“pushing through endless thickets of dead bramble and dogrose”

THE UNSETTLED DUST by Robert Aickman


“It’s only in fiction that there’s anything really dangerous.”

The Historic Structures Fund — that employs the narrator as its Special Duties Officer, for whom  I shall now use the first person pronoun — regularly takes over downtrodden country houses and gets them going again, and allows the owners to stay living there as the property’s ’dummies’, a word used resentfully by Agnes, one of the two Brakespear sisters, about their role as custodian of the house they once owned. The two sisters are Olive — horse rider and pianist, a woman at least slightly attractive to me when visiting their Clamber Hall both as a guest and as the Fund’s representative ‘owner’ of the Hall (seeming to be more a ‘model’ to me than a structure) — and Agnes herself the more unapproachable of the sisters. 

We of course already know about various things in this story — about the dust that accumulates in rooms and on surfaces, even with no cement works nearby, dust like ‘toy snow’ — about the ghostly  male figure one sees only once, except perhaps when he is outside and inside the room at the same time by dint of some peculiar reflection at night in the room’s window  — the ever prevailing ‘grey’ Elizabeth Craw, supposedly the servant (but the dust is repeatedly called ‘grey’, too) — the dust ‘globe’ that I see once lightly bowling round the grounds, and I think again of the wheeling rooks like burnt newspapers  — the legend of the car accident years ago involving the lover of one of the sisters and the acrimony resulting in their ongoing relationship — and about many other accumulating things…

But, to cut a long list short,  I am here to work on the River Bovil project in the nearby grounds along with a man called Hand and his helpmates, so it is  not for me to worry about the dust or these sisters, yet when I gash my own hand, I do think again….

Like earlier “pushing through endless thickets of dead bramble and dogrose”, my nightly conversations, indeed,  are dry and unproductive with the sisters, and thus they go to waste…

“…what an odd way it was for people of opposite sexes to spend the evening when, after all, there was nothing ahead that any of us could be sure of but infirmity, illness and death. It is strange that people train themselves so carefully to go to waste so prematurely.” 

Perhaps that now gives a clue as  to why this Aickman story is often criticised for having an abrupt, unsatisfying and, yes, premature ending?

All my reviews of Aickman works: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/robert-aickman/

Fiction though it be…


“It is almost as if the nearer one approaches to a thing, the less it proves to be there, to exist at all.”

Aickman in the role of his most arched aching part…

If one slowly takes this young Derbyshire girl’s journal slowly enough it dawns on you, almost endlessly,  what she is becoming, in an Italy where she literally crosses paths with Byron and Shelley. And she falls in fell love with a sporadic shadowy male figure  (originally prefigured by one black candle amongst twelve that are white), arguably the same male figure that she previously spies secretly hugging the  twelve year old daughter of an older Contessa (who also sexually importunes our journal-keeper, too, but fails in doing so) — all of this  taking place in genius-loci where our  journal-keeper is staying as part of a grand tour, along with her insufferably old parents. Until she becomes insufferably  old herself? — “One cannot expect to enter the tournament of love and emerge unscratched:”

The richly Gothic real-time journal narration as exalted by deep adolescent pangs while passionately steeped with the blood of Romishness against the shallow  Protestantisms of her parents. A narration that is  “too prone to the insertion of unnecessary hyphens”, or not? — and “….fiction though it be, could hardly with sense have been written at all.”

All my reviews of Aickman: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/robert-aickman/

A New Paradox

NIGREDO by Steve Duffy

“I turned up at the hour specified, and was shown into an agreeable and commodious set of rooms, whose principal adornments consisted of a set of engravings, Flemish to my untutored eye, on the theme of the seven Deadly Sins. Colville noticed my interest in these, and said, smiling a little, ‘So, Burnage was right: you do have an eye for the telling detail.’”

Enticed again by the affable soul’s telling details, the soul who facilitated the earlier Burnage story. And this its sequel. Oh wonder why so many stories of evil are passed through this soul’s hands and why I come back for more. This is another story where a character is warned not to do certain things, justified warnings. And the warnings are ignored! I will not issue such warnings, myself, because I know that will only encourage you further to delve into this book, despite its tricky tides that threaten to cut you off. Here is no exception, with a story of Alchemy and Avarice, one feeding off the other. Where even the word ‘Alchemist’ itself is transmuted! Telling of buried treasure under a flagstone that you might find if you dare plumb further into these words. I don’t think I have read so much about and understood more about Alchemy in any work before. A story that proves yet again that the affable soul has a good line in chase stories that approach the Zeno’s Paradox of dark shapes hugging your path. I beg for forgiveness from this affable soul for quoting so much below from this story, but as this dark treasure has so long lain fallow, away from readership, perhaps even since that great war featured here, I thought I would give you this temptation of quotations in the hope you withstand such temptation! By having your reading appetite thus assuaged? A temptation itself, you see, is stronger than any warning against it when transmuted into an even stronger warning against it! And, so, we need the name for another different Paradox! 

“The alchemist’s quest: it was a foolish preoccupation, from a foolish time. Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice: this is not a wise dream, or a healthy dream, and men have gone beggars to their deathbeds over it—“

“All this play with salts and crucibles and the alkahest of Paracelsus; it is a game with them, a disguise for what is real. There is only nigredo, and albedo: the foulness and corruption of the base matter, and the final refinement of the gold. To work through these stages, one to the other, it is an exercise of the will;”

“…he ran pell-mell through copse and marram-grass, across sand-dunes and foreshore, with that ghastly figure always looming behind through the mist, neither gaining nor falling back appreciably, waving and sawing at him whenever he looked back.”

“Remember what I have said to you, that impurity may outlast purity, and that what remains of an evil deed must in itself be evil.”

The full context of this review here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2021/06/30/the-night-comes-steve-duffy/

Toward Golden Walls and Golden Frames


RAVISSANTE by Robert Aickman

“One trouble was that I most certainly did not want to understand everything.”

“If one goes to parties or meets many new people in any other way, one has to take protective action…”

RAvissante— upon my re-reading of it, just now — has jumped back, like the “black poodle” of the less-than-ravishing Madame A., into an erstwhile twin-souled sump as the formative religious experience it once was, now further evolved. A story imparted by the less-than-ravishing Aickman himself whereby his drag often drags? The story that will either change your life or make you abandon it altogether! It reminds me of my own thoughts about creating stories or arguably outlandish reviews of them like this one, if one equates them with RA’s ‘pictures’ in this story, viz:

“My pictures are visionary and symbolical, and, from first to last, have seemed to be painted by someone other than myself. […] I am thus entirely self-taught, or taught by that other within me. I am aware that my pictures lack serious technique(if there is a technique that can be distinguished from inspiration and invention). I should have given up painting them some time ago, were it not that a certain number of people seemed to find something remarkable in them, and have thus identified me with them, and made me feel mildly important.”

But then I address RA’s later explicit destruction in this story of my beliefs in ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ with regard to his narrator’s inner narrator’s view of paintings and painters, with this narrator uselessly seeking to know everything about each painter as a personality and a biography. So, I now flounder in finding a meaning in this work by RA without knowing more about RA himself. But I want to deal with it empirically or objectively without recourse to such biographical information. Therefore, let’s now go through the story during a new tranche of real-time…


The first narrator — having met the second narrator (whose narration of his earlier meeting with Madame A. in Belgium comprises the full final  two-thirds of the story’s whole) — is made executor (alongside the second narrator’s mostly silent wife) of the second narrator’s Will. The latter’s paintings and manuscripts, mainly.

Is the remarkable painting — seen in Madame A’s house, where there is a lot of ‘golden’ things mentioned (golden being tantamount to orange) and which the second narrator believes he painted (although not remembering his painting of it!) — the same as the actual painting that the first narrator wanted to keep as sole keepsake, thus to be saved from the proposed  ‘bonfire’ of paintings? (See my by-chance concurrent real-time review of ‘The Burnt Orange Heresy’ from 1971 HERE.)

The socially difficult psychology when dealing with women of both narrators is similar. A parental accident by air travel to Paris. A mother and father arguing about such a trip, then both killed by it. Why is this significant?

A painting seeming  to be painted by someone else, self-taught by the extra soul within? “It is a commonplace that there is often more than one soul in a single body.” A painter called Xavier Mellery who claimed “that he painted silence.” One of many painters that the second narrator treated as “stations on a spiritual ascent.”

Reaching Madame A’s house, as if part of Aickman’s obsession with gluey Zenoism. Indeed, on ‘the very last stretch’ of this journey, he says he ceases to be anxious. Towards golden walls and golden frames. With furnishings “to spring upwards in ecstasy, to sag in melancholia…” And a life-size marble figure of a woman giving birth to a succubus.

Madame A. herself, “perfectly agile, but curiously uncouth in her movements”, later “standing dumpily”, but with golden slippers on her feet. She tells of a man who was madly in love with her whom she wouldn’t have used as pocket handkerchief for her grippe! The mediocre or self-abusing or dull painters she lists by alphabetical letters — as if her own name of A. started this list?

Much talk of Madame A’s pretty ‘adopted daughter’ Chrysothème, whom we never see but we can run our hands through her clothes. Even kiss them. One dress was “some kind of mottled orange and red.” 

The aforementioned crucial painting was, I think, a cross between an angel and a clown, and I may dream later that I hang above this story like one of its readers lit up…. “… on the single golden light that hung by a golden chain from the golden ceiling of the landing…”, except the exact context subsumed this hope?

“I am trying to set down events and my feelings exactly as they were, or as nearly as possible…” — taken the words out of my mouth, as it were! 

All my reviews of Aickman here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/robert-aickman/

PS: see comments below

Any Cyprinidae, notwithstanding.


“It was the kind of party where it was assumed that everyone knows one another and therefore no one is introduced. There are many parties like that in Palm Beach.”

Brilliant chapter, especially as I myself (D.F. Lewis) invented neo-Dada as part of the Zeroist Group in 1967. Take it or leave it, that is true.
F meets Cassidy for the first time (or last time, because how do I, the real-time literary critic, yet know?) and the utterly fascinating plot direction is set up for me, one that I shall resist divulging here, although it has something to do with an old man (does this novel actually take place in 1971 when I understand this book was first published?) and with neo-Dada.
This compelling plot direction amid — carp (if not tench, tench being important to my own philosophy) in a pool and a badly-designed sculpture of a griffin by this pool; F’s backstory, Puerto Rico, the variants on his forename, his milliner mother, his developing career as a so-called ‘incorruptible’ art critic; discussion of Matisse and Rothko; and of the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition in Hitler’s time; and artists arguably, for me, similar to fish in pools as fished by collectors and critics alike… “Collectors and critics live within this uneasy symbiotic relationship.” And Cassidy saying: ‘One dishonest act doesn’t make a person dishonest, not when it’s the only one he ever performs. That is, a slightly dishonest act.” And F saying (to himself if not to us readers): “Berenice makes much better coffee than I do . . .” Any Cyprinidae, notwithstanding.

The full context of my ongoing review of THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY by Charles Willeford: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2021/07/20/the-burnt-orange-heresy-charles-willeford/