The Strange World of Robert Aickman
The Robert Aickman revival is happening just as Halloween approaches.
But who exactly was this Barbican-dwelling author of literary ghost stories who conjured up uniquely unsettling scenarios? Andre Paine reveals the curious life of this master of horror…
This year marks the centenary of one of Britain’s finest – and almost forgo en – writers of supernatural stories: Robert Aickman. Fortunately, the 100th birthday has led to a revival for Aickman (1914-81), who lived in Willoughby House on the Barbican estate, where he dreamed up what he termed ‘strange stories’. Aickman’s life was also pre y unusual: ghost hunting, pacifism and a curious love life (his long-suffering wife became a nun).
Faber & Faber has reissued four collections of his subtle yet creepy tales in time for Halloween; fans include The League of Gentlemen, Neil Gaiman and Barry Humphries. “Aickman creates unease that you are afraid to defi ne,” writes Reece Shearsmith. The enigmatic, slightly surreal stories are compared to Kafka, while Aickman’s reading of Freud informs his characters’ stifled sexuality. He will be honoured at the World Fantasy Awards in Washington in November, having won 39 years earlier for Pages From a Young Girl’s Journal, a vampire story that’s a long way from tween-friendly Twilight. The 1975 award was delivered to Aickman by horror writer Ramsey Campbell. “I’m not denigrating the Barbican but it didn’t seem like an obvious choice for Robert,” Campbell tells The Post. “Although as soon as you were let in beyond the threshold it was like entering the wing of a country house.”
Aickman was a cultured man with an elitist worldview. “I believe that magnificence, elegance and charm are the things that ma er most in daily life,” he wrote. It was a romantic stand against modernity that could be detected in Never Visit Venice: the city is overwhelmed by the vulgarity of tourism in the eyes of the story’s haunted protagonist. So how did Aickman end up in the brutalist Barbican in the 1970s? Apparently he moved there because of a plan – only realised a er his death – for the Royal Shakespeare Company to take up residence.
‘On a psychological level, he believed in what he was writing’
Aickman previously lived in Bloomsbury, where he campaigned for the Inland Waterways Association, which he co-founded in 1946. He wrote to The Times in 1971 calling for an end to “horrific motorways”. Having helped save the British waterways network, he proudly accompanied the Queen Mother on a narrow boat when she reopened the Upper Avon Canal in 1974. By this stage, Aickman was living in the Barbican and focused on his writing, but was troubled by noise from a telephone exchange. Jean Richardson, a Barbican neighbour who recalls their friendship in Cold Hand in Mine, describes him as “certainly the most unusual man I’ve ever met”. She left him a cold lunch in her flat, where he could write in peace while she was at work.
It turns out that horror was a family business: his grandfather wrote a successful shocker called The Beetle. His upbringing in Stanmore also left its mark. Aickman described his architect father as the “oddest man I have ever known”. His mother, who had left her much older husband, was killed by a German bomb while Aickman and his wife, Ray, were on a stroll nearby.
Aickman avoided the war as a conscientious objector. He set up a literary agency and busied himself with canals. Neither he nor his wife wanted children – Aickman referred to them as “wombats” – but their marriage was a failure. He became besotted with the young writer Elizabeth Jane Howard, a secretary at the Inland Waterways Association. With Aickman’s assistance she sold a novel, and they collaborated on a collection of ghost stories.
“I never found him physically a ractive, but in all other ways I was under his spell,” Howard wrote in her autobiography. She was bowled over by his knowledge of the arts, a “refuge from what he called the despairing reality of life”. “He made verbal love to me,” she added.
By the late Fifties, both his affair and marriage had ended. His wife entered a convent, causing Aickman to be rude to clergymen who crossed his path thereafter. However, he continued to believe in a supreme being – and even ghosts. He once stayed in Borley Rectory, reputedly the most haunted house in England. In later years, he counselled people distressed by supernatural experiences. “I think he had this profound belief in the power of the unconscious and of the uncanny,” Campbell tells The Post. “On a psychological level, he believed in what he was writing, it wasn’t just spooky entertainment.” Campbell became friends with Aickman, though he could be famously prickly and had few social graces. Campbell recalls him quizzing a fellow diner about whether she was wearing a wig (she wasn’t).
Having left the Barbican for Kensington, Aickman became ill with cancer in 1980, refused conventional treatment and died at the Royal Homeopathic hospital. His books fell out of print, though in recent years Tartarus Press has published limited editions. But Aickman’s never benefited from a movie adaptation. “The delicacy of his work would really need the right director,” says Campbell. For now, the centenary reissues are more than enough. Prepare to be chilled by Robert Aickman’s singularly creepy stories this Halloween.