S.P.'s Reviews > Aickman's Heirs

Aickman's Heirs by Simon Strantzas
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it was amazing

In his introductory note, editor Simon Strantzas describes the new anthology Aickman’s Heirs as “a sampler of how Robert Aickman’s work has become a significant source of inspiration for contemporary writers.” The volume’s fifteen original tales have been contributed by some of today’s finest practitioners of strange fiction.

What is it about Aickman’s work—often described as “quiet horror”—that continues to influence and intrigue? For one thing, his most compelling, frequently noted stories are delightfully ambiguous. There is no magical or monstrous reveal in the last paragraph. Actions and images are open to interpretation. And although his characters are psychologically convincing, their motives are subtle, complex, deeply personal, and sometimes unidentifiable.

Set in a modern era yet employing a style associated with more traditional literature, Aickman’s fiction points to the warping influence of random events in a society increasingly less grounded in shared beliefs and common pursuits. The variety of modern life adds to its confusion. The conviction that happiness is attainable, and left up to the individual to attain, leads to an all-pervasive loneliness infecting our technologically advanced world. Loneliness and the flinty nature of modern identity are themes so prevalent in Aickman’s writing as to be described as obsessions. And the estimable new stories in this anthology owe a good deal to those obsessions.

“Seaside Town,” by Brian Evenson, opens with middle-aged Hovell trying to reason his way out of an unwanted vacation. He is bullied into visiting a location where he doesn’t understand the language or customs. His hearty companion, Miss Pickaver, knows her way around, while Hovell’s introspection defines the boundaries of his life. When Miss Pickaver leaves to pursue her own adventure, Hovell begins to observe odd patterns that a more active tourist might not notice. Capturing Aickman’s pacing and paranoia without lapsing into pastiche, Evenson’s story subtly demonstrates the dangerous mutability of identity.

Richard Gavin excels at establishing the atmosphere and weird logic of nightmares. In “Neithornor,” the narrator recalls his encounters with a gallery owner and a mysterious artist named Vera, who is a distant cousin. Vera’s art objects contain bizarre elements, material whose origin appears more freakish and menacing, the more the narrator investigates. “Neithornor” is shadowy, beautifully written, and haunting. In common with Aickman’s “The Inner Room,” the imagery of Gavin’s weird tale tantalizes with terrifying possibilities.

In John Howard’s “Least Light, Most Night” the main characters are acquainted through employment. Thomas agrees to visit Bentley only as a courtesy. But when he comes to call, he is drawn into Bentley’s world—physically, psychologically, maybe supernaturally. The interior of Bentley’s house is the first clue to his state of mind. The creepiness of Aickman’s “The School Friend” resounds in the halls. “Least Light, Most Night” conjures the awful feeling one has at the realization that good manners have lured one into a very bad situation.

“Camp” by David Nickle plays on our suspicions when an elderly, straight couple invites two younger male newlyweds to visit their home on a lake. A sudden tragic event transforms the trip and its purpose into a metaphysical journey. The ending may divide readers into the delighted and the mildly confused but the lead-up to that scene is convincing and highly suspenseful.

“A Delicate Craft” by D.P. Watt is also about a transformation. This time the encounter is between a disillusioned Polish laborer and an elderly woman expert in the art of lacemaking. The final event comes as no surprise, so the selling point of the story is the author’s excellent attention to detail, demonstrating a thorough knowledge of a beautiful, bygone craft.

In “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” Nadia Bulkin takes an incisive look at small town American life. The young protagonist grew up surrounded and protected by secrets regarding a local disaster. As she uncovers bits and pieces of the truth over the years, she is inexorably drawn away from the so-called comforts of home. It’s a lesson in (collective) selective memory, which can all too easily morph into hypocrisy.

“Infestations” by Michael Cisco dissects the lives of two women, both named Miriam. One has returned to New York to close up the apartment of the other, who died recently. As Miriam sorts through her memories and the belongings of the dead woman, she finds both retreat and a certain solace. The reader is left to decide the value and the danger involved in being absorbed by another person’s perspective.

“The Dying Season” by Lynda E. Rucker is a satisfying tale exploring the mysteries of intimacy. Sylvia has allowed her lover to talk her into a brief stay at a leisure resort where he spent childhood holidays with his parents. Sylvia and John are not getting along, and most of Sylvia’s time is spent in solitude. Meeting another couple causes the already frayed relationship to unravel at an alarming pace, while Sylvia questions the validity of everything she sees. Does her fear rise from a real apprehension of the situation, or from inexplicable influences? Rucker is a master of the mysteriously menacing detail glimpsed out of context.

“A Discreet Music” by Michael Wehunt chronicles another kind of metamorphosis. An aging man faces widowhood by recalling a passionate affair from his youth. As he wanders through the emotional detritus of his life, he begins a startling physical transformation. The Yeats epigraph and final scene are clearly a reference to Leda and the swan. But the reader will have to determine how this very specific myth ties into the man’s story, other than as an example of unbridled physical expression.

John Langan’s “Underground Economy” strikes a refreshingly odd and contemporary note. It’s a tale of two strippers, one of whom has a bizarre connection to a group of thugs in a van. The point of view is perhaps a response to the relentless male gaze of Aickman’s “The Swords.” In any event, it’s a joy to find these women portrayed as intelligent free agents rather than wisecracking stereotypes or eye candy. Langan writes multilayered stories, and this one will no doubt yield further nuances with each reading.

“The Vault of Heaven” by Helen Marshall follows an antiquities scholar to a less than desirable post at an impoverished museum in Greece. Of all the stories in the anthology dealing with a typical Aickman protagonist, this one conveys the greatest wit. The author follows the stuffy scholar through an ill-fated affair, showing how he misses the treasures of life at every turn. His snobbish approach limits his experience in profound ways. At the same time, Marshall makes a deft comparison between earthly or earthbound scholarly interests and a desire to seek connection with the cosmic unknown.

“Two Brothers” by Malcolm Devlin is an unabashed period piece set on a family estate where a neglected brother awaits his older sibling’s return from boarding school. All of the fretful thoughts of the younger boy are portrayed with great skill. He concocts anecdotes about things that never happened, as a preliminary step in regaining his brother’s attention. This is a heart-wrenching coming-of-age story told precisely and without sentimentality.

“The Lake” by Daniel Mills is perfectly constructed. It may be the most painful of all the stories in this volume. Three boys grow up in a typically stifling small town. One follows the path of his father while the others diverge into routine and tragedy. All of the signs of their fate are present in childhood. Only in hindsight does the protagonist examine those signs, and the deep, mysterious circumstances that pull the boys apart.

For longtime readers and fans of Aickman’s fiction, Nina Allan’s “Change of Scene” will be worth the cost of the anthology. Allan has given us a vibrant new story written between the lines and in the possible past and future of characters from “Ringing the Changes.” The narrator joins her old school chum Phrynne on a sentimental journey with some very disturbing edges. This layered, mature tale of missed opportunities and mistaken paths will surely stand the test of time, both as an independent work and as a companion piece to Aickman’s classic.

“The Book That Finds You” by Lisa Tuttle has a charmingly spooky moment at about the midpoint. A woman discovers a very limited edition in an old bookstore, and can’t resist the temptation it presents. Tuttle knows her craft so well, she is able to weave past, present, and imagined life into a smart story of regret and revenge. There are no loose ends here, only paths not taken and love not chosen.

If I made one suggestion to improve this handsome volume, it would be to add a second introduction. While the editor's intro describes his personal intentions and why he likes the stories selected, it does little to enlighten readers approaching Aickman's body of work for the first time. But the fiction is superb. I would therefore give the book an over-all 4.5 or 4.75. So I've changed my rating from 4 to 5.

Most of the stories are quite effective even if you’re not familiar with Aickman’s writing. But a leap into his world will provide better context for this fine tribute anthology. Recommended.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 18, 2015 – Shelved

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