Undertow Publications, 2015
I read this book back when it first came out -- in fact, I'd preordered a signed copy directly from Undertow, but then Aickman's Heirs showed up on Amazon and impatient soul that I am, I bought a copy to tide me over until the signed one arrived. I am a HUGE Aickman fan, although a relative newbie to his work. So when I started this book, I didn't want pastiche or copycat, and thankfully, I got neither, although Nina Allan’s “Change of Scene” revisits one of Aickman's most head-scratching tales ever, "Ringing the Changes." As far as the book as a whole, it's a collection that absolutely should not be missed, and I'm here to tell you that I am incredibly picky when it comes to strange fiction.
Some time back, when I first started looking at Aickman 's work, and as I was trying to get more of a feel for him and for his work, I came across and bookmarked an article at The Millions called "The Art of Terror: Robert Aickman's Strange Tales." Here, the author of the piece wrote the following:
"Aickman's readers are a bit like the narrator of "The Inner Room," who never gains access to her forlorn dollhouse's hidden sanctum where all mystery is laid bare. What one remembers most from Aickman's stories are not the ghosts, vampires, psychopaths, goddesses, or lake monsters, but rather a feeling of dread and a lingering doubt over the precise nature of the epiphany, or atrocity, that seems to have occurred. After reading an Aickman tale, one feels as if one's vision is occluded by the very "self-renewing, perennial" debris that covers every surface of the mansion in "The Unsettled Dust," a story in which the prying narrator is curtly told: "The key of your room doesn't open every door." And perhaps that's for the best; some locked doors should remain unopened."My feeling about Aickman's Heirs is that the majority of these stories leave that "lingering doubt over the precise nature of the epiphany, or atrocity, that seems to have occurred," and that there are most definitely stories in this collection that represent the feel of "locked doors" that "should remain unopened." Nearly all of these tales left me with that uneasy feeling that something is just so very wrong here, so very off-kilter, but yet explanations as to the underlying whys often proved elusive and left me scratching my head and putting on the proverbial thinking cap. In other words, in my own non-literary-person sort of way, and as a reader of strange tales, Aickman's Heirs works very well both conceptually and on an individual-author basis. And frankly, a handful of these stories just knocked my socks off.
This is going to be a lengthy post as it is, and because of time/space considerations, I'm not going to even attempt to offer interpretations of these stories here (hopefully you can find them elsewhere on the internet), so now, without further ado, I give you my casual reader's look at Aickman's Heirs:
This collection opens with "Seaside Town," by Brian Evenson, and it is good enough to have whetted my appetite for what's about to come next. A man named Hovell with clear-cut life boundaries finally goes off on a vacation even though it's not his idea but rather that of Miss Pickaver, whose arrival "had changed a lot of things" in his life. After she'd "swept into his life and into his bed," she takes him to a seaside town in where he doesn't even understand the language. She goes off on her own four-day adventure leaving him to himself; when she returns, expecting the "Same old James," she's in for a big surprise. It is followed by Richard Gavin's "Neithernor" which turned out to be one of my favorite stories in this book, taking on the form of a waking nightmare. Our narrator here discovers quite by accident that his distant cousin Vera is responsible for a very different, bizarre and "highly unique" form of art; he also discovers that she's also "become swallowed up in a life" he "can only describe as leprous," and needed rescuing. God. I read this one three times and it got creepier (and more headscratching) every time. This is probably the most nightmare-oriented, atmospheric story in the entire collection. John Howard's fantastic contribution, "Least Light, Most Night," centers on two men who work at the same place and who had "occupied adjacent desks for several years" without even knowing each other's first names. That's about to change when Mr. Bentley extends an invitation to Mr. Thomas to come to his house, where he brings up his "little society" that celebrates winter solstice, the day of "least light, most night." It's a very clever story that will literally chill you to the bone, no pun intended, largely because of its implications. "Camp," by David Nickle follows two newly-married men who've decided to do some lake kayaking in northern Ontario for their honeymoon. An older couple in their seventies catches up to them at a small-town grocery store, congratulating them on their marriage. As the newlyweds return to their car after buying supplies, the older couple is gone, but they've left an invite for the two men to join them, along with a map to their lakeside home. The rest...well, I'll just say that it's one of those stories where the ending may be up for grabs, depending on reader perception. "Camp" also reminded me a bit of Algernon Blackwood -- and that's a good thing. Another story in this collection that didn't remind me so much of Aickman but of another novel I've recently read is "A Delicate Craft" by D.P. Watt. A Polish laborer who came to the UK for work now finds that good jobs are hard to come by. A chance encounter leads him to an elderly woman from a family of lace makers, who invites him to come round and look at her work, and she also offers to show him how to do it. During his visit, he is introduced to her craft and invited to try it himself; eventually he becomes quite skilled at lace making. What starts out as a poignant story takes a strange turn, a twist I never saw coming. Strangely enough, however, in many ways, the ending sort of reminded me a bit of what happens at the end of Bernard Taylor's novel, The Moorstone Sickness. Go figure that one, but I flashed on it immediately.
|borrowed from AZ quotes|
"Seven Minutes in Heaven" is by Nadia Bulkin, and the title refers to "the length of time it takes for a soul to fly to God." Much more interestingly, though, it is the story of a woman looking back on her life in a small town "full of the walking dead." I won't say more about this one but in some ways, it sort of reminded me of Aickman's "The Same Dog." Michael Cisco, who writes some of the most bizarre weird/strange/dark fiction I've ever read in my life joins the party with his "Infestations." It begins with a woman's (Miriam) return to New York after a ten-year absence to pack up the apartment of another Miriam, for whom young Miriam was named, now dead. She's there to "scrub away Miriam's traces, so that Miriam's possessions could also be buried and the spell of home could be broken." As she also notes, "Her parents and the family's satellites were always pairing the two of them, even now that the elder Miriam was dead this was still happening." Take that idea, and run with it, and it becomes downright inexplicable and creepy. "The Dying Season," by Lynda E. Rucker. My favorite line in this story is this: "You must not look at goblin men, you must not buy their fruit." It is explained like this: "...you aren't supposed to eat fairy food or you'll be trapped with them forever." Ah. It all starts in the off season, when Sylvia and John spend time at a leisure resort that John used to go to as a child. Things are not well between the two, but the situation gets weirder when they meet another couple staying at the same place. There is something off-kilter here, or then again, maybe there's not. You be the judge. Turning now to "A Discreet Music," Michael Wehunt weaves mythology into his story about an older man who has recently lost his wife and who, on reflecting on things and wondering if he can recapture a meaningful moment from his past, begins his own sort of strange transformation.
Next up, John Langan's "Underground Economy" centers around two strippers (one with a unique tattoo) who ply their craft at a club called The Cusp. A chance visit (?) to the club by a group of very tall men who reminded the narrator of "stone heads on Easter Island" leads one of them on a very different path. I'm still not sure about this one, a definite headscratcher, but then again, a lot of Langan's stories are like that ... requiring multiple readings in order to peel back the layers. This one is just odd -- but in a great way. With apologies to Helen Marshall, "The Vault of Heaven," admittedly wasn't in my list of favorites for this book, but well, that's how anthologies go sometimes, isn't it? In this story, set just prior to the launch of Sputnik, an idealistic British scholar in Greece with the ability to "behold in my mind the shape of a thing as it was once, its true form" learns exactly what beauty is and isn't. On the other hand, two coming-of-age stories, "Two Brothers," by Malcolm Devlin and "The Lake" by Daniel Mills (whose novel Revenant gave me a nice case of the willies) kept replaying themselves in my head after I'd read them. Devlin's given us a rather sad but eerie (and I do mean eerie) coming-of-age story in which a young boy eagerly awaits the return of his older brother from boarding school, while Mills' offering finds three boys whose adult lives have definite ties to their childhood pasts.
The first of the last two stories of this collection is Nina Allan's nicely-done "Change of Scene," which revisits the small seaside town that served as the setting for Aickman's exquisite "Ringing the Changes." I'll just say that I needn't have worried about pastiche -- her delightfully fresh take on the original is well worth exploring. And last, but certainly not least, is Lisa Tuttle's story "The Book That Finds You." As a fanatical book lover and as someone always looking for volumes of old, strange tales, I truly appreciated this tale of a young woman who comes across a very limited edition of a book by an author who just may be familiar (although in disguise) to anyone reading Aickman's Heirs. Lisa Tuttle has long been a personal favorite and she doesn't disappoint here.
You can certainly read Aickman's Heirs without having read Aickman, but I would highly recommend reading at least a few of Aickman's strange tales before you pick up this one. Overall, this book is a wonderful collection of stories that will wreak a bit of havoc with your brain before you turn the last page. You certainly couldn't ask for more than that.