Tag Archives: Horror

‘Cold Hand in Mine’ by Robert Aickman

Robert Aickman was a British writer of horror stories or ‘strange tales’ as he preferred to call them. I had only previously read his other collection of stories, Dark Entries (1964), which I had enjoyed, so I was looking forward to reading this collection from 1975. Aickman’s stories take place in the real, everyday world which is familiar to all of us. His tales usually take place in modern towns and cities, very often during the daytime as well and only rarely relies on the supernatural. Instead Aickman finds the horror or strangeness inherent in our lives and plays with it, distorting the world around us ever so slightly to reveal the weirdness within. In this way his stories remind me of Shirley Jackson’s stories with the only difference being that Aickman is very British and Jackson is very American. Aickman’s style may annoy some readers, I guess; his writing style is quite stuffy and old-fashioned, though for me this adds a certain unreality to the stories; the main characters do have a uniformity about them as if they’re all just versions of Aickman himself and they have a general awkwardness about them which can sometimes be annoying as they’ll do or say something, or not, that will exasperate the reader; the endings can be vague and sometimes the stories end quite abruptly, leaving the reader to decide what happened. None of this is meant to put you off reading his stories, but rather to prepare you for what to expect. It makes the experience even more unsettling and eerie and usually adds to the effect of the story, only occasionally did I feel that he got it wrong.

Cold Hand in Mine contains eight stories with each story typically between twenty to forty pages long. I’m not going to cover each one but will instead just give a flavour of one or two of them. The first story in the collection is called The Swords and is a great start to the book. It is told in the first person by what could be considered a typical Aickman character; a youngish man, rather naive, at least as far as women go, and a bit of a loner. Here he introduces himself:

I was a beginner all right; raw as a spring onion. What’s more, I was a real mother’s boy: scared stiff of life, and crass ignorant. Not that I want to sound disrespectful to my old mother. She’s as good as they come, and still hit it off better with her than most other females.

His father died when he was young and his uncle taught him how to be a grocery salesman which involves a lot of travelling around and staying in cheap hotels often populated with the seedier elements of society. One time whilst visiting Wolverhampton he finds himself in such a hotel where in the evenings there is little to do except wander around the city. He ends up in a rundown area where he comes across a rather forlorn looking fair which has only a few customers. He ends up going into a grimy tent with the sign ‘The Swords’ over the entrance; inside the show has started, with a man giving his spiel whilst an attractive woman lays sprawled across a chair in a bored manner. The audience consists solely of men and on the stage is a pile of forty or so dingy looking swords. Having missed the beginning of the performance the narrator doesn’t know what to expect but the man on the stage wants to know who is to ‘go first’. He has to cajole the audience but eventually someone steps up. The man is told to pick up a sword and urged to stick it into the girl.

   And then it happened, this extraordinary thing.
   The volunteer seemed to me to tremble for a moment, and then plunged the sword right into the girl on the chair. As he was standing between me and her, I could not see where the sword entered, but I could see that the man seemed to press it right in, because almost the whole length of it seemed to disappear.

When the sword is pulled out there is no blood and the woman is otherwise not affected. After kissing the woman, which was part of the price of the ticket, the next customer has a go. Scared, the narrator leaves before it is his turn. The next day he is drawn back to the fair and ends up meeting the circus man and the girl in a nearby café, they recognise the narrator and the circus man offers a ‘private show’, at a price, which the narrator accepts. When she turns up later that evening at his hotel events take a rather strange turn.

Other stories have more familiar horror topics such as a (possibly) haunted house in The Real Road to the Church; in The Hospice a traveller gets lost taking a short cut home and ends up at a very strange house/hotel where the customers seem to be permanent, but not necessarily voluntary, residents. It’s very creepy, especially when he has to spend the night there and he has to share a room with one of the residents. The story, Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal, is quite different than the others in that it’s told via diary entries, the main character is female, it’s set at the beginning of the nineteenth century and it involves vampires, albeit in a very understated way; it’s a great story and it won an award when it was first published in 1975.

Possibly my favourite story is Meeting Mr Millar in which the narrator, a young writer living in rather shabby third-floor flat in London, experiences the neighbours from, well, Hell. The second floor is taken over by what appears to be an accountancy firm, ‘Stallabrass, Hoskins and Cramp’, but seems to be run by the elusive Mr Millar. Very little work seems to get done by the firm and there is an endless parade of visitors and/or employees both during the day and night. Aickman lets the story snowball beautifully with events becoming increasingly strange. Aickman even gives us a clear, unambiguous, and even happy ending.

The last story, The Clock Watcher, was an enjoyable tale about a newly married man and wife and her obsession with collecting clocks.

Most of Aickman’s books were published between the 1960s and 1980s. He was never a hugely popular author but his books have been kept in print in recent years largely by Tartarus Press and Faber & Faber. The recent edition by Faber & Faber of Cold Hand in Mine includes an introduction by Reece Sheersmith from the dark comedy team The League of Gentlemen and an interesting biographical afterword by Jean Richardson, a friend of Aickman’s.

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‘Hangsaman’ by Shirley Jackson (1951 Club)

Whilst looking through my GoodReads shelves for books from 1951 one jumped out at me—Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson. I’ve read a collection of short stories and a few novels by her including her first novel The Road Through the Wall which was an impressive first novel. Hangsaman was her second novel published three years after her first. UK readers may be interested to know that Penguin re-released most of Jackson’s works a few years ago so most are readily available in different formats.

Hangsaman is the story of Natalie Waite which is principally from her viewpoint and covers a period of less than a year as she starts college. Natalie is a seventeen year old living at home with a rather pompous writer father, a neurotic, possibly alcoholic, mother and a younger brother. The novel opens with a breakfast scene where right from the start we experience Arnold Waite declaring ‘I am God’ to the annoyance of his wife and Natalie sits quietly, but critically, observing. She’s about to go to college; a college that her parents have taken time to choose for her and one that is really too expensive for them. Natalie is quite fearful of going there.

In the first section we get to experience how Natalie feels about the rest of her family. There’s an intense bond between Natalie and her father, though this is intellectual rather than emotional. Her father likes setting her writing tests and it appears as if he’s trying to live his life again through Natalie. The Waites are having a Sunday cocktail party which means that Mrs Waite has to spend most of the afternoon in the kitchen preparing the food. Natalie prefers being in her room reading or alone in the garden, whereas Mrs Waite finds the kitchen the only place where she can escape the overbearing presence of her husband. Arnold Waite prefers being in his study and Natalie has no idea what her brother, Bud, gets up to when she’s not around. They all prefer being apart from each other. Throughout this first section Natalie imagines that she is being quizzed over a murder by a policeman. The beauty of Jackson’s work is that she can make the everyday world seem eerie; there’s a sense of foreboding hanging over everything even though the sun is shining, it’s breakfast time, or it’s cocktail hour. Although Natalie seems to get on with her father better than her mother she admits to liking her mother when she is in the kitchen; where she can be herself and talk freely. At the cocktail party while Arnold is socialising and flirting with the women, Mrs Waite is drinking herself into a state in the bedroom. Only Natalie shows any concern and her mother confides to her:

“It isn’t any single thing,” Mrs. Waite repeated earnestly, the tears on her cheeks, “It’s just that—well, look, Natalie. This is the only life I’ve got—you understand? I mean, this is all. And look what’s happening to me. I spend most of my time just thinking about how nice things used to be and wondering if they’ll ever be nice again. If I should go on and on and die someday and nothing was ever nice again—wouldn’t that be a fine thing? I get to feeling like that and then I think I’ll make things be nice, and make him behave, and just make everything all happy and exciting again the way it used to be—but I’m too tired.”

Mrs. Waite continues her drunken monologue and portrays Mr. Waite as a malevolent force from whom she is trying to protect Natalie. The whole cocktail party is written so well that it’s a shame it ends, and it ends in a suitably creepy and disturbing way—I’ll say no more about that.

And so Natalie attends her college. She’s a loner from the start, preferring to stay in her room working rather than attending social events. She’s optimistic at the beginning that this will be a new start for her but the optimisim doesn’t last long. She becomes socially acquainted with her English professor and his wife who seem to be copies of her own parents with Arthur Langdon as a rather pompous, cocktail-loving, English professor and Elizabeth Langdon, an ex-student of Arthur’s, as his neurotic, alcoholic, suicidal wife. The Langdons are also visited by students Anne and Vicki; Arthur is probably having an affair with Anne. Anne and Vicki are friendly to Natalie but there’s no close bond between them as Natalie remains outside all the cliques. Meanwhile events start to happen in the dormitory that become increasingly sinister and weird. There is a middle of the night initiation which ends up farcical rather than menacing; objects start to be stolen; Natalie discovers that some of the keys open some of the other doors and in one of the more frightening episodes Natalie is woken in the middle of the night by someone and is told to follow them. She’s led by another girl through darkened corridors to another room where the girl coaxes Natalie to listen at the walls to hear them. When this finally gets too weird for Natalie she leaves the building but bumps into a girl called Tony, who either is already, or becomes, Natalie’s friend. We learn nothing of Tony, who at this stage of the novel, appears to be a figment of Natalie’s imagination. After an uncomfortable visit to her parents things get even more strange where Natalie and Tony have become best friends, walk hand-in-hand around town laughing at others and talking in a quick-paced, humorous banter. I was going to include a sample of this but I felt it was too long and probably wouldn’t make much sense out of context.

I won’t reveal much more even though there’s little definite to give away as the whole novel is ambiguous. This ambiguity could be annoying in a less accomplished author but Jackson is a master of this form of everyday creepiness. Jackson’s books are similar to David Lynch’s movies in many ways, though less violent. In the end we are unsure just how much is due to Natalie’s fragile and fractured psyche. The great thing about the novel is that Natalie is intelligent enough to reflect on her own feelings and thoughts. At times she doubts her own existence.

Perhaps—and this was her most persistent thought, the thought that stayed with her and came suddenly to trouble her at odd moments, and to comfort her—suppose, actually, she were not Natalie Waite, college girl, daughter to Arnold Waite, a creature of deep lovely destiny; suppose she were someone else?

This was one of those books where I ended up rushing through the ending a little, curious as to how it was going to end. I knew from the start that it wouldn’t have a clean ending but I was not prepared for what actually happened. It’s one of those books that has grown on me since finishing it and while writing this review. If you’ve already read some of Jackson’s more well-known work then I would suggest checking out Hangsaman or The Road Through the Wall. I’ve certainly got a hunger for more work by her.

I read this as part of The 1951 Club where contributors all read books from the same year. This was organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

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‘The Rats in the Walls’ by H.P. Lovecraft

1924-ClubThe Rats in the Walls is a short story by H.P. Lovecraft which was first published in Weird Tales in March 1924. I decided to re-read this as part of The 1924 Club‘s fortnight of blogs centred around works published in 1924. This is hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

H.P. Lovecraft is a favourite author of mine but his overblown style and ‘cosmic horror’ subject matter is not to everyone’s taste. The Rats in the Walls, for example, clips along at a steady pace and initially seems like a pretty standard ghost story until we descend further into a more typical Lovecraftian world of cannabilistic atavism and subterranean worlds…oops, I’ve given the ending away…never mind though as the real fun with Lovecraft is reading him rather than trying to work out the ending, especially as most of his stories end with the main character descending into madness.

The story begins in July 1923. The narrator recounts how he bought, then renovated Exham Priory (possibly in Northumberland) which was an old ancestral building that had fallen into another family’s ownership after the narrator’s ancestor, Walter de la Poer, fled the building and the country to New England in the seventeenth century, following accusations that he’d murdered several members of his household.

The ancestral links go further back in time; the castle was built in 1261 on the temple’s foundations and it is claimed that the site had been used as a place of worship in the Roman period and further back possibly even to the Celtic druids. The locals look upon the narrator’s restoration of the castle with horror. Over the years there have been many horrific stories attributed to the castle:

There was, for instance, the belief that a legion of bat-winged devils kept Witches’ Sabbath each night at the priory—a legion whose sustenance might explain the disproportionate abundance of coarse, vegetables harvested in the vast gardens. And, most vivid of all, there was the dramatic epidemic of the rats—the scampering army of obscene vermin which had burst forth from the castle three months after the tragedy that doomed it to desertion—the lean, filthy, ravenous army which had swept all before it and devoured fowl, cats, dogs, hogs, sheep, and even two hapless human beings before its fury was spent.

After two years restoring the castle the narrator moves in. Within a week the cats start to act a bit strangely, staring at the walls and roving about the house. The narrator starts to have nightmares and when he wakes he can hear the sound of mice or rats scurrying about behind the walls of his room. On subsequent nights the noise intensifies and can be heard all over the house—but only the narrator can hear the noise. It appears to him that the rats are descending to unknown depths and so he investigates the cellar. He asks his friend, Norrys, to assist him and when they find a draught of air coming from the base of an altar they decide to bring in a team of archaeologists to investigate further.

If you really don’t want to find out what happens next then you may prefer to skip to the last paragraph of this post. It’s at this point that the story really becomes Lovecraftian as the team manage to tilt the altar and reveal some stone steps that are littered with human and human-like skeletons that have been gnawed by rats…and possibly gnawed by something larger. As they descend the steps and venture further they come across a large grotto with buildings and a floor that is completely covered with bones. Amongst these they find skeletons of humanlike quadrupeds that appear to have been raised like cattle for consumption, presumably by his ancestors. The narrator and Norrys become separated from the others and when the narrator hears the scurrying of the rats he panics and tries to escape.

He is later discovered crouched over the half-eaten corpse of Norrys and is subsequently shut away in a cell in an asylum. He refuses to believe that he could commit such an act and the story ends with the narrator pleading with the reader to believe him:

When I speak of poor Norrys they accuse me of a hideous thing, but they must know that I did not do it. They must know it was the rats; the slithering, scurrying rats whose scampering will never let me sleep; the daemon rats that race behind the padding in this room and beckon me down to greater horrors than I have ever known; the rats they can never hear; the rats, the rats in the walls.

I love the way this story turns from a quite ordinary ghost story into a much darker, more typically Lovecraftian story. In some ways it’s more restrained than some of his other stories as it does not involve alien beings or any creatures from his Cthulhu mythos; the horror is purely human as even the rats only appear to be in the narrator’s mind. The horror is that of slavery and cannibalism—and madness.

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