THE STRANGERS – Robert Aickman

A real-time review by Des Lewis.

image THE STRANGERS and Other Writings By Robert Aickman

Tartarus Press 2015

Just received this book as purchased from the publisher.

My previous reviews of Tartarus Press books HERE.

My previous ‘reviews’ about Robert Aickman HERE.

In due course, I shall real-time review this book. These thoughts will be found below in the thought stream or by clicking on this post’s title above.

33 thoughts on “THE STRANGERS – Robert Aickman

  1. bowen

    Until today, I didn’t know that my favourite authors (Robert Aickman and Elizabeth Bowen) had both written a story about a wild tiger and the middle-class machinations of gentle mischief it causes in the old-fashioned English community of the delightful Just William or Jane Turpin stories of yore.

    This is Aickman’s…


    “…leaving the search after Wallingford and his tiger to the brand new police box recently set up alongside the best esteemed of Upperwood’s public houses.”

    Here a tiger is brought back to the rural town of Upperwood it seems by monied Wallingford thus creating romantic ambitions or underhand plots to disable the man’s smugness involving the RSPCA etc… Till the tiger is found dead and smelling…. With a crime suspected involving racial or perhaps liver-spotted (-striped?) repercussions? (Time for an early appearance of Dr Who to solve it?)

  2. The first story was 12 pages long, and the one below (from late 1930s) about 5 pages.


    “The sort of unpleasantness that most pleased Cave Bird was physical cruelty.”

    Sometimes you touch things via Aickman fiction that you wouldn’t consider touching directly. This is a case in point, although some of the things this ‘fat’, ‘fly-blown’ man called Cave Bird touched are not necessarily bad, like quoting Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, or making references to Tale of Two Cities or to Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet, or to the raising of a flag. His nephew’s whistling was quite another thing, I guess.

    “Cave Bird had had enough of boys at the moment…”

  3. About 16 pages, later 1930s….


    “After sixty five, one remembers one’s eyes. Perhaps it was the gloom which had led the philosopher to omit the incident…”

    For his posterity, his legacy? I am over 65 myself. I think it is fair to say that, so far, anyone solely after a new ‘Ringing the Changes’ or ‘Meeting Mr Millar’ will be disappointed by this book. However, it may be good if you are after the Aickman who immersed himself, I am imagining, in Thomas Mann or Henry James, and developing his puckish, sometimes surreal, humour (here ‘Santa Tomasina of the Sour Stomach’, ‘Santa Monica Long-in-the-Tooth’, ‘clodhopping brother’, ‘English breakfast,’ in Rome, ‘of bullock and pig’) and a sexual innuendo and wise asides to the reader about having doubts as to intentions. This meeting in an atmospherically described Rome of this character and a beautiful English woman on his intellectual level is couched in a prose as if Aickman is imitating, say, Henry James to a fustian nth degree, but it works, somehow, and the retrocausal nature of the revelation at the end is a masterstroke.

  4. c1941, 6 pages


    “Even the sugar basin contained only a discoloured slime.”

    Now this is embryo Aickman as the quintessential ‘Strange Story’ writer, with, for me, foreshadowing ingredients of ‘The Trains’. Two land girls lost and finding themselves in a forbidding abode, sudden change of costume…
    Actually, it is rather effective and if I’d read it in ‘Aickman’s Heirs’ (an anthology I happen to be simultaneously real-time reviewing HERE alongside this review), I would have called it an excellent Aickman pastiche!

  5. c1941, about 5 pages


    “You know how it is. One’s womenfolk simply collapse by the wayside at four o’clock and you have to carry them home, if they can’t get their hands on and noses in a teapot.”

    Once that particular paragraph is redacted, this story is unsullied joy as a piece of Aickmania. Seriously odd. But with a meaningful resonance that remembered dreams somehow have. Steeped in 1940s Britain, with evacuees, some derelict fairground amusements that were cheap and nasty at the best of times, a large Lyons Corner House for afternoon tea in the middle of nowhere reputed as serving refreshments to the many workers from the nearby canal. But what canal? A canal that seems to have long been unuseable, with a wrecked narrowboat across it that shares the name of the lady running the Lyons. With the valued first publication of this missing mini-masterpiece, I wonder if the train, too, has now not been missed!

  6. Date unknown, fifty-eight pages


    Pages 48 – 65

    “I set about the task of making everything more accurate, more coherent. / After all, the whole business goes far to explain the pattern of my life.”

    I know I said earlier above that I thought that an Aickman fan seeking in this book a new classic strange story by him would be disappointed. Well, I think I may have to eat my words. This is vintage Aickman, to my eyes, SO FAR, building up from a typically wondrously ‘dry’ formal meeting, laced with offish male friendship and tentative girl-hunting, and nice details (e.g. a tramcar with unique brakes). They arrive at a musical piano recital all so wonderfully foreshadowed and then further adumbrated with an Aickmanesquely diffident audience and eccentric hosts including a dumpy ‘girl’ called Vera out for the narrator’s friend. I’ve just reached the end of the interval and am poised for the second half of the recital by a pianist who, for me, may be based on a mutant version of John Ogdon, depending on when this story was written. The low girl count in the audience and the narrator’s crushed feet are bonus hootful moments for me. It is an absolutely perfect Aickman opening to this long story and I have high hopes for the rest. To be eked out and savoured.

    • Page 66 – Actually, I’ve just been reminded that the piano recital was the first half, and a new act with conjuring tricks is about to start in the second half of the show.

  7. Pages 66 – 86

    “Most of the audience seemed still to be wiping their mouths very steadily and systematically after the refreshments, as older people do. One could see their arms moving rhythmically back and forth, when precious little else could be seen.”

    Shades of ‘The Hospice’ or its forebear: Mann’s ‘Magic Mountain’? Indeed, as we delve further into the middle pages of this discovered text, there are also shades of John Cowper Powys’ ‘Inmates’ that I have noticed in Aickman before, as we glimpse awkwardly disturbing scenes at the conjuring show and later backstage involving the narrator’s friend and the Vera person. Two scenes that will haunt you, I suggest, long after you finish with this text. And haunting, too, how they have awkward repercussions on the narrator’s love life thereafter, and the re-conflux of certain characters in an Italian Restaurant near Charlotte Street, I recall. At one moment strangely even naively disarming, at the next nightmarish, like vomit rising? A Sickman. Meanwhile, if Proust deals with a form of unrequited love, here Aickman deals with a version of it that somehow cloys rather than gives romantic pangs. This middle section also has more nice details, like the popcorn-eaters, as well as holding the promise of the first section.

  8. Pages 87 – 106

    “The crenellations were crumbling, and the elaborate stackpipes parting from their ornamental cramps.”

    I know the feeling! Anyway, as you can probably observe, I could not eke out nor savour slowly this work by Aickman. I was driven to read it in tantamount to one sitting, other than these intervals of writing about what I had read just after reading each section, including this final section. You will be relieved to hear, too, that it definitely fulfils its initial promise as a major Aickman work and I feel privileged to have read it before casting off my own shroud! It is definitely Powys influenced, Proustian, too, now with the simpering relationship with the narrator’s mother. The no man’s land between dream and non-dream is also conveyed brilliantly, as is revisited upon him his unrequited love, with a later final nightmarish vision of the two scenes – the ones that had disturbed him at the conjuring show and its aftermath – by following up the hearing of that pianist again in a building that is characterised so well by the stackpipes etc and its suburban ambiance. Further nice touches, too, of multi-paned sash-windows, his Dad’s clattering calculator, his own striped pyjamas and reading the whole of Sir Walter Scott in relation to this narration (except for the possible tiny bit of ‘text missing’ earlier on)!
    Please do not be put off by my puckish humour about ‘The Strangers’, for it is genuinely disturbing despite or because of its own strange puckish slants.

  9. ‘Morning Story’, BBC Radio Four, 1976 – 8 pages


    “…it is no good looking for something strange. It only happens when you’re not looking.”

    An engaging, very English, true-seeming account of touring Italy by the narrator accompanied by his debilitated wife. A man with an eye for the ladies, it seems. Leaving his wife with Jane Austen back at their small hotel, he goes off alone on a coach tour to a Gothic style villa, where something quite simple happens to the rest of the coach party, something absurd, but effective. He escapes by the skin of his eyes, as it were, without much Persuasion.

    “…how much time I managed to while away just sitting outside a cafe and watching the different women and girls pass by, all walking so differently from the way they walk in England.”

    Something to do with their shoes?

    The rest of this book (the bulk of it) seems to be made up of non-fiction articles with two short poems at the end. Although I do not normally real-time review non-fiction, I intend to do so here, as it is Robert Aickman.
    I hope you continue to enjoy my own fully-conducted tour.

  10. Unpublished, 1942, 8 pages


    “But five separate works at least of Wilde’s have genius, and the list has genius of its own.”

    Not that Aickman’s list in itself, here in this essay, has intrinsic genius, but its demonstration of versatility is a testament, Aickman claims, to Wilde’s genius of versatility as well as a work-by-work genius, a double genius that differentiates Wilde from ‘lower animals’, I interpret. This essay is full of Aickman bon mots and memorable homilies. And now it makes me think of Richard Strauss’s SALOME as an oratorio rather than an opera. Aickman also effectively and admirably describes didacticism as ‘vitiating ulterior motive’, something that Wilde’s plays avoid. They don’t make you eat carrots, in other words. I could go on quoting from this Aickman essay, each an original wisdom to cherish.
    Aickman also says here that “It is as impossible and grotesque to write of Wilde without quoting him”, as it is in failing to quote Aickman himself, I would add!

  11. Just over 2 pages

    A Review of ‘THE SPORTING QUEENSBERRYS’ by The Tenth Marquess of Queensberry, Hutchison (1942)

    “…and opening a swollen eye with a razor blade. ‘There is seldom an evening of boxing’ when this sort of thing does not happen.”

    After an askance reference to Commander Stephen King-Hall, there follows an appreciation and a feisty jamming upon the art of pugilism, where one can sense a collusive need, along with Queensberry, for matches to be fought to the finish, without a referee’s intervention. And we also learn of the connection between Queensberry and the subject of the previous essay! Who’d’ve thought it?
    Also there is a reference to a ‘delightful misprint’ in the work being reviewed. But judging by the quote given, there is no misprint at all. Hmmm.

    A Review of ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell, 1945

    “Mr Orwell in the most raven terms asserted that Palinurus could never achieve insight as long as he enjoyed a private income;”

    I love the term ‘raven terms’, especially as there is a raven in Animal Farm. Others may think it a typo for ‘craven’.
    Aickman, here, with a correctly convoluted syntax and a satisfyingly pompous register, uses this review to express his own views on politics and history.

    Unpublished, about 8 pages

    Some interesting and largely sympathetic textured dabblings or real-time reviews (Borley, children in puberty etc) upon latest Poltergeist-iana in 1945, including the derivation of the word. A book by Mr Harry Price and a West End play by Mr Frank Harvey. He refers to a “herd of intractable specialists”, and one cannot help but see Aickman seeing himself as a sort of shepherd or zookeeper for the ‘lower animals’ referenced in the earlier Oscar Wilde Article and of course the animals in Animal Farm!
    There is another typo controversy here, too, where on page 140 “the sound of rusting wind” is quoted by Aickman from some stage directions. Who was to blame: Harvey who wrote the stage directions, Aickman when transcribing them or Tartarus Press when printing this article?
    There are several interesting references to ‘automatic writing’ in this article, and this is remarkably coincidental with my comments yesterday HERE about the automatic writing mentioned derogatorily in the Tuttle alternate-Aickman story (‘The Book That Finds You’, literally?) and my closing comments there about the whole of the new AICKMAN’S HEIRS book itself!

    (Unpublished, late 1940s, just over 9 pages)

    “Fantastication has always been the resort of civilisations in decline.”

    Having made one reading of it (it needs more), I sense that this is an important article, in the mid 20th century, on humanity as seen by an intellectual in England, humanity’s art, theatre, literature, religion, cinema… Like his fiction, it has the traction and resistance of his trademark ‘disarming strangeness’ even in the realms of seemingly rational assessment of rational, irrational and arational things alike. I wonder how he would have factored the Internet into his various equations? But if it is equivalent to his concept of ‘machine’, he states that this will “affect fundamental change in the emotional structure of ‘homo sapiens’.” Immodestly, I claim that my style of gestalt real-time ‘dreamcatching’ is the natural outcome of the thrust of this article – as a replacement for what he calls ‘supernatural religion’? Or towards something else that is now lacking under the Preterite of the Preinternet Mind?

    “Television may extinguish art altogether.”

    (Film review, ‘Jewish Monthly’, 1947, 5 pages)

    A rather complex critique of a film, a film that sounds like simple rubbish and can evoke no claim to importance but here leads to Aickman’s argument about the good and bad ways to counter anti-Semitism. Did the film’s overtly guncrime title, taken in a defiantly counterintuitive ‘dreamcatching’ way, lead to this ‘disarmingly strange’ extrapolation, I wonder?

    (Film Review, Jewish Monthly, 1947, about 5 pages)

    Here, the Gentleman’s Agreement is an unspoken one, a far cry from the lynch mob.
    Aickman again, again Aickman, debates the nature of didacticism in cinema with regard to anti-Semitism. Makes me wonder if cinema was the most didactic of all art forms? (Two films in a row about anti-Semitism, it seems.) And is it still didactic, despite the graphic violence, bad language, sexual aberrations and CGI? In this review, the Gnomic and Fustian meet the Gregory Peck and ‘wooden’ Dorothy McGuire post-war world of huge screens carrying huge black and white opinions as well as images, towering towards the gods. Our man Aickers uses the word ‘crusading’ here, another crossfire? And a brief mention of a developing problem he saw at the end: whom he calls the ‘negro’.


    (Unpublished, 1949-50, 10 pages including acknowledgements.)

    Nice to know that I am now alive when this essay is written. I have some effect on it, therefore, if only by butterfly.
    If one can negotiate or transcend the Gnomic and the Fustian in our man Aickers, there is some important material here about the nature of ghosts ‘real’ and fictional, the benefit of ghost stories and by modern extension to the horror genre in general, material, too, regarding catharsis, purging and fright-as-enjoyment. And Art Therapy via the example of Picasso.
    And in the light of my ‘strobing’ theories regarding the book AICKMAN’S HEIRS, I find on page 169 of this introduction some references to gestalt dreamcatching in so many words, “all one and all at once” and “lights which flash between them.” And he uses the words ‘accretions’ and ‘preternatural’ – and ‘rats in the skirting’. Also separately ‘lavatory’ and ‘bodily evacuations.’

    “For the infantile creature which man still remains, ghosts and turnips are commonly indistinguishable;”

    (London Mystery Magazine No. 5, 1950, about 10 pages)

    “…articles which made it clear that the overwhelming American attitude towards the paranormal (to use Price’s word) is one of total incredulity, and polite or contemptuous anthropological observation from afar.”

    This is Aickman’s engagingly affectionate tribute to the quintessentially English and ‘unremittingly’ hard-working and enthusiastic, if perfunctory and ill-oratorical, Mr Harry Price, Ghost Hunter, his warts and all. With his English boyishness, someone who had to deal with the taboo of the paranormal that was just as strong, in those days, as the taboo of sex. The “dramatic upsweep of his signature” was something to behold! His tour de force, it seems, like Aickman’s own pivot-shifting, was seeing “Anna Rasmussen by psychic agency set in motion pendulums in a glass case…”

    “Price was the clearing-house for ghosts.”

  19. THE AVON
    (from ‘Portraits of Rivers’, 1953, about 16 pages)

    “The world’s finest lyric poetry is in English, but how many in England read lyric poetry?”

    This article, not so much about rivers but waterways, their history, scenic and relaxative qualities, and Canal politics, is a prime example, of Aickman’s gnomic, feisty, fustian, puckish, informative, prose-stylistic personality. Just to pick out some items from this pivotal passion without boundaries of this author demonstrating my contention above:

    “The first village through which the Avon actually flows is Welford (in Northamptonshire); which must not be confused with the better known (though only slightly) Welford, further downstream, in Warwickshire.”

    “…and the excitement of visiting it is enhanced by the fact that the county boundary, between Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, runs through the middle of it, and longways at that.”

    “…sensibility of landscape…”

    Punting one’s “fair companion” to the theatre.

    “…a (hideous) footbridge…”

    A horse’s “obsession with sandwiches”.

    “Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch addressed a sonnet to the grooves worn in the parapet of this structure by centuries of towropes.”

    And as to canal locks, there is something pivotal and balanced about them, as one hawls the windlass, changing height for lowth, and vice versa, an alternation of geographies and psychic levels. That’s me speaking, not Aickman.

    And that’s not to speak of ‘winding-holes’!

    After AE Houseman, we learn about ‘tourists’ having full view of us canal negotiators ungainly sinking into the mud. In my day, we called these loafers, aka tourists, by the name ‘gongoozlers’. You see, I’ve had holidays on the Narrow Boats of midland England, on such canals as those described so perfectly and knowledgeably in this article.

    I have just noticed that another passion of mine – Delius – is dealt with by Aickman later in this book. I may take that article out of order just for the contrariness of it, next time I open this wonderful book.

  20. Taken out of order, as some great music often re-orders the settled dust.

    (Unpublished, c1965, about 20 pages)

    “And another thing: the amateur musician is better without a knowledge of the science of music. When you see a lovely rose you treasure it as it is; you don’t pull it to pieces to appreciate its beauty…”

    My passion for music is in tune with that quotation, including the blend of classical music and horror literature as an optimum (hopefully shown by my 2012 produced multi-authored anthology of classical music horror stories), a blend that is represented by the author and subject of this generous essay. Who’d’ve thought I would be privileged to read such an item in the autumn of my years.? Aickman on Delius? Little short of Heaven. An alternate world, it must be! D as A sees him is obviously a man after his own heart. D is not just cuckoos and high summer, as most of us now already know, but perhaps most people didn’t in 1965. D is ‘the physical, the spiritual, the fantastic, the imperishable, the mortal’. D is not a representative of the English school of music, as some think he is. He is not just ‘totally static’, nor is he just ‘dreaming in wispy images’; he is both; but ‘one is aware of a chilling, Pan-in-the-brake hardness at the core.’ Rhapsody, aspiration. Nietzschean. Music as transformation, transcendence. His music is both ‘vague shifting textures’ and an engulfing ‘melody’. The best of both worlds. Art as delicacy and brutality, as perhaps D was as a person. A, too? But A knows how to dish out praise, as he does here for D. And that thought brings me to my final quote from this essay by A that I simply need to make (please forgive its length even where I’ve missed out a bit in the middle):

    “As there is no intrinsic virtue in denigration, the critic who resorts to it, should be required to pass a test of qualification and sensitivity, at least twice as stringent as that imposed upon a critic who loves. Normally, love is not blind but clairvoyant. […] Moreover, there is some degree of absolute nobility in praise; and a high degree of ignominy in belittlement, even in justified belittlement. The capacity for praise that is at once warm and discerning implies a degree of fineness in the critic that is, alas, rare in anyone. These truths are so simple and obvious as to call for unfailing repetition.”

    For ‘clairvoyant’ there, perhaps read ‘preternatural’? Upon the cusp of feisty certainty and something that softens it, rhapsodises it, gives it delicious uncertainty?
    The essay ends aptly with A’s puckish view of Delius’ grave in Limpsfield. I visited it about 25 years ago or more. His body where it shouldn’t have been placed. And I shall now return back to the correct place in this book’s order… back on the real road to the church.

    (From ‘The Bells of England’, 1954, nearly 5 pages)

    “To have seen Irving in ‘The Bells’ was for a long time the unquestioned fundamental of a British theatrical education; and never to have seen him was to connote oneself, in the widest circles and among all classes, what Shakespeare calls a booby.”

    …and that is the case, it seems, despite ‘The Bells’ being a load of old rope. The backstory to this play, and Aickman’s closing account of a maritally counter-productive remark to Irving being to the benefit of future culture, represent an engaging and, for me, hilarious essay. Did you ever see Ian McKellen in Coronation Street? Like Delius, out of place, out of order (as they say in Eastenders) — an integral bell sounding out among a thousand cracked ones?

    (From ‘The Bells of England ‘, 1954, about 5 pages)

    “The Major even read a short paper on the ringings to ‘six or eight very intelligent gentlemen at Woodbridge’; but they could only return him to his noisy abode with such suggestions as that there must be a monkey in the house.”

    Although I have long had strong family connections with Woodbridge, Suffolk, I had no prior knowledge of this apparently well-attested paranormal phenomenon. I am however intrigued by the description here of the type of bells in a row that can be shaken for attention from the various rooms in an old house. History’s primary sources and the railway line to Lowestoft, notwithstanding. And the autonomy of kinetic intelligence (like preternatural book reviews?) – And this engaging essay’s last line reference (premonitory of IS State?) to: ‘A Muezzin from the tower of darkness.’

    (Abridged transcript of a lecture, 1956, about 12 pages)

    “Man has to acquire the power of selecting one machine while reducing or discarding another; of using the machine where appropriate, while preventing the machine from using him (as at present) indiscriminately. No other task compares in importance with this one; which is the central problem of our age.”

    And with his own magnificence, elegance and charm (whether or not you agree with what he says), our man Aickers deals with the ills of modern society, from his own politIcal and cultural point of view. With examples.
    The plight of the artist in a world where he can no longer live. I sense ‘the machine’ is not the TV that Aickers references but his premonition of trolling on Twitter, a place rife with its own magnificence, elegance and charm! Aickers even sets up a Flashmob invitation on page 227! I think the world is now perfect: as Aickers himself says: “As for ‘The Sun’ I shall says, simply but truthfully, that it is the only paper in the world that I can read from first line to last with pleasure.” – as the possible counterpart “to spending Whitsun with one’s Hoover instead of one’s lover.”

    (From ‘The Illustrated London News’, 1959, about 14 pages)

    “A ghost is glimpsed through the crack between preoccupation and slumber. For this reason, there are more ghosts in Great Britain than anywhere else.”

    A wide-ranging descriptive list of paranormal or ghost-hunting events in our green and pleasant land. This is done with an engaging tongue-in-the-cheek puckishness blended with intrinsic belief, one senses. It talks about, inter alia, the caution needed when further talking about, say, haunted houses for fear of lawsuits accusing you of devaluation of the property. One example of an account is of an officially insinuated nuisance ‘Negro’ haunting an area where Delius once lived, or so I believe between the lines or the locks of a certain canal. And another one where I shall quote quite a bit at length (please forgive me): “In much the same area, and for miles around, the working boatmen tell of the man monkey, which looms over the parapet of bridges, and in a second is upon one’s back, or, in former days, around the neck of the horse pulling one’s boat. It has appallingly long arms, a black featureless face, and huge milk-white eyes.”

    “Nothing is more personal than fear.”

    (‘The University Bookman’, 1980, about 3 pages)

    This is remarkable for Aickman’s attempt to define ‘supernatural in literature’. I won’t spoil it here.
    And also for this statement (in 1980):
    “I myself have long believed that our world is doomed beyond all hope of rescue, and possibly in the full eschatological sense.”

    (During the early 1960s, just over 14 pages)

    Just what it says on the lid. Some revealing glimpses into Robert’s well-known fight for the Waterways. Officious and passionate. Just one sentence also seems to me to give a glimpse into his own fiction, into culture and life itself: “The matter is very serious indeed. People will not care for pleasure cruising through a continuous bomb site.”


    “For one end is the right end; / And one end is the wrong.”
    An accomplished set of verses in the manner of Betjeman, but better. With a tinge of Machen. And an eye for the girls, I sense.

    An exquisite poem. An unlikely blend of Shelley and Eliot? Simply read it. Simply read this whole wonderful book.
    “That now he’s but the image of a name;”


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