sets the tone for the whole collection. Aickman emotes a sense of dread as he recounts the gradual estrangement of a man from his wife and her concurrent relationship with a woman civil servant who lives next year. There is a bizarre but unsettling description of this couple’s obsession with light aircraft and the continual buzzing of this man with their plane leads him to a place of unhingement. The ending also sets the tone for the whole book i.e. that of ambiguity. I’m beginning to see what Neil Gaiman meant!

Hand in glove

On the surface of it, a story about a picnic next to a river, a dislocating journey past a church, a visit to a strange old woman and a horrific encounter with a herd of cows! There are, of course, deep underlying themes about control in relationships, but I’ll leave you to draw them out yourselves. I don’t want to spoil too much of the story.

Marriage

A sense of tragedy pervades a man’s relationship with two women – two facets of the same person perhaps? One appeals to his intellect and the other to his carnal nature. The ending is, again, suitably ambiguous.

Le miroir

One of only two stories with a more historical aspect. All I can say is that there are parallels with Oscar Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray.’

No time is passing

A dream – like quality pervades this tale. It is captured exquisitely in the mc’s sense of being able only to take limited decisions; that things are beyond his control in the surreal landscape he finds himself in. There is also that sense of wanting to escape something deeply dreadful that is not a monster but is nonetheless terrifying in its ordinariness. Is it not the very day things that cause us the greatest fear?

Residents only

This is probably the longest story in the collection (just) and one has to persevere to reap the story’s rewards. It is the closest we come to a traditional ‘ghost’ story. There is a sense of something sinister occurring beneath everyone’s noses, yet all and sundry seem unable to halt the progress of something that pervades a whole community with death and corruption. I was left with a disturbing question: can a whole community be haunted?

Wood

I was gripped straight away by this story. This goes to show that Aickman can make a story accessible if he wants to – he just chooses to avoid this in most examples – a sign of a great writer.

Another sign of a master scripter: Aickman is able to encapsulate the character of someone using a poetic style: ‘Munn struck me in those days as one who, instead of embracing a woman, embraced a grievance.’

‘Wood’ is the most accessible and disturbing story yet. Aickman can draw horror from the most mundane of situations. This time a man, with the ability to create straw ‘daffies’ or effigies marries the daughter of an undertaker and eventually takes up the family business. Aickman leaves you completely guessing as to where the story is leading right up to the end. I was left with the same prickles up my spine I used to receive when watching old ‘House of Hammer’ horror movies.

The Strangers

There is a strangeness lurking in the midst of what is known during this story. This is enhanced by Aickman hiding the identity of  people and place names – as if it’s a true story. For example, who  could Z — be? And why does the mc want to protect the identities of A —— and L ——?

When the mc is invited to a social event, the recounting of words on a mimeographed program written in reverse adds to sense of disturbance, of things being not quite right.

As its theme, the story homes in on the life of a man who is looking for a woman companion but, because of his reticent character, is prone to attracting the predatory or domineering kind, (a theme visited in ‘Wood’ also.)

It’s a weird event the man finds himself at as he is invited to listen firstly to a man playing piano: ‘sitting on his nerves, holding in the shrieks.’

Tension mounts as the strangers in the audience are described and the nature of the ‘charity acts’ outlined. There are many more men than women. After the pianist a female magician is set to perform. It is only once the performances are underway that the mc notices the strange nature of ‘fishy-eyed’ audience members, their speech patterns and scornfulness. The fact that three of them stand on the protagonist’s toes without uttering an apology seems mundane, yet Aickman uses it to heighten the dread. Somehow this is more disturbing than a full-on, gore-filled torture scene.

Aickman captures that every day experience during a particular juncture in the story when the magician reveals something hideous in the gloom-filled room. ‘It was the moment one yells, and, with luck, wakes up, during a long nightmare; a moment that, of its nature, can never be quite examined, quite elucidated, or quite extinguished.’

There is a reference to Charles and Mary Lamb. If you did not look up who this couple were, you might not receive the full impact of the allusion. They contemporaries of Wordsworth and Coleridge and famously wrote a book together in a very closeted environment. They also suffered from mental health issues, and Mary Lamb committed matricides with a kitchen knife. The fact that one has to look this up may seem to some, a way of making the story more inaccessible, but, to me, it added to the absorption.

Towards the end of the story there is horror as the protagonist, Richard, talks to the dead Clarinda (spoiler) and she insists it is snowing in October. The notion that Richard and Clarinda exist in different realities becomes dreadfully clear – yet only one of them understands this; much like talking to one with Alzheimer’s but unable to convince or soothe them because their perceptions of reality are askance.

‘Strangers’ ends speculatively and with ambiguity too. Does this not approximate to real life? ‘The horror that we never find answers to the sources of our dread, and therefore never escape them.’

The Coffin House

First story that has a sinister title and the shortest in the collection. Two young women are caught on the fells in a rainstorm on Xmas day. They are invited into a ramshackle shelter, then confronted firstly by a Mrs Hagan and then a Mr Honeyman who beckons them into a room with two coffins. Questions for the reader: are the coffins for the two girls? What occurred during the blinding flash that occurs after one girl strives to overpower Mrs Hagan? Where is it that Jessica awakes after the incident? What is the nature of the nurse with the empty hypodermic?

This is a story that really doesn’t work for me. As flash fiction, why introduce one of the protagonists as a poet? It has no bearing on the story. There is too little in the narrative to hang any sort of investment in. It doesn’t even serve to create a flashpoint in time as the description of the scenes are so sparse. Move on.

Letters to the postman

 Yet another story where a central male character is possessed of a shy, unambitious and unassuming nature. Living with his parents and sister, a young man called Robin takes up the job of postman because there seems to be nothing else to fall into. On his first day he is told of a house on his route where lives a mysterious Mrs Fearon. She is never seen, no one knows what she does and she hardly ever has any post sent to her. The postman’s imagination wanders regarding this woman until he receives a letter to deliver. Upon posting it through an external mailbox, he lifts the lid and a note falls out with a simple message. It is signed Rosetta Fearon and tells him she is living with a man who, though not unkind, she feels trapped by. On subsequent visits, he receives similar notes that he replies to (against the postman’s code) although he never sees her. He does, however notice a pretty woman about the village who he gradually comes to realise must be this enigmatic woman.

The story progresses as the postman realises he must deliver this woman from her quiet torment, imagining that he is her saving Prince. We are left wondering, although never entirely sure, if Robin the postman is not a little simple. He’s certainly very dependent on his mother and over-bearing sister, and one questions the inappropriately over- affectionate relationship he has with his mother. Aickman drops these notions in by inference and his storytelling allows the reader to surmise these things without being actually told.

The ultimate strangeness reveals itself in the last scene with this Rosetta Fearon. It is the only ending the story could have, true to the nature of each character.

Laura

Once again we have a shy, relatively poor mc working a mundane job (in this case, a bank). We also have a mysterious woman who holds the man’s attention and, in fact, becomes his obsession. He meets her at a party but only fleetingly. Yet this meeting determines the course of his tragic life. He liaises with her again in two other locations, both abroad and the third being the last. This last meeting is ominous and ambiguous. The meaning and consequences of the story are left to the reader but you find yourself pondering the final sentence, thinking what this mysterious woman symbolises.

The fully-conducted tour

The precise locations and names in this story are obscured or unremembered. The tale also features a character altogether unwell. This story is set in Tuscany and involves a man who takes an excursion one day to a ramshackle old house for a conducted tour by a mysterious and beautiful woman who constantly ‘catches his eye.’ (Another common theme in Aickman’s stories.) It occurred to me at this point in the collection that Aickman’s tales reveal what Kurt Vonnegut knew to be true – you can write about anything because in the end you will be writing about yourself.

This time, there is no amorous liaison involved in the story, just a sinister conclusion. The story ends abruptly but with great satisfaction – and a great sense of disquiet.

A disciple of Plato

The grey indistinct man who introduces a woman to the philosopher in this tale elicits a dreamlike quality. In the philosopher’s words: ‘She had never realised that the response to her beauty might seem to be, might even intentionally disguise itself as, the response to her utterances.’

There is a weird, dislocated form of writing (even by Aickman’s standards) such that the reader imagines they are following a current narrative but in the next instant wonders if the story reflects the experiences of a whole lifetime. There is much ambiguity about the convent and religious establishments the mysterious woman has connections with: Santa Tomasina of the Sour stomach, Santa Monica Long-in-the-Tooth. Are these real places or metaphorical constructs?

Then there is the timing of the Roman day and activities. The streets are more or less deserted in the morning when the philosopher conducts his liaisons with this intelligent, beautiful woman.

The woman is intent on giving her life to a convent while the philosopher is determined to take her as his own. Was the convent to be the woman’s captive – or the philosopher? He could free her from the confines of the Roman Catholic order only to enslave her himself. When she resists his entreaties, we are left with the notion that should they have shared a future together, then it would be he who would become enslaved. The narrator reveals: ‘The two of them were so alike that they would hardly be safe together. He could never have escaped her, and variety is essential to a sophisticated man.’

Towards the end of story, it becomes clear the man is none other than Giacomo Casanova and the woman precedes his most captivating French lover, Henriette. Or is this woman, Signorina Boreham synonymous with her? We are left guessing. This is as far as the historical accuracy seems to go. Casanova was never a philosopher – although he passed through many forms and guises in his colourful life. The end of the story has a footnote by Aickman to the effect that this account is purposely left absent from Casanova’s memoirs.

Just a song at twilight

The settingis  an island off the coast of where? Spain, Greece? The main characters are Timo – an Estonian of mysterious origins and his soon to be wife, Lydia – a Londoner. They purchase a ramshackle peasant’s house on the island and, with great difficulty, transport their belongings from England to the place. She is going to support him financially. When they arrive at the house, hot and bothered, a strange woman arrives. She asks them for money to escape the haunted house she is living in. For some undecipherable reason, Lydia gives her the money. But Timo has started to hear strange music. The woman reveals that this is the source of her disquiet and why she must leave. She says that only some can hear it. After a few moments, Timo investigates whether the woman has left and the story ends with Lydia hearing him leave in their camper van. She is left alone with the night closing in.

A final story to make you ponder into the night or is it more about the incompatability of two people? Of how commonly held dreams so often end in disappointment? What is the significance of the cup of tea they share and the reason for Timo overturning his?

As always, we are left with more questions than answers – the nature of Aickman’s stories.

 

In conclusion; if you like suggestive, ambiguous, weird horror, delivered with eloquent language; then this is the book for you.

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