I can't recall if I ever came across any of Robert Aickman's books, and maybe I didn't even know his name before I saw NYRB Classics was publishing a collection of his short stories, but just a few pages into the introduction to Compulsory Games, the May installment of the NYRB Classics book club, and I have requested a few of his other books via interlibrary loan--I am so curious about his work!
Aickman is British (1914-1981) and worked as a literary agent, editor and theater and art critic. He didn't attend university so must have been self-educated and had a keen interest in preserving England's canal networks. It seems he mostly wrote short stories, but also there was a novel, novella and a few memoirs among his other writing. And he edited quite a few collections of horror and strange stories. Maybe he never quite got on my radar as I am not much of a reader of horror, but I think Aickman is a little different. It sounds like his stories are in a class all their own and from the feel I get from the book's editor, he is a comparable writer to the likes of Henry James.
Just as we know what Kafkaesque means even without necessarily reading his work, so, too there is such a thing as "Aickmanish". His stories seem a mixture of the unsettling, the supernatural, the uncanny.
"There is never the comforting frame of the traditional horror story that attaches definite causes to uncanny events--causes that explain everything even when the explanation turns out to be supernatural. In the classic formula such stories follow, the irrational is safely unleashed within the boundaries of the quasi-rational, generating a reassuring feeling of closure after the climactic scare."
Apparently Aickman does not give his reader this nice tidy closure. This is unique to the author and has been dubbled the "unheimlich maneuver". Whereas another author might let the ghosts remain firmly behind a closed door, Aickman leave it open or at least slightly ajar.
This collection contains eight of his short stories, some not published in Aickman's lifetime. A little taste here from the first story in the collection which also happens to be the titular story of "Compulsory Games"--it begins:
"Some people are capable of pleasure, of enjoying themselves, but none are truly capable of content. A conviction of content can be sustained only by consistent coercion, outer or inner; and even then, the underlying reality, the underlying mystery, inevitably seeps through, sooner or later, via some unforeseeable rift. Colin Trenwith was, in a sense, brought to destruction by his own best impulses, and yet, and yet . . ."
I have had to back track a little and pick up the March book as I had skipped over it, but as I am determined to read all the books this year I can't leave it hanging too long. Thankfully it is a short novel as I have been struggling with it. Of course part of the reason I subscribe is to have my boundaries pushed a little and be challenged. I am definitely being challenged, but the Aickman collection will be a nice respite.