‘THE SAFEGUARD BARRIERS OF TIME’
I have re-read this Aickman novelette and my review below was written before checking back to read my previous review of it.
THE STRANGERS by Robert Aickman
“There was nothing irrational about it, apart from the fact of its happening at all.”
A story that is both rational and irrational in equal measure, like that ‘Third Place’ it mentions towards the end, a place halfway between Life and Death, and, I guess, also halfway between Richard’s experience of Clarinda in his real life and his dreams of Clarinda. This Third Place being the so-called co-vivid dream that we all know for better or worse today, I guess. And as I finished this work just now, I wondered why its title is what it is. I can only guess that if we are mad (and one arguable sign of madness is reading stories like this) then that madness makes otherwise strangers co-strangers, indeed a community by paradoxical dint of being strangers, and Richard the narrator ends up concluding: “I sometimes think we’re all mad, […] Everyone in the world, I mean.” Including, I would suggest, his mother, who still calls him “my own sweet darling cuddly possum” and gives him medication the matriarchal talk about which goes back to “the whispering sisters.” Once, mad strangers, too?
An otherwise characteristic Aickmanly tale of gender politics and a shy man’s manoeuvres in society (and in the workplace) to sow his oats and to gain advancement. His friend Ronnie from work however seems to co-opt Richard’s well worked-for girl called Clarinda following both men becoming part of an audience at an evocatively housed entertainment where a man plays a piano recital before his sister Vera Z (to aver Z for Zeno?) plays conjuring tricks on the same stage, but perhaps the eerie haunting shape that did actually turn out to play the tricks was the trick itself? All taking place in a house without light-fittings, if possibly foreseen to be provided with candles? Ronnie is seen later elsewhere in a room in this house by Richard; and Ronnie is seemingly canoodling with VZ while her husband watches them. This scene frightens Richard and he falls out of subsequent contact with Ronnie, but, perhaps unconnectedly, soon after this event, Clarinda as a girl friend is taken over by Ronnie, as, even later in time, Richard discovers this very fact by seeing them together in a restaurant, after Clarinda had dumped him. At this restaurant, Richard happened to be dating a new girl called Aster. Don’t go there! But suffice to say Richard’s later dreams of Clarinda trying to claw her way back to him through his bedroom window and her aura of dementia after she is dead will haunt me again forever. The recurrent ‘throbbing’ accompanying Richard’s dreams, the ‘clattering’ of the piano and the sound of the old-fashioned calculating-machine belonging to Richard’s father, they also continue to haunt me again and again. As will haunt me the stackpipes upon the house within which Richard eventually sees VZ and her brother perform again. He sees them thus perform from outside the house through the window. How many times can such scenes in stories that I obsessively re-read continue to haunt me AGAIN? Did they ever stop haunting me? It was significant that Aster once referred to Clarinda with the name Clarissa, the latter being the title of the longest novel I have ever read, too long to finish, too long to have EVER been re-read. Significant, too, that Richard first met Aster at a telephone box exactly halfway between their two workplaces, a telephone box we much later learn was a battered one.
“: the nightmare lucidity that destroys the safeguard barriers of time,…”
All my reviews of Aickman: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/robert-aickman/