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.