Aickman’s Heirs edited by Simon Strantzas – a review by Gary Fry
In his introduction, editor Simon Strantzas dispels one of my concerns about this anthology. I’d half-feared a collection of pastiches, of stories “written in the style of Robert Aickman,” and nothing could have irked me more. The thing about truly idiosyncratic writers is that if you try to imitate them, you tend to get all the ticks and mannerisms, with perhaps little of the substance. I think this is especially true of Aickman, whose work is so delicately enigmatic and hauntingly long-lasting that it’d take another such genius to achieve the same. And since when did geniuses ever resemble one another?
So anyway, we’re off to a promising start here: a collection of tales inspired by Aickman, showcasing the way that great author’s work has influenced modern writers, rather than trying to ape him. So how did all these handpicked heirs do?
It’s a plodding way to review an anthology, but I think it’s also quite democratic. And so let me address each tale in turn and share my thoughts about all. But please bear in mind that my Aickman isn’t necessarily your Aickman, and if any of my comments seem inaccurate, that could be why. Some folk are simply going to hate me for this review, but I guess that’s inevitable with such a…well, subjective subject.
Seaside Town by Brian Evenson
This opener is a good choice; the story certainly captures some of Aickman’s symbolic material and sexual nuances. I really liked the beach scene, with its erotic nature conflicting with the central character’s reticence. If the conclusion feels a little mediated – loses out on some of Aickman’s bewildering irrationality – that’s not too much of a shortcoming. All in all, a solid piece.
Neithornor by Richard Gavin
This is perhaps the anthology’s most Aickmanian piece in terms of prose style, almost as if Gavin had set out to mimic the author’s literary mannerisms. A tale of weird art and sexual frictions, it put me in mind of ‘Ravissante’, with its ineffable tensions and strange symbols. Another strong tale.
Least Light, Most Night by John Howard
This was one of my favourite stroies in the book, a chilly evocation of preoccupied male loners, packed full of suggestive imagery – that fridge is great, the ultra-familiar rendered truly sinister – and disturbing implications. If Strantzas’s intention in this book was indeed to ask modern authors to use their own style to channel Aickman’s turn of mind, Howard triumphs here.
Camp by David Nickle
I enjoyed this road-trip story, but wondered – please correct me if I’m wrong – how it reflected the Aickmanian approach. The ending especially struck me as a little too surreal and ungrounded to work well with this source in mind.
A Delicate Craft by D. P. Watt
Similarly, I felt this tale relied too much on a non-Aickmanian device – the twist ending – to be fully convincing as a piece of fiction inspired by the man. Which is not to say that I didn’t find it enjoyable; it has a particularly wry conclusion that some politicians would hate.
Seven Minutes in Heaven by Nadia Bulkin
Bulkin’s notion of a dead place perhaps draws upon ‘Ringing the Changes’, and her narrative promises much along such quietly sinister lines. If the later part of the tale drifts a little into wilful obscurity, it might be me missing a few issues, but I did feel as if its impact was diminished for that reason.
Infestations by Michael Cisco
I enjoyed this bullishly written tale and found it disturbing. However, in terms of Aickman’s usual delicate psychological landscapes, it felt a little harsh in its turn of event, with a body-horror conclusion that broke its ostensible mould.
The Dying Season by Lynda E. Rucker
Okay, time to declare my favourite tale in this book. Rucker’s story, like Howard’s, does exactly what Strantzas offers as his mission statement: tells a modern story in the author’s own style, with obvious allusions to Aickman’s aesthetics. This is a brilliantly suggestive and haunting tale, with a single line – a throwaway piece of dialogue near the end – which celebrates Aickman’s Jamesian approach and thereby sends influential vibrations rattling back a century. An excellent piece.
A Discreet Music by Michael Wehunt
This was another tale which felt decidedly un-Aickman-like. Am I mistaken again? Someone must say so, if that’s the case. But this piece, enjoyable though I found it, felt more like something Mervyn Peake might have written in a particularly agonised state of mind. Mr Pye suffering grief, perhaps. A strong and emotional story, but alas, its Aickmaniana was lost on me.
Underground Economy by John Langan
Now we’re back to the anthology’s intended purpose. Langan’s story is a clever one, because it retains Aickman’s poetic content without drawing upon his cultured voice. Narrated by a stripper, this story of sultry backrooms and unsanitary activities ends with a genuine fright moment, a lot like maybe ‘The Fetch’. Weird and troubling.
The Vault of Heaven by Helen Marshall
I found this tale nebulous, but in a different way from my usual response to Aickman. Its elaborate, lively prose didn’t feel as mannered and sombre as Aickman’s, and its events seemed heavily symbolic. I suppose ‘Never Visit Venice’ springs to mind, but I’m afraid Marshall’s story (let me say that I’ve admired plenty of other fiction by her) was a bit lost on me. Sorry!
Two Brothers by Malcolm Devlin
We’re straight back in Aickman territory here, with its very English settings – what could be more so than country houses and public schooling? – and sternly distant parents. I felt the story telegraphed its development quite early, and the whole thing felt a little one-dimensional to me – certainly lacking Aickman’s impenetrable complexities. Nonetheless, that single strand is a strong one, and the story is effective for this reason.
The Lake by Daniel Mills
This was another tale which completely eschewed Aickman’s languorous, intricate prose style, replacing it with an ultra-lean, choppy writing which aptly reflected its boyish protagonists. The plot ends with similar imagery to Langan’s, but for me it didn’t work quite so well. Oh, I don’t know – maybe it just lacked some of Aickman’s furtiveness, his borderline perverse obsessions. I’m not sure, frankly.
A Change of Scene by Nina Allan
Another highlight of the book and the one tale which meets Aickman head on. This sequel to ‘Ringing the Changes’ is a captivating and truly edgy depiction of two older women revisiting their entwined pasts, with suitably uncharacteristic risqué language and allusions to passions forsaken in the interests of social decency. Very English, very Aickman, and very perverse. Loved it.
The Book That Finds You by Lisa Tuttle
Finally we have the anthology’s most frightening story. Man, experiences like this occur but once in a cold moon. I actually felt a frisson of fright when Tuttle described that final scene, the imagery embedding itself in my memory even as I absorbed it. Brilliant stuff, and so cleverly composed. An earlier episode, on which the conclusion is built, is a textbook example of semi-chaotic, semi-coherent prose, capturing both the dreamlike quality of such a scene, along with its physical impact. Fantastic stuff. However…although the whole tale feels Aickmanian in its impact, it didn’t feel particularly Aickmanian in terms of its structure. I suppose ‘The Same Dog’ is the Aickman story which feels closest to this form, but I’ve always considered that the exception in Aickman’s output which proves the rule that he doesn’t write this kind of A-B-A narrative, this campfire-style fiction. Oh, but what the hell. It’s fucking terrifying, and a sterling way to round things up.
On the whole, I found this book a largely successful attempt to achieve a truly ambitious goal: demonstrate the tangible impact a truly great dark writer has had upon a new generation of similarly minded scribes. The book has its peaks, many of which – the Howard, the Rucker, the Langan, the Allen, the Tuttle – are as good as any fiction I’ve read in a long while, and for that reason, Strantzas deserves applause for helping to keep alive the legacy of a crucial figure in our field. A very worthy project.
You can buy Aickman’s Heirs from Undertow Publications here: http://www.undertowbooks.com/issues/