Tag Archives: UK literature

‘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.



Filed under Aickman, Robert, Fiction

‘I am Mary Dunne’ by Brian Moore

I am Mary Dunne covers a single day in the life of Mary Lavery, née Dunne, ex-Mary Bell, ex-Mary Phelan. She’s currently married to her third husband but can’t help remembering events from the past even though she has trouble with her memory. Brian Moore is a new favourite author of mine but I was a little wary of this one at the beginning as he adopts a first-person narrative where we are dropped straight in to the confusion that is Mary’s life; but Moore handles it really well and although it takes a little while to work out which husband is which and who all the other people are in Mary’s life Moore slowly reveals the details so that we can begin to make sense of her life. Within the first few pages of the book Mary recounts her morning visit to a beauty salon where the receptionist forgot Mary’s name but when she asked Mary for it Mary’s mind went blank until she gave her name as Mrs Phelan, her name from her first marriage. Then upon leaving the salon she was stopped in the street by a smiling man, a stranger, who said ‘I’d like to fuck you, baby’ and then walked off leaving Mary stunned then angry. It’s not a great start to the day.

Mary is currently living in New York but she’s originally from Montreal, Canada. Her current husband is Terence Lavery, a British playwright, and as the novel unfolds it seems that she’s finally settled on a man whom she truly loves and who loves her. But she always feels that she’s playing a part; with each husband she has had to act differently.

I play an ingénue role, with special shadings demanded by each suitor. For Jimmy I had to be a tomboy; for Hat, I must look like a model; he admired elegance. Terence wants to see me as Irish: sulky, laughing, wild. And me, how do I see me, who is that me I create in mirrors, the dressing-table me, the self I cannot put a name to in the Golden Door Beauty Salon?

She doesn’t quite know who she is. With each husband she feels that she has to be different. Even when she changes jobs she feels that her identify has to be detroyed and re-created. She feels that she is split into three Selfs: Sensible Self, My Buddy and Mad Twin. On the day of the novel she is mostly possessed by her Mad Twin self. And she’s a bit of a blabbermouth, she says things before thinking through the consequences.

I am, always have been, a fool who rushes in, a blurter-out of awkward truths, a speaker-up at parties who, the morning after, filled with guilt, vows that never again, no matter what, but who, faced at the very next encounter with someone whose opinions strike me as unfair, rushes in again, blurting out, breaking all vows.

This confession comes when she’s relating a visit from an old gent who is looking to rent the flat while she and her husband are going to be away. She notices that his clothes are a little shabby and recognises him vaguely from somewhere and more or less accuses him of casing the joint. Emabarrased, he tries to leave, but Mary (Mad Twin Mary), realises that she’s made a mistake, chases after him to try to apologise even though it’s too late. It turns out that he’s lonely and just likes looking around rich people’s flats and meeting people.

During the novel we find out more about Mary’s past, her family and her previous jobs but the stand-out scenes for me are the two times throughout the day when she meets up with old friends. First she meets up with her old friend from Montreal, Janice Sloane, who’s in New York for a few days. This lunch scene is very amusing, right from the start there’s a mix up over the restaurant they’re going to. Throughout the lunch they end up revealing things about each other that are surprising and hurtful. They talk, then argue then make up. The second scene is at the end when she gets a phone-call from an old friend, or rather an old friend of her second husband, who wants to meet up with her. His name is Ernest Truelove (is Moore trying to signal something here?) and he has dinner at the Lavery’s apartment, gets increasingly drunk, makes some startling revelations and makes a complete ass of himself. Moore’s characterisation is brilliant here as although Ernest appears at first to be an obnoxious caricature, introduced for comic effect, he gradually becomes more realistic and, although he’s still a ridiculous character at the end, we begin to empathise with him. Here’s a quote from a section from the end of the novel, after Ernest has told his story.

    There, in the dining-room, amid the wreck of dinner glasses, dishes, wine bottles, there settled on all three of us an instant of total immobility, as though the film of our lives had jammed. We sat, frozen in stop frame, until, suddenly, Ernie’s head jerked forward and he turned to me, his face screwed up in a painful parody of a boy’s embarrassed grin. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I guess I have finished. Eh, Maria? Golly, I’ve gone and done it again. Made a fool of myself, imposed on people’s kindness, irritated the people I most want to be friends with. You and Terence. Golly.’
    Having castigated himself, he, like all those people who are quick to apologize, considered himself at once forgiven. He grinned again and said, ‘What a horse’s ass I am. I’ll bet that’s what you’re thinking?’

I am Mary Dunne is another great novel by Moore. I have also read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal which were both excellent novels.

This was read as part of the 1968Club challenge.


Filed under Fiction, Moore, Brian

‘Quartet in Autumn’ by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977 Barbara Pym’s novel, Quartet in Autumn focuses on the lives of four work colleagues, Norman, Edwin, Letty and Marcia, who are all single and approaching retirement. They work in the same office; we never find out what it is they do but it seems as if their jobs are pretty superfluous as none of them will be replaced when they retire. They seem to spend most of their time making cups of tea and eating jelly babies. All four characters live alone, have no immediate family and very few friends. Norman lives in a bedsit, likes fried food and complaining; Edwin is a widower who is interested in attending church functions and likes making holiday plans, though he rarely goes on holiday; Letty also lives in a bedsit and plans to move to the country on retirement to be close to her friend, Marjorie, whom she has known since childhood; Marcia lives in her deceased parents’ house. Since her parents and her cat died she has largely withdrawn from the world around her. She collects milk bottles and tinned food and likes cataloguing things. She’s not a big eater.

Although there’s a lot of humour in this novel I was glad that Pym is not too hard on these characters. Each character is aware, to different degrees, that they are out of sync with the world around them and that their impending retirement is only going to exacerbate this. At first it’s difficult distinguishing between the two male characters and equally between the two female characters but their differences soon emerge. For example it soon becomes clear that Marcia is a bit odder and more reclusive than Letty. Marcia has recently had a mastectomy and has formed a kind of crush on the surgeon who performed on her; she looks forward to her hospital appointments and occasionally takes the bus to the surgeon’s house in the hope of seeing him. Marcia had vaguely thought of Norman in a romantic role but now Mr Strong, the surgeon, has replaced Norman in her thoughts. She buys mostly tinned food but barely works up the enthusiasm to use their contents, usually making do with a biscuit and a cup of tea. As the novel continues she gets thinner and thinner, her appearance becomes stranger and her garden is wilder. She has aroused the interest of the social services, in particular Janice Brabner who sees it as her duty to help Marcia whether she wants it or not.

Letty lives in a bedsit; she was the daughter of middle-class parents and had moved to London in the late twenties where she met her friend Marjorie. Letty often meditates on the strangeness of life and wonders how it could have been different.

Like most girls of her generation and upbringing she had expected to marry, and when the war came there were great opportunities for girls to get a man or form an attachment, even with a married man, but Marjorie had been the one to marry, leaving Letty in her usual position of trailing behind her friend. By the end of the war Letty was over thirty and Marjorie had given up hope for her. Letty had never had much hope anyway.

Although they chat throughout the day the four colleagues rarely enquire about each others’ lives outside the office. Even their lunchtimes are spent in different ways. Norman, for example, likes to go to the British Museum or, when the weather is nice, a visit to the park. The problem is that nearly everything about modern life is a source of irritation to Norman such as long hair, semi-nudity in public, litter, abandoned cars or just cars in general, etc. It’s slightly worrying that I can identify with Norman. Edwin, however, is more satisfied, though a bit duller, filling his days attending church services and functions and reading the Church Times.

Letty’s plans for retirement become derailed when it turns out that her friend Marjorie is going to remarry. About the same time her landlady sells her house to an exuberant Nigerian Christian family who aren’t really to Letty’s liking. With her prospects looking grim her thoughts often turn to her approaching retirement, equating it with death.

Letty allowed her to ramble on while she looked around the wood, remembering its autumn carpet of beech leaves and wondering if it could be the kind of place to lie down in and prepare for death when life became too much to be endured.

But there is a positive side to the novel and that is that, despite their awkwardness, the characters do try to reach out to each other. For example, Norman helps to find some lodging for Letty, after their retirement they organise a lunch and all three characters try to reach out to Marcia even if Marcia is largely beyond help. Letty adjusts to her new lodgings and landlady and starts trying some new things, such as helping out with the church as well as watching television and sharing meals with her landlady. She comes to realise that she has slightly more control over her life than she had thought before.

So, the humour has a dark edge, very often commenting on death. As Marcia clears away some plastic bags she ponders:

So many things seemed to come in plastic bags now that it was difficult to keep track of them. The main thing was not to throw it away carelessly, better still to put it away in a safe place, because there was a note printed on it which read ‘To avoid danger of suffocation keep this wrapper away from babies and children’. They could have said from middle-aged and elderly persons too, who might well have an irresistible urge to suffocate themselves.

Or this quote as Letty sits down to chat with her new landlady following a funeral:

‘I think just a cup of tea…’ There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria.

If this sort of thing upsets you then you may wish to give this book a miss, but you’d be missing out on a funny, compassionate story of four awkward but endearing characters. The end is very uplifting.


Filed under Fiction, Pym, Barbara

‘The Feast of Lupercal’ by Brian Moore

On the front cover of my copy of this book, Moore’s second novel under his own name, there is a quotation from The Times stating that ‘Brian Moore is astonishing’; after reading two books by him (the other one was his first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) I would have to agree. If I describe Judith Hearne as being about the futile attempts by the titular heroine to improve her own life in a repressed society then the same could be said for The Feast of Lupercal except with a male protagonist; but it’s not simply a re-run of Judith Hearne, it’s more of a companion piece to it.

Diarmuid Devine is a thirty-seven year old schoolmaster at a Catholic boys’ school, Ardath College, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is a bachelor who lives in some dingy digs and is very set in his ways. He’s largely ignored at the school by fellow teachers and students alike and is treated as being of no real importance. He enjoys helping out with an amateur dramatic group, with some behind the scenes work, but even there he is either ignored or taken for granted; for example his name is missed off the programme for five years running; it’s not certain if this was deliberate or not. He is also a virgin though no-one else knows this. Despite all this Devine (or Dev) gets a shock when he overhears two colleagues talking about him in the lavatory where they describe him as an ‘old woman’ who wouldn’t ‘understand what a fellow feels about a girl’. Devine is shocked to realise that people think of him in this way and begins to ponder his situation.

As for girls, well, he had never been a ladies’ man. He was not ugly, no, nor too shy, no, but he never had much luck with girls. It was the education in Ireland, dammit, he had said it many a time. He had been a boarder at this very school, shut off from girls until he was almost a grown man.

And he is still there, only now as a teacher. So, Dev decides to change things and try to talk to women and he gets the chance at a party hosted by a colleague and friend, Tim Heron, where he starts a conservation with an attractive young woman who turns out to be Heron’s niece. She is called Una Clarke, she’s from Dublin, she’s a Protestant, and is staying with her uncle before starting her nursing training at a local hospital. At the party Devine has to endure the teasing from his colleagues for being seen talking to a young attractive woman, and he hears the gossip that she left Dublin because she was involved with a married man and was sent to her uncle’s in Belfast by her mother. He’s not sure whether to believe the gossip but when he wonders what a twenty year old Protestant could possibly see in a thirty-seven year old Catholic schoolteacher he decides to leave the party early.

Devine, as organiser of the amateur dramatic group, is asked by Father McSwiney to put on a play to help raise funds for a charity. After a meeting with Una and another member of the drama group it is agreed that Una will audition for a part in the play. As she hasn’t had much acting experience the others in the group are not too keen on her taking the part but Devine offers to help her out with some tuition. Devine and Una get to see quite a bit of each other and Una reveals that the gossip about her is true; that she was in love with a married man back in Dublin and was shipped off to her uncle’s in Belfast to keep her out of trouble. When she reveals that she may still be in love with the man Devine is distraught but outwardly reassures her. Devine now becomes self-conscious of his unfashionable appearance. He shaves off his moustache and decides to get some new clothes. There are a couple of amusing scenes where Devine goes to a tailor’s to buy some clothes but hasn’t a clue about fashion and another where he has some intensive dancing lessons as he’s promised Una that he’ll take her dancing.

Una’s uncle, Tim Heron, is not pleased that Devine and Una are seeing each other and tries to put a stop to it and threatens to get her pulled from the play. Tim tries to bully him and Devine, unused to confrontation, only meekly defends himself. Moore’s narrative highlights the total lack of any private life for the students and teachers: The teachers know about Una’s past; Heron finds out about Una and Devine; the boys overhear the conversation beween Heron and Devine; the teachers overhear and punish the boys when they are found gossipping about the same things the teachers are gossipping about. And the Dean of the school is informed about everything.

Una doesn’t get the part in the play as an actress who has played the part before becomes available—it’s not certain whether this was down to Heron’s interference or not. When Devine lets Una know about not getting the part she’s preoccupied about something else and is unconcerned about ‘the silly play’ as she has had some bad news. Devine feels that she is slipping away from him as he believes that she is pregnant. He is distraught but desperate; this is his only chance of love. Walking home Devine, in his desperation, reasons to himself that everything is not all lost:

Supposing the worst were true? Well then, the Dublin fellow could not marry twice, could he? A husband would have to be found, a husband who would take the child and breed legitimate brothers and sisters to keep it company. She would not refuse him. She could not.

Later in a pub, on his own and in a maudlin state, he ruminates further on his own lack of experience with women.

He signalled for another double. Another double was served. But drink was no substitute, was it? He was like a flower that had never opened. He felt foolish when he thought of that, but it was true. Like a flower that had never opened. He had been afraid to open, afraid. He was ashamed to think how few girls he had gone out with more than once. He would not have confessed it to anyone, not even a priest, but he could count only four. And none of those girls would even remember him today. Not one of them. No girl had ever found him interesting. And he had his pride, dammit, he was not going to plead and beg with them. He could get along rightly, so he thought, without any silly girls. Or so I thought then, he thought now. But it’s no more true today than it ever was. I was always lonely for a girl to find me interesting, to know one girl half as well as I knew my only sister.

Initially I was going to post on the whole of the plot as the rest of this novel is expertly handled by Moore but I think I will stop here. Devine is a character whom everybody feels they can push around. Moore makes us empathise with him and realise just how confined he is—both by society and his own personality. Devine was ridiculed for having no love life but when he does have a glimpse of love he’s opposed, ridiculed and humiliated by just about everyone in the novel. The ending is simply superb and there is a scene with Una and Devine that is tragic and, if you have a nasty streak, could be considered comic. Moore has an amazing way of subtly portraying weak personalities; Devine, totally out of his depth, fails at everything, he doesn’t have the strength to stand up to people and misjudges everything. He realises, when it’s too late, that he’s done the wrong thing and his attempts to correct it are equally disastrous.

It is explained in the book that the Feast of Lupercal was an ancient Roman feast of expiation. After the offerings the priests ran through the streets striking those they met with thongs. Barren women would let themselves be struck by the priests in the belief that their barrenness would then disappear. The symbolism in the novel is blatant whereas the characterisation is subtle, which is how I like it. I should also add that it’s not quite as humourless as I’ve portrayed it.


Filed under Fiction, Moore, Brian