I think it’s unfortunate that when met with the notion of ‘The Weird’ as genre, most people will kinda stare blankly or shrug their shoulders. A few might be able to roll off the names of the more familiar and better-known progenitors: F. Marion Crawford, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft or T.F. Powys; a few more will know and have read the heavy-hitters of the modern revivalism (the so-called ‘New Weird’): Miéville, VanderMeer, Michael Cisco, Thomas Ligotti etc. But the real empty shelf in the stacks of readers’ minds is the inter space between The Weird’s abounding inception and its recent popular revival. Even the word ‘revival’ is somewhat of a misdirect, suggesting if not a death then at least a falling to unconsciousness or lethargy, when in fact the genre was very much alive and pumping its beautifully disgusting blood all over the 20th Century. One such writer from this nearly lost mid-period of The Weird is Robert Aickman, the British master of the weird short horror story. Infuriatingly he’s pretty much out of print these days, but his seminal collection Cold Hand in Mine is available via the print on demand Faber Finds series.
Aickman’s stylistic proclivities are in line with the aforementioned Blackwood and Lovecraft – (and more recently Ligotti owes Aickman a debt) – in that his stories are characterised by a wanton sense of ambiguity and a frequent refusal to provide the reader with any kind of closure or resolution. It’s telling that Cold Hand in Mine quotes in epigraph Sacheverell Sitwell, “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation”, and I took this as a useful heuristic when faced with the frustration of an abruptly ended story or the never-arrival of a long-teased denouement. ‘The Swords’, for example, opens with the sexually suggestive question “My first experience?” and a short biography from the narrator that baits the reader into expecting an entirely conventional loss of virginity bildungsroman. What follows, however, is a journey to that staple locale of so many classic horror stories: the out-of-the-way mist-shrouded town, and an encounter with a strange kind of theatre in which a woman is repeatedly stabbed by members of the audience – (coming to no apparent harm) – before being sold as prostitute to our narrator and literally falling to pieces during the sex act. It’s tempting to paste some hackneyed psychoanalytical significance onto the repeated stabbing of the woman, and the sexual metaphor of swords as phallic substitute is perhaps a little too in-your-face; but fundamentally this is a narrative that demands reader-input and analysis if it’s to make any kind of sense. The language of performance coupled with the theatre sequence definitely casts the reader in the role of scopophiliac audience member, consigning all sex scenes to acts of inherent voyeurism with the reader as the third party onlooker. The sense of horror is thus created when the act of reading is equated with passive observation, suggesting that you, as just another audience member, are, by continuing to read, somehow complicit in the mass on-stage rape of this woman. Furthermore, the woman’s gross disintegration under the inexperienced thrusting of our protagonist can be read as either i) non-literal nightmare manifestation of his sexual anxieties and naivety; ii) a heartbreaking metaphor for the psychological disconnection the prostitute has to make during sex between her inner self and her physical body: a kind of mind//body separation that functions as self-preservation; or iii) a telling moment of tragic revelation in which the prostitute’s apparent immunity to the on-stage stabbing is finally broken down and her true pain revealed: her on-stage and back-stage personas being not so different, after all. The ‘death of innocence’ so often explored in works of sexual initiation is here coupled with a much more bleak and literal examination of death.
But not all of Cold Hand in Mine’s stories are so analytically yielding. It’s anybody’s guess what strange combination of folk tale, ghostlore and German mythology have gone into creating ‘Niemandswasser’, in which a reclusive and suicidal German lord wrestles with doppelgangers, sibling rivalry and a strange correlation of literal topographic borders with the finer internal boundaries between mental balance and madness: a kind of horror that ties humanity to nature not in a way that’s organic and beautiful, but in a manner which exposes man to all of nature’s violent vagaries, inconsistencies and dangers. Elsewhere, ‘The Real Road to the Church’ sees a demonic and otherworldly funeral procession pass through the garden of protagonist Rosa’s new island home, coupled with an almost Socratic exchange between Rosa and a retired priest that’s peppered with unnervingly personal and quasi-romantic non-sequiturs, “I can hear the beating of your heart”. Precisely what’s going in is difficult to pin down, but that’s entirely the point: the stories of The Weird function at their highest when they transcend the everyday and the predictable, even rendering the language of exegesis imprecise and unhelpful. The more I tried to dig out these stories’ foundations, the more I felt like I was just piling stuff on top of them.
It’s probably somewhat ironic, then, that the most disappointing stories of Cold Hand in Mine are those that offer the comfort and succour of logical explanation. When, for instance, the vampire in ‘Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal’ is revealed to be just that: a vampire, I couldn’t help but feel deflated. Before Aickman’s ‘big reveal’, the vampire could have been anything; the ultimate revelation is a massive letdown in the face of the story’s brilliant lexical pastiche of Jane Austen-esque romance, which would have benefited from a much more avant-garde supernaturalism. What we get instead is a fairly run-of-the-mill, period vampire romance. If The Weird has an agenda to horrify with the suggestion of an unknowable other, it fails itself when resorting to specificity and explanation; that which is sensible cannot be Weird.
And that’s really the crux of it. Robert Aickman’s best stories are not yours, not mine; they’re not even his, because when it hits its stride, Cold Hand in Mine is so unknowably strange and tenebrously cryptic that the reader is almost too scared to look deeper: the suggestion is that the truth of these tales is even more horrific than their mysteries. So it’s never the narrator who is uninformed, nor the by-standing secondary characters, nor the landscapes themselves: it’s the reader who is exterior. The paranormal hysteria generated by the almost-living steampunk-esque time pieces in ‘The Clock Watcher’ makes perfect sense to Ursula, likewise the titular protagonist of ‘Meeting Mr Millar’ knows exactly what strange things go on in his offices. Cold Hand in Mine is successful because it doesn’t show something ‘other’ to the reader, instead it makes something ‘other’ out of the reader; the reader is on the outside: and what could be more strange, horrific or, indeed, Weird than realising that it’s not the world or it’s people that’re mad: it’s you.