Peter Straub said of Robert Aickman‘s fiction that “to put such strange things on paper was a valiant act of self-acceptance”. With such a compliment, we can understand that Aickman’s stories must convey some kind of honesty within them, even something personal. It’s often the sort of thing that’s said of the particularly frank memoir – a self-sanctioned exposé which contains a provocative admission of guilt somewhere along the line. But with Aickman – now widely considered one of the pioneering writers of Strange Stories – there is indeed a strand of personal, almost raw sensitivity which runs through much of his fiction. But this is usually a private, un-uttered sensitivity; that within a tale which is relatable and understandable – but as for what exactly it is, the reader may not wish to say, let alone describe aloud.
During his writing career, Aickman produced stories considered unbound by genre. Instead of wheeling out well-worn Gothic tropes or spooky ghost story traits, Aickman instead experimented with the hauntings of psychology, the subconscious, or the discomforts of certain human contact and repressed desperation. He created tales based around traumas which perhaps tend to manifest in the mind first, then begin to feel their way into the world. A list of Aickman’s finest tales might well include The Same Dog (an inseparable young boy and girl encounter a grotesque, ancient mongrel on one of their adventures together, only for the boy to encounter the same animal again decades later), Your Tiny Hand is Frozen (a man receives initially seductive phone calls from an anonymous admirer, which ends in a chillingly strange crime), The Inner Room (the gift of a large doll’s house takes a young girl on a fractal odyssey into an unnerving alternative to the concept of family), and The Hospice (often considered Aickman’s finest story, a mapless businessman finds himself stranded in a peculiar hospice for the night, where he experiences an utmost terror).
Pages From a Young Girl’s Journal represents something of a change in Aickman’s style. Presented in pure epistolary format, the story consists of a set of chronological personal diary entries penned an unnamed young girl, seemingly aged around 14 or 15. As she and her family travel through Italy meeting various people (much to the young narrator’s impatience and distinctly English articulations of criticism) she eventually meets an older male figure at a house party. Once this male enters the story, it soon displays hallmarks of a vampire tale; a young girl seduced by an older figure only visiting her at night; blood-lust; lack of reflection; and transformation. What is different though compared to other stories in the genre is Aickman’s delicately psychological take on the effects of the vampiric presence in the young girl’s life.
Throughout the tale the girl, although bored out of her mind much of the time, still has a firm (and indeed educated, literate) grasp of her surroundings; she appreciates that Italy is a beautiful place and she holds the opinions of Miss Gisborne (an important matriarchal figure back home) in high regard, shaping much of her mental estimations. She is also fixated (but from a safe distance) with the idea that Lord Byron and Percy Shelley may well be occupying a villa not far from where she is, so derives some form of vicarious pleasure from thinking about their adventures. This ontological security emphasises unusual depths of character, not least in what should be from initial inspection a straightforward vampire tale, where the blood-sucker is the main character and his victims merely his feeding vessels, soon to be cast aside.
But nothing is ever quite so straightforward with Aickman and the focalisation often comes not only from the more ordinary characters, but also how extraordinary events are perceived within the ordinary characters’ mind. The girl appears literate and educated to begin with (believable in itself given the social circles her family move in throughout Europe) but after her seduction by the vampire, her journal entries begin to gain a poetic slant. On an actual chance witnessing of Byron and Shelly riding past her on horses, she comments:
“…my main impression was of both giaours looking considerably older than I had expected and Lord Byron considerably more corpulent (as well as being quite greyheaded, though I believe only at the start of his life’s fourth decade). Mr Shelley was remarkably untidy in his dress and Lord Byron most comical: in that respect at least, the reality was in accord with the report”
The vampire has supplanted the two infamous poets in her darker fantasies and now, in her eyes, the boredom in her life can only be relieved by his visits even though she finds herself “being torn by emotion” and “worn to a silken thread” by his demands on her. At times the girl’s lavish descriptions of bright crimson sheets and her soaking wet bedclothes are almost discomfortingly sexual. Through the heady poetics of her narrative style, a message is being played out regarding a burgeoning and suggestedly premature sexuality, and something that perhaps, nearly 40 years later, is even more taboo than when first published.
In a time of the diluted blood-lust of much mass market vampire fiction – works with very little ambiguity of message or just as little to revolt the reader’s senses (but justifiably so) – Aickman’s single vampire story stands out as presenting the vampire once again as something alien, infiltrating, and not bogged down by allegory for the sake of it. Instead what we get is an authentic, if dislocating, insight into the psychology of a character not only in the midst of a horror but also (and much more horrifyingly) won over by it.
The final few entries of the diary are the most distressing. The girl seems to have grasped the difference between her corporeal life and the existence of her seducer. She describes her body being weak now, “in terms of this world – as I am”, and she desires to look past the husks of empty rooms around her and out into the night, ready to be swallowed up by the nocturnal creatures that shift within it:
“I smiled at the wolves. Then I crossed my hands on my little bosom and curtsied. They will be prominent among my new people. My blood will be theirs, and theirs mine.”
The story ends abruptly with the girl claiming she will not write any more entries, ending the story in the immediate moment; she no longer needs the past-tense wisdom of Miss Gisborne to explain the present, or the atemporal hedonism of Byron or Shelley to help fulfill her perceptions. The vampire has made everything of the moment, and for her, a young girl now immersed in his lifelessness, this is the same as immortality. And here the tale ends in the tragedy of her finished words; no more will pen will be put to paper in the name of passing the time or recording that which is most personal and human. The human link (voyeuristic as it is) between narrator and reader is lost. At at moment the epistolary reveals its abrupt verisimilitude as it ends as suddenly as it began (it is not after all some third-person narrative, book-ended with exposition) but our hunger for more continues on past the last few lines.
In 1976, during his speech for winning a SF/Fantasy Award, Aickman said that:
“Spirit is indefinable, as everything that matters is indefinable, but one can tell the person who has it from the person who has it not.”
Aickman reveals not only his techniques as a writer to suggest mysterious depths of character (and uniquely so from individual to individual) but also the lighter and darker variations of such. There is nothing uniform in Aickman’s world, nor the world as he perceives it. In the last 30 to 40 years, his work has inspired the creative output of many artists and has been rightly champion by people such as Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson (The League of Gentlemen), and has even begun to reach new audiences via various adaptations. If you’re lucky enough to own a copy of Aickman’s story collections you will know what a treasure they can be. If you’ve yet to discover Aickman, I envy you.