Friday, 21 December 2012

Intrusions by Robert Aickman, Tartarus Press

Reggie Oliver is correct when, in this new edition's foreword, he states
these stories are not inconclusive - as so often attributed - (by this
reviewer included) since they each, at least, have a beginning,
middle and end; only 'puzzles remain.' As readers, we can easily trail
the what of unfurling events, but only very rarely the why.
The protaganist's true motive remains staunchly couched in ambiguity,
invariably maintained up to. and including, the tale's climax.
  One harboured motive used on occasion here - as in Aickman's six
previous collections - is that of impotence. A general Aickman scenario
features a main narrator, or character, caught at a time when they are
most psychologically vulnerable to outside influence; possibly at the
point of breakdown.  A mental barrier to self-acknowledgement
presents itself, from the outset, as that character's normalcy.
Effectively, the ambiguity is the normalcy.
  This may all appear somewhat academic and dry, but it explains
why a simple encapsulating review for each tale is such a challenge.
Much is left unexplained, and intentionally so.  As with the most
sublime 'crimes,' it is left to the reader to fill in the gaps. If frustrating
for some, I for one enjoy the challenge.
  'Hand in Glove' concerns two women friends arriving at a scenic
country spot for a picnic, arranged by Winifred for the recuperative
benefit of Millicent after the final breakdown of the latter's
relationship. Intimations of neediness in Millicent are revealed from
the start while she interprets what she sees en route in ways the clear-
headed Winifred casually counters.  While both women share
subsequent experiences, it is undoubtedly a ghostly vision by Millicent,
toward the climax, which begs one question as to whether Winifred
wasn't only her friend but present in a capacity rather more official.
I'll confess the final seven lines not only confirmed this suspicion
but also moved me to tears.
  With 'No Time is Passing' I found Aickman at his most obscure.
With his wife Hesper delayed by a commitment at work, Delbert
Catlow explores for the first time the river at the back of their new
home; a ground floor flat in a nineteenth century house.  A dishevelled
-looking young man on the other side beckons him across to his own
more makeshift dwelling. A moored scull at the bottom of some
descending steps so entices Delbert aboard.  On arrival, he soon
realises his new neighbour may be more than merely eccentric as
bizarre mind games are employed to stop him from leaving.
The tale is literal enough, but signposts are deployed which appear
to have little allusion to anything greater.  e.g. Delbert's stopped watch;
the ninety-minute window before Hesper's likely return, etc.
The title so stating only what is obvious.
  'The Fetch' is a psychological horror of one man's repressed guilt,
where-in the character Leith is trapped by the great fear of his
childhood, manifest in the (subjective?) form of a familiar - a sea-borne
old woman - the 'auld carlin' and 'fetch' of the title - who returns to land
to claim those Leith has loved and, somehow, failed.  Its few water-
dripping approaches are singularly nightmarish; more so delivered in
Aickman's cool, partially glimpsed, 'intrusions.'  He is never bettered
when flashing passed us such glimpses.
  'The Breakthrough' is Aickman at his most atypical; a period piece
centering around a Civil War-era incident where an alleged rebuilding
accident cracks open the local church floor, unleashing a dormant
being that reeks havoc in the 'God-forsaken' village and among the
flock of two sparring churchwardens.  Blackly comedic, it's also
cleverly true to the ignorance pertaining at the time in which it is set.
  'The Next Glade' sees Noelle, a guest at a houseparty, fall prey to
a mystery man who ingratiates himself with her.  He suggests he
visit her later, without, as she points out, having asked for her
address. A little research on her part fails to confirm the identity
of the man or that he was even a guest of the hosts.
On arriving at her place, he appears restless, encouraging Noelle to
walk with him into the woods nearby. Nothing untoward happens,
until the man wanders into the next glade of the title.
Then, to Noelle, at least, he disappears.  On re-emerging much later,
he seems in a different guise altogether, no longer amorous, and more
of a stranger.  As with 'Hand in Glove' and 'Letters to the Postman'
that follows, the narrator appears to have constructed his / her
own fantasy perception around a situation or character, which
objective truth subsequently, partially, unveils.
  'Letters to the Postman' indulges to the full this sub-topic of
wish-fulfillment in a series of anonymous pleas for help, left in a
letterbox by a woman apparently trapped in a violent relationship.
These are supportively answered by the well-intentioned, if possibly
impotent, hand of a rookie mailman who still lives with his mother.
Aickman cleverly plays out Robin Breeze's pubescent-type fantasies
in a way only someone as unworldly as Breeze could've manifested.
Indeed, the 'victim' woman, when she apparently appears, too
conveniently seems the woman of his dreams, until any likelihood of
conjugals are firmly scotched. You feel as if Breeze - rather than
Aickman himself - had written the script for things to turn out as they
  This seventh collection - released in Aickman's sixty-sixth year - rivals
his best work, provided you can indulge in the corresponding, thought-
provoking shocks and character ambiguity that raise the bar in tow.

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