The delights of Robert Aickman’s rarest fictions: ‘The Late Breakfasters’ and ‘The Model’

NPG x125036; Robert Fordyce Aickman by Ida KarThe Late Breakfasters (1964) by Robert Aickman
Paperback and ebook
The Model (1987) by Robert Aickman
Paperback and ebook

‘All I know comes from books. It’s a wonder I keep my end up as well as I do.’
‘Books are better, I think, most of the time,’ replied Louise. ‘The more you know of life outside them, the less it’s like them. But there’s one problem that you have to solve if you’re to go on profiting from books, and books won’t help you much to solve it.’
‘And that is?’
‘The problem of finding someone, even one single person, you can endure life with. To me it’s acute.’
(From ‘The Late Breakfasters’)

Robert Aickman has been a quintessential Faber Finds author ever since the launch of this list in 2008. This year sees the centenary of his birth, and we have moved our Aickman offerings to Faber’s main list with glorious new cover art and prefaces, along with the additional treat, new to Faber, of his debut collection of strange stories, Dark Entries. But Aickman has not been lost to Faber Finds – oh no – for our own centenary tribute is to proudly add to Finds the two longer works that Aickman completed in his lifetime, The Late Breakfasters and The Model.

Late Breakfasters old cover‘Those, if any, who wish to know more about me’ – Aickman wrote in 1965 – ‘should plunge beneath the frivolous surface of ‘The Late Breakfasters’.’ This claim becomes yet more intriguing when you consider that the novel is a tale of thwarted love: though it opens rather like a country house comedy of manners, its playful seriousness slowly fades into an elegiac variation on the great Greek myth of Hero and Leander – to speak of just one of the allusions that glimmer on its pages.

Its heroine, one Griselda de Reptonville, is invited to a great stately residence called The Beams, where other guests include a bumbling Prime Minister in the process of forming a coalition government. To this end the Beams is to host an All Party Dance, at which Griselda, very much a reluctant dancer, is expected to come out of her shell and take to the floor. (It should be said that throughout the novel dance is a kind of metaphor, as expressed in the popular phrase ‘vertical lovemaking.’) Though she expects little of this weekend, Griselda to her great surprise meets the love of her life. Alas, this is to be just the start of a terrific complication in her life, and a source of more melancholy than joy.

Fans of Aickman’s ‘strange stories’ will be delighted, too, by The Late Breakfasters. It partakes of the humour that is deployed more rarely in the stories, and there are notable flashes of erotic gaiety. (An ageing bookseller tells Griselda, ‘My eros veers almost entirely towards Adonis’; an ageing Duke declares of his lady wife over tea, ‘For some time now it is during the afternoon that I make Odile mine… We both of us find it best at nights to sleep.’) But there are also – wouldn’t you know it? – moments of sepulchral strangeness. The Beams is thought to be haunted, by the ghost of a beautiful Belgian actress named Stephanie des Bourges. The novel’s principal love scene involves a bewitching moonlit walk across a wet lawn to a Temple of Venus on an island amid a lake, with her heroine Griselda clad in black cloak and domino. And the second half of the novel contains a digression of a chapter which I would characterise as a ‘strange story’ in miniature.

Model coverThough Aickman wrote so little in the way of long-form prose he was clearly proud of what he did accomplish in this regard. He told a friend that he considered his novella The Model to be ‘one of the best things I have ever written, if not the very best.’ After his death in 1981 this manuscript, a wintry rococo fable set in Czarist Russia, was located among his papers and duly published for the first time in 1987. It tells of Elena, a grave girl inclined to losing herself in dreams of becoming a student ballerina or coryphée. Her dolour darkens further when she learns she is to be sold into marital slavery by her father so as to settle the family’s debts. Refusing an unendurable future she sets out to the city of Smorevsk to pursue her dream. First, however, she must traverse a landscape crowded by highly curious characters and creatures.

To suggest that The Model is like the marriage of Alice in Wonderland and The Nutcracker would be the sort of publishing vulgarity for which Mr Aickman would have had no time. But you will know what I mean, and I think if you are tempted then you will find The Model to be highly delighting. It is a fable about making the fateful choice to be a creative personage, come what may and whatever the cost. Aickman – who was himself far too much of an artist to ever write the kind of sensational sadistic horror novel that successive agents were sure he had in him – can be glimpsed, I think, in the shade of the purposeful Elena.

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The shade of Robert Aickman pervades Radio 4… Thursday December 15 2011

Here at Finds Towers we of course need no persuading that Robert Aickman is a) as fine a writer of ‘strange stories’ as ever lived, b) still not fully recognised for all his powers, and c) tremendously well suited to the wireless. Thankful news, then, that this Thursday December 15 from 11.30-12.00pm BBC Radio 4 offers ‘The Unsettled Dust: The Strange Stories of Robert Aickman’, written and presented by the actor and screenwriter Jeremy Dyson, alumnus of the League of Gentlemen who has adapted Aickman’s work in various forms.
According to the BBC’s press release:

‘By speaking with fans of Aickman and introducing students to his work for the first time, Dyson argues that Aickman’s literary gifts have been undervalued and during his lifetime he should have received greater critical acclaim.’

Quite. The PR also offers an intriguing fact of which I was hitherto unaware: Aickman was the grandson of a Victorian novelist named Richard Marsh whose The Beetle (1897) was, apparently, “in its time as popular as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Suitably murky genetic materials, then…

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Desperate Reader on Robert Aickman’s ‘The Wine Dark Sea’: A subtle invader of dreams…

A fine, eloquent and very accessible appreciation of Robert Aickman’s The Wine Dark Sea has just been posted by first-rate book blogger Desperate Reader. Here are the money passages for our purpose:

…‘The Wine Dark Sea’ has been a bit of a revelation… My first impression was that this was a collection of ghost stories – I started with one called ‘Your Tiny Hand is Frozen’ where a man develops an unhealthy relationship with the telephone and a voice on the other end of it. It’s deeply unsettling both as a tale of the supernatural and because I can no longer imagine how I functioned without my mobile phone. I love the way that Aickman plays with the idea of something simultaneously connecting the user to the outside world and cutting them off from it. The next story that attracted me was ‘Never Visit Venice’ which is also deeply unsettling but for different reasons, not so ghostly but rather straight up horror. By the time I’d finished the title story it became clear that Aickman just deals in the odd. This is the kind of odd that sticks in the mind worrying away at your imagination until you’re not at all sure what’s what.
The end result is this; I’ve had some very strange dreams, spend less time with my telephone always within arms reach and will probably be reaching for this around Halloween next year when I want something a little bit spooky but also reasonably subtle with it. I’m also confident about spending my hard earned cash on Faber Finds that appeal to me in the future which is daunting because their list is long and full of temptation…

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The ghosts of Robert Aickman

Here’s yet another tribute to the master of the uncanny and unnatural from… well, me, I confess. Over at the site devoted to my recently published novel The Possessions of Doctor Forrest – a site partly consecrated to the itemising of the many and various supernatural artworks by which I was influenced in the making of said novel – I thought it important to add Aickman’s name to the roll-call. The influence was unknown to me at the time of writing, in this instance, as I explain; but then Aickman himself would surely have had an easy explanation for the manner in which my cold hand was steered by some ordinary ghost…

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Suzi Feay on Robert Aickman

The excellent literary editor/reviewer Suzi Feay has begun recently to blog (‘Suzi Feay’s Book Bag, here) and I am delighted to report that one of her earliest posts is in praise of the oeuvre of Robert Aickman, who is of course a jewel of our fiction collection here at Finds, represented by The Wine-Dark Sea, The Unsettled Dust and Cold Hand in Mine. In her piece Feay displays an true aficianado’s relish of the genre of the ‘strange story’ (ideally “hauntingly unresolved”, “where nothing so straightforward as an errant spirit explains the action”) and a highly refined appreciation of why Aickman was such a master of the form. Along the way she heaps praise on some of the finest Aickman productions – ‘The Inner Room’, ‘Never Visit Venice’, ‘The Trains’, ‘The Cicerones’, and ‘Into The Wood’, which she hails as “perhaps Aickman’s masterpiece… a novella worthy of Thomas Mann, about a woman who discovers an eerie sanitorium for people who never sleep.” She also makes note of Aickman’s wit while sounding the warning that it is rather akin to “the godlike humour of an indifferent creator laughing at his creations.” And she finishes on this lovely note, with the ardency of the true bibliophile:

Aickman has always been a hard author to track down, a name murmured only by the conoscenti. Faber Finds has come to the rescue and reprinted some of his collections at a modest price. They are highly recommended. Part of me wants everyone to read him, and part of me wants to keep him as a secret known only to the few…

It’s a widely shared feeling. But the secret of Aickman is slowly creeping out into the world once again, and we must accept the consequences, however they may fall upon us…

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Robert Aickman: Mysterious Unease

“Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully…”
(Neil Gaiman)
Call it an irony if you wish, but without doubt one of the happiest endeavours of Faber Finds to date has been the returning to print of a writer whose work is pregnant with unease, melancholia and dread. I speak of the Finds editions of several story collections by Robert Aickman, an author somewhat unsung by the mainstream but, among connoisseurs, a deeply and rightly revered master of the supernatural tale. The Aickman titles available in Finds are The Unsettled Dust, The Wine-Dark Sea, and Cold Hand in Mine.
Neil Gaiman is just one among many authoritative admirers of Aickman, and Gaiman was kind enough to note the Finds editions on publication in 2008 (scroll down).
‘League of Gentlemen’ alumni Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss have also collaborated on adaptations of Aickman for radio and television. I asked Kim Newman, novelist, critic and authority on the supernatural genre in all forms, for his view on Aickman’s standing in the present day, and he gave me this verdict:
“Robert Aickman was the best, the subtlest and the creepiest author of ghost stories of his time; and, as an anthologist, did a great deal to shape a lasting canon of supernatural fiction. But, more than being important, he’s good … still enormously re-readable, offering mysteries which get deeper and scarier with each return.”
(The anthologies to which Kim refers are volumes 1 to 8 of the old Fontana series of Great Ghost Stories, the merits of which are keenly hymned on the web, by Aickman devotees but also those who are acquainted with his work only through these selections.)
The web also offers some lovingly detailed tribute sites to Aickman for those seeking further insight and information. Certainly I can recommend Robert Aickman – An Appreciation, and therein, just for example, a fine essay by Jim Rockhill on ‘The Inner Room’, which is one of Kim Newman’s favourite Aickman stories and can be found in the Finds edition of The Wine Dark Sea.
There is also a wealth of data available at Robert Aickman: A Database.
In noting this avidity for Aickman’s work Finds must also make an apology to those same readers. Though one very much hopes that Aickman fans have been broadly pleased by Faber Finds’ efforts in restoring these collections to print, one must also acknowledge that there were an unacceptable number of errors in our initial reissues as a result of glitches in the scanning-offsetting process. We can only pledge that it won’t happen again, and hope that readers’ overall enjoyment of the works was not spoiled by these same mishaps.
As for those yet to make Aickman’s acquaintance on the page, it should be said that he has power at any time of year, but the dark, dwindling months of November and December might be the aptest time to discover him. As Tim Martin wrote in a piece for the Telegraph on ‘the best ghost stories for Christmas’, published at the time of the Finds Aickman reissues,
“The cumulative effect of [Aickman’s] stories is remarkable, and their hostile suggestiveness stays with the reader long after the book is closed. I can make no stronger recommendation for Christmas unease…”
And nor, for that matter, can I. Christmas is a time for comfort and cheer, of course, but a little disturbance is good for the soul if taken in moderation – and Aickman offers a potent, elegant, undiluted dose.

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