Invisible Ink: No 102 - Robert Aickman

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The Independent Culture

Richard Marsh, the Victorian author of The Beetle, the book that outsold Dracula, had a grandson who became regarded by many as the finest exponent of the modern ghost story.

Although Robert Fordyce Aickman (born 1914) trained to follow in the footsteps of his architect father, he became a conservationist, and is best remembered for co-founding the Inland Waterways Association, set up to restore and preserve the English canal system.

A theatre critic and opera-lover, Aickman turned his hand to writing "strange stories" quite late, and produced 48 of them, published in eight volumes, that were eventually recognised as masterpieces of the form. He had the ability to invest the daylight world with all the terrors of the night, and specialised in subverting notions of safety and sunshine into something sinister and unforgiving. His work is best summed up by a wonderful German word, unheimlich, meaning "uncanny", which has the deeper connotation of suggesting the unease caused by being away from home, literally un-homelike.

In "Ringing the Changes", Gerald and his wife head off to the coast on their honeymoon, and a sense of unease is present from the outset. The groom is 24 years older than his bride, the inn they have chosen is inhospitable, a night walk through the coastal town provides no glimpse of the sea, and all the time, church bells peal endlessly. When Gerald asks the landlady why all the town's bells are ringing, she tersely replies: "Practice". Gerald and his wife have stumbled into an annual ritual to wake the dead, on a night when even the sea retreats, but the story's power – like so much of Aickman's work – derives from a deeper sense of humanity. Gerald and his wife are separated first by age and temperament, then by something more physical, and this acts as an intimation of Gerald's own mortality.

Thus is a simple ghost story transformed into a classic. Accessible, suspenseful, and disturbing, it unites atmosphere and plot together with an occasionally surprising vocabulary ("vaticinations", "sequacity"). Aickman was nostalgic for a lost world of fens and villages, and it's no surprise that his first collection was produced with Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose marvellously creepy canal tale "Three Miles Up" has a kinship with Aickman's best work.

Happily, his writing is finally reaching a new audience and is back in print, with paperbacks from Faber & Faber, and some very collectable, elegant hardbacks from Tartarus Press.