A real-time review by Des Lewis
AICKMAN’S HEIRS edited by Simon Strantzas
Undertow Publications 2015
Dedicated to the memory of Joel Lane 1963 – 2013
I have just received this book as purchased from Amazon UK.
Stories by: Brian Evenson, Richard Gavin, John Howard, David Nickle, D.P. Watt, Nadia Bulkin, Michael Cisco, Lynda E. Rucker, Michael Wehunt, John Langan, Helen Marshall, Malcolm Devlin, Daniel Mills, Nina Allan, Lisa Tuttle.
My other ‘reviews’ of Robert Aickman.
I intend to real-time this book and, when I do, it will appear in the thought stream – to be found below or by clicking on this post’s title above.
SEASIDE TOWN by Brian Evenson
When Miss Pickaver said to Hovell, “I catch the train in an hour,” I somehow received a jolt that was bigger than when something more overtly horrific happens in some other stories, which I suppose is a compliment to this otherwise simply told story. Actually, I empathised with the male stick-in-the-mud protagonist, with a flighty female partner, each of whom called the other by surname. I sensed his humiliation as part of the horror accreting…
The French town, the creepy hostelry, the dark shape seen from the balcony, the half-seen resemblances, the cinematic ‘Death-in-Venice’ like solitude he found himself enduring in face of the strange, half- or non-dressed other holidaymakers… Well, it somehow worked for me.
I also wanted to interpret and evaluate the intended jolt of the ending, its change of PoV, but I will not do so for fear of spoilers. But was it a sort of Hovell revenge or merely what it seemed to be? Or both! This is not an Aickman pastiche, but I think Aickman would have recognised it.
NEITHERNOR by Richard Gavin
“She calls this series Neithernor, because they are neither one thing nor the other. One sees two things at once,…”
A brilliant term for that form of art, here sculptural work by the male narrator’s long-lost female cousin. This story itself, for me, is also a Neithernor. EITHER absurdist, with an orgy of what I have long called Aickman’s ‘disarming strangenesses’, crammed back to back in the plot, together with a Ligottian lavatory or cubbyhole of Dadaist ready-mades of hair or wire, with the male narrator later forgetting his artist cousin for another woman who tests him with avant garde classical music, I sense, and he decides to test her back with his cousin’s art which he returns to find… OR it is a traditional horrific Gothic tale, with mystic undercurrents, that fights to neutralise the absurdism. Sun or Symbol, I am strobing between the two. Similar to what I described above about the ending of the previous story now, in hindsight, strobing, too.
A possibly crazy part of me wondered overnight if Aickman’s Heirs morphed into Aickman’s Hairs in the Gavin story!
LEAST LIGHT, MOST NIGHT by John Howard
Following the ‘sinking sun’ at the end of the previous story, this one starts with a quote from Sacheverell Sitwell (whose sister Edith (note Edith in respect of this Howard story!) was an icy lady with beads I used to see on 1950s black and white telly): “Why is the sun worshipped, never the arctic cold?”
This immaculate text of a delightful (quietly lit like an old wireless) story having a 1950s feel itself, with two men for years in the offish office suddenly socialising at the house of one of them, including this anthology’s renewed concern over the niceties of calling people by surname or forename, plus the Art of Wandering in an urban setting (see my very recent review of a Howard story HERE about this), coins exchanged on a bus journey (currency being another common Howard theme), and, as this anthology’s ‘strobing’ (now, hot and cold) theme (so far): the snowflake, the crystalline, the foggy, the Arctic from the Sitwell quote, as a haunting cult (see my review of Howard’s significant fiction-essay about this ‘arctic’ theme HERE).
Howard’s (ant)Arctic theme…
Those interested in Aickman’s writing may be interested in knowing that I happen to be simultaneously real-time reviewing HERE the new Tartarus Aickman book entitled THE STRANGERS AND OTHER WRITINGS.
CAMP by David Nickle
“…and long sine-waves of black-bodied birds emerged from the water.”
I think a sine-wave has something to do with a repetitive oscillation – or strobe? This page-turner of a story involves James and Paul, newly wed honeymooners, on a dual kayak trip into the islands and inlets that remind me of the Aickman Islands themselves or those in Blackwood’s The Willows… These two men meet a seventy-something man and woman couple who seem friendly enough and invite the men to their camp on one of the islands, but the inscrutabilities build, and the shocks or jolts ensue, till, I infer, there is a transcendentally ‘glowing’ ending. To tell you anything else would be a spoiler. But it is genuinely effective, oscillating between sexual-politically didactic and wonderful art-for-art’s-sake. A story worthy of this book as dedicated to the memory of Joel Lane, and that is an enormous compliment from me.
A DELICATE CRAFT by D.P. Watt
“…their forefingers touched and a little electric shock passed between them.”
A significant Wattage of lace-making lore and the condition of modern humanity. Somehow, I wondered, as I read this, what I would think of this story if I were reading it in a mainstream literary anthology outside the context of Aickman. It would be an astonishing read, one that would stand out as a fine work but probably not considered weird. Though it does have an intrinsic strangeness that is redolent of this book’s heiro. The Watt, a delicate craft in itself, mixing the diverse arts of plumbing and lace-making, the inspiring relationship in her chintzy home between the Polish immigrant (with a backstory of his Polish compadres in England and the recession in 2009 that affected them) and the old woman is tender and ingenious. The story’s transcendent rebirth ending echoes that in the previous Nickle story, too, seeming to cohere the book’s gestalt, together with his rolling (oscillating?) the partner bobbin with partner bobbin, and back and forth in his plumber’s hand. Electric prose with Aickman dim and sleekly soft undercurrents.
SEVEN MINUTES IN HEAVEN by Nadia Bulkin
“But you shouldn’t be scared of skeletons, Amanda. You’ve already got one inside you.”
I can immedIately tell that this is a story with tantalising resistance and traction, something I admire in Aickman-inspired literature, but I’m finding it hard to talk about this story, which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. The ‘seven minute’ concept and “the coordinates of God”, together with what I see as this story’s life/death seesaw, seem to fit in well with the pivoting between dream and non-dream, between sense and nonsense, the disarming strangenesses in and out of focus, all of which are conveyed by the rest of the book so far. A seesaw or pivot like a miniature weather forecasting cabin with interchanging dolls moving in and out of it, a device that Aickman himself, I recall, used in his fiction, but this device does not appear in this story, but it made me think of such a device.
The story is about the Pilgrim’s Progress of a young girl toward womanhood, whose fulcrum is a town where she started living, a town that neighbours another town, a ghost town which was once decimated by an industrial toxic accident. It tells of the various physical and emotional influences of such an event upon her own life/death pivot, the enforced slants upon history to make reality fit a pattern that others want to believe (that the toxic accident never happened or was something else altogether?), the ‘objective correlatives’ like scarabs, Halloween with its demons, Christianity with its Angels, and much more, leading to another potential transcendency at the end common to previous stories’ ends. Here, tellingly, a pivot of fighter jet and angel. I hope that is not a spoiler.
The ‘pattern’ needing to be fitted together, mentioned above, seems a suitable template for my own real-time dreamcatching reviews, some of which happily do tend towards cohering, some of which, however, do not cohere, whatever my best endeavours. A personal pivot evoked by this constructively resistant story.
All links to authors’ names in this review are to my previous real-time reviews of their work.
INFESTATIONS by Michael Cisco
“…brought up short by a car that pivots smartly around the corner the moment she steps off the curb.”
Another story with resistance and traction, Cisco-textured, but one that I find easier to talk about than the previous one, but that fact is not necessarily a good thing, of course. It deals with a multi-paranoia of a woman called Miriam who visits a flat where her namesake had lived (an older Miriam who had been a family friend). There seems to me to be a strobing between these two Miriams, although they are distinct. The pursuance of her by ‘them’ and their eyes, and a visitation from a boy friend called Juan who had drowned, all of this managing to create a definite sense of unease and a clotted atmosphere. Mirrors, computer screens, images crowding in. And perhaps like the earlier plumber, the revenant Juan stared at her “and his hands would rise and fall, rise and fall.” Later, “a very pale figure, moving rapidly up and down, up and down.” Oscillations around a female version of the protagonist from Eraserhead? Yes, I think so.
THE DYING SEASON by Lynda E. Rucker
“…a long time deciding between two cabins, unable to identify which was the right one. For a moment she had the idea that both were, or that she was choosing a destiny: walk into one, make the right choice, walk into the other, make the wrong one.”
Having been caught upon this pivot’s fulcrum, we learn from this relatively plain-narrated story that Sylvia is staying with her partner John in one of these cabins: an English seaside leisure park in an area that reminds me of where I myself have lived for the last 20 years, a short journey from Colchester, a town mentioned in this story. Rucker has caught the genius loci of dislocation very well, its sense of dying season. And built upon it with definite paranoiac unease as well as a convincing lack of coordinates in negotiating its backmazes, together with an equally dying season of humiliation in the couple’s own relationship, he effectively belonging there, she not. The otherwise balanced nature of their destiny is gradually altered by the inscrutable, accretively threatening couple in the next cabin. The ‘dying fall’ ending leaves the reader upon his or her own fulcrum of interpretation.
A DISCREET MUSIC by Michael Wehunt
“…and how this shape comes to be repeated through nature and the world, on and on. / He thought about that repetition, outward from the circle of his own vision,…”
A story that hovers between exquisite and unbearable. One that, if you have been married for 45 years so far to the same woman, as I have, you will never forget. Whatever the joy and however little or large the guilt that underlie such a seeming ‘repetitive’ or oscillating or circular aeon of love and fallible existence. You may never forget this story, anyway, in anticipation of what might be felt one day. A sensitive, stunningly written portrait of a man widowered and his own tussling with guilt or self-justification – constructively and variously reminding me of some of the themes of Steve Rasnic Tem and Joel Lane, but, I do sense, without truly knowing, that it is quintessential Wehunt, a discreet music that I have not listened to before but hope to do so again. It also shares the recurring angelic transcendences or transformations of much of the rest of this book, so far. As an afterthought, I wonder about the use of the word ‘widowhood’ in the first sentence. A typo for ‘widowerhood’ or a genuine attempt at expressing the strobing between his own death and his wife’s from each point of view, to ignite this recurring threnody of words that follows? I sense the latter, as an oblique premonition of the final scene’s cumulatively ambivalent oscillation.
UNDERGROUND ECONOMY by John Langan
“By the end of the song, all she had left on was a pair of fairy wings. I guess that’s what you would call them.”
This is a hauntingly conversational monologue, as it were, to the emptiness or gap in we readers’ attention. Except we are nevertheless fascinated into this text, with those fairy wings, for example, inadvertently mocking the erstwhile glowing angel-transformations of this book, while the narrator, who is involved as a participant herself to make student economy ends meet, tells us of a ‘Swords’-type event at a strip- and lapdance- club called The Cusp, just one edge above a brothel. Indeed, the name of the club seems to suit the oscillative nature I have ‘caught’ so far in this book, that and the bouncers. Now coupled with the disturbing sense of flensing or flaying by the crew-cut Swords, with whom the victim (not the narrator herself but the girl she narrates about) eventually becomes gorily and uncannily collusive, we guess. Horror without a victim.
THE VAULT OF HEAVEN by Helen Marshall
“…and everywhere that sickening tension, the shadow falling between those vivid, discordant lines.”
They keep on coming! Another satisfying work with resistance and traction, here (dare I say?) one with a 1950s literary quality, a crafted Golden Mean of style that brings to my mind Graham Greene, Angus Wilson, E.M. Forster, Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell…without being any of these in particular, but also tantalised with corruptive aesthetic forces. And that is what the story is about, I guess.
Here we are on the cusp again. Shall we call it Aickman’s Cusp? The Cusp Runneth Over. Starting with a quote from Shelley, we find ourselves on a sponge-diving Greek Island at a time just before Russia launched Sputnik, accompanying the male narrator (with an eye for the ladies), on his excavation job that he has obtained upon the cusp of “nepotism and blind luck”. And other cusps of tension between: Form and Formlessness, Pure Aesthetics and fine art that is rotting through Age, love and sex, As Above and So Below, responsibility and frivolity, disorientation and ‘maddening logic’, duty to the strictly academic and to instinctive flair, Beauty’s “wonderment and delicious trouble”, “Fathers and their daughters”, “the stone and the chisel”, soul and intellect, and, above all, here, the ultimate tension between that erstwhile Golden Mean and “strangeness”. Aickman was thus torn, too. Such tension oozes from his work and what we know about him as a person. As it does from this giving story.
“; the road forks, a path is pursued or not,…”
TWO BROTHERS by Malcolm Devlin
“…numbers on both sides would fall until only two remained standing, one on each side.”
They would then fight to the death, as predicted by presumably real History they were re-enacting. This is perhaps that Aickman weather forecasting cabin again, right against wrong, tradition against revolution, friend against foe, predestined history against a more dynamic version, challenge against response, self against self, brother against brother, who will emerge today? Judging by the reference to the Peasants’ uprising against the Tsar, I guess this compelling, obliquely intriguing, relatively plain-narrated story, with immaculate prose, takes place at the beginning of the 20th Century, as brothers grow up in isolation, re-enacting history, as in the quote above, with their toy soldiers and crudely made countryside ‘fortress’. The text’s well-characterised boys, amid an artfully constructed claustrophobic ambiance, have eventually separated when the slightly older one is sent by the diffident father to the traditional school for the family. His eventual return (himself now diffident) is disturbingly conveyed, with the nicely ungraspable but telling pivot of his self with self (now fleshed out and already in my earlier list of polarities above), a parallel sort of self’s changeling (shrunken or depleted as their Governess is described to be in retrograde parallel with the two boys’ natural growth), leaving the younger brother even more alone – with his “stockpile of cultivated lies.” One of which lies is the vision of the changeling itself? And discussion here of possible further meanings might spoil it for anyone who has not yet read it.
Cf what I said in my Bulkin review above: “the enforced slants upon history to make reality fit a pattern that others want to believe…”
THE LAKE by Daniel Mills
“One morning in particular when they donned goggles and snorkels and swam out to the center of the lake which marked the boundary between two towns.”
This is a numb story in the sense of it being so lean, so textually deadpan Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy it is like a piece of flabby white flesh that feels nothing – until you imagine you see bruises on it. In many ways, it is in that sense an apotheosis of Aickman’s ‘disarming strangeness’ aspiring towards the level of the blank page, here populated, though, with two boys (bleached shades of Stephen King?) swimming in the star- or emptiness-reflective lake; one boy is due to leave town, like one of the brothers in the previous story. And at the start there is a third boy, like the changeling in that story and just a ‘spear carrier’ here, as vehicle for the ‘strangeness’ identified in the Marshall story as something that always comes to infect purity or deck flabbiness. Then sporadic glimpses of inferred horror, infiltration by a love life, vague memories, eventually a shimmering lake of forgetting, all ensue. In my old age, upon me now, I know I shall soon forget this story, too, as well as much else in my life heretofore, as part of this story’s deadliness. This story is horrific because it deadens the brain, turns one’s face to the wall.
A CHANGE OF SCENE by Nina Allan
“He looks like a merman, I thought. I could feel myself blushing.”
Despite being entranced by this novelette’s style flowing through the reading eyes like pure silk; compelled by its page-turning quality; made to feel easy with the traditional tone of its holiday breakaway of two well-characterised widowed friends from Liverpool Street Station (no doubt passing through Colchester on their way) to a small North Norfolk seaside place with a believable ambiance; absorbed by the two ladies’ backstories skilfully conceived and so resonant with the Widower and his ‘friend’ in the Wehunt story, backstories of lovelessness, jealousy and feminine stoicism; captivated by the visionary conjuring of the wayside church and its murals that are more like Bosch than Claude pastorals; yes, despite all these positive constituent things, I was less convinced by its eventual gestalt of an overarching backstory as a creepily ‘strange’ outcome of the novelette’s hindsight resolution or denouement. It thus teetered, for me, upon the cusp of an enjoyable workmanlike ghost story and a new inspiring classic ‘Strange Story’.
BTW, ‘Ringing The Changes’ did come to my mind when reading the Allan story, but I forgot to mention it above. As I haven’t read it for years, I did not fully realise that it was such a significant theme and variations upon that story, a preternaturally direct link of automatic writing from Aickman himself to Allan? See my later comments below yesterday about the Tuttle and the whole book.
THE BOOK THAT FINDS YOU by Lisa Tuttle
“I’m not sure when and why it changed.”
I shall need to treat this story as the quirky coda to this fine symphonically Aickman-tributary of a book. The book that found me. This story is as if, in an alternate world, Aickman’s life and career as a writer is presented slightly off-kilter by this telling of an American lady who is empassioned by this writer’s rare strange books she finds, and then by her travelling to London as a sort of pilgrimage in his honour, her creepy encounter in a second hand bookshop, and, in tune with the previous stories, much talk of relationship twists where people don’t seem to stay married as long as the couple did in the Wehunt story…
I only wish I could find a certain book written by this alternate world Aickman, the one that has Surrealist automatic writing in it.
This book as a whole is a delight, truly worthy of its connection with Aickman. And I don’t say that lightly.
These authors seem to be upon the fulcrum or cusp of the act of automatically writing with the preternatural power of Aickman within them and of simply writing their own diverse stories in his tradition. The creative tension between these two phenomena has produced a number of masterpieces in their own right and an overall communal gestalt that is stunning.
I may be wrong but this is possibly the first multi-authored anthology of explicitly Aickman-connected stories that have deliberately been put together as such with his name in its overall title. If so, it is certain to make literary history. Deservedly so, as it happens.
Cover artwork: Yaroslav Gerzhedovich
Cover design: Vince Haig
As a later aside today, in my concurrent review HERE of the new Aickman book THE STRANGERS, Aickman makes significant mention of automatic writing in his article ‘The Popular Poltergeist’. A coincidence? The Book That Finds You, literally.
And strobing dreamcatchers during yesterday’s reading of ‘The Strangers’ book!
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