Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Aickman, Robert

(1914-1981) UK writer whose passionately engaged life – as opera critic and founder of the Inland Waterways Association – fed into his fiction, which he began to write about 1949. He contributed to We Are for the Dark: Six Ghost Stories (coll 1951) with Elizabeth Jane Howard. RA's stories in this volume – "The Trains", "The Insufficient Answer" and "The View" – are the work of a mature writer, and, although his most profound tales date from his last years, he never worked out an apprenticeship in public: he seemed fully formed – and fully armed – from the first, an impression strengthened by his autobiographies, The Attempted Rescue (1966) and The River Runs Uphill: A Story of Success and Failure (1986).

RA was perhaps the finest writer of the Ghost Story in the second half of the 20th century, and although little of his work is pure fantasy – only a few of his 45 or so stories, and neither of his novels, actually take leave of the mundane world in any sense, except as a prelude to death – he is of absorbing interest in our context because he demonstrates the range of meaning that may be extracted from the devices of any form of fantastic literature, when those devices are treated gravely by a writer of high quality. Most of RA's work is technically Supernatural Fiction, about which he comments interestingly in his introductions to his Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories series of Anthologies. He commonly focuses not upon the entity (usually a Ghost) which violates the fabric of Reality but upon his richly conceived protagonists as they thrust towards, and sometimes across, thresholds (see Portals) they do not know how to "read". They cannot understand the ghost that faces them because that ghost, in RA's most typical stories – like "Compulsory Games" (1976 in Frights ed Kirby McCauley) – is a manifestation, a psychic portrait, of their failure to understand their own lives. Having failed to know themselves, his protagonists become frightened unto death by the fragmented images they glimpse across the Uncanny threshold.

There is, therefore, much Wrongness in RA's work, and very little Healing; an almost solitary exception is the very late "The Stains" (1980 in New Terrors ed Ramsey Campbell) – winner of a 1981 British Fantasy Award – whose protagonist comes to terms with the fact that he is dying and that the nymph he meets is escorting him to the grave (RA's protagonists seldom sufficiently sort themselves out to come to a conclusion). In the end, the nymph takes him down into the coffin-like dwelling of her father, who is the natural world, and the protagonist realizes that he is happy and for a time "count[s] the good things only, as does a sundial".

After We Are for the Dark RA's stories appeared in various solo collections, including Dark Entries (coll 1964), Powers of Darkness (coll 1966), Sub Rosa: Strange Tales (coll 1968), Cold Hand in Mine: Eight Strange Stories (coll dated 1975 but 1976), Tales of Love and Death (coll 1977), Intrusions: Strange Stories (coll 1980) and Night Voices (coll 1985). US collections included Painted Devils: Strange Stories (coll 1979 US) and The Wine-Dark Sea (coll 1988 US; cut 1990 UK), both selected from previous UK volumes; The Unsettled Dust (coll 1990) is also a compilation. The Late Breakfasters (1964) and arguably The Model (1987 US) are less successful than the shorter work.

Stories of note include: "Ringing the Changes" (1955 in The Third Ghost Book ed Cynthia Asquith), in which the risen dead paralyse a dangerously moribund marriage; "The Visiting Star" in Powers of Darkness; "Into the Wood" (see Into the Woods) in Sub Rosa; "The Hospice" and "Pages From a Young Girl's Journal", which won a 1975 World Fantasy Award, in Cold Hand in Mine; "The Fetch" in Intrusions; and "Mark Ingestre – The Customer's Tale" (1980 in Dark Forces ed Kirby McCauley). But there are few weak stories. RA can and should be read entire. [JC]

as editor: The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (anth 1964); The Second Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (anth 1966); #3 (anth 1977); #4 (anth 1978); #5 (anth 1969); #6 (anth 1970); #7 (anth 1971); #8 (anth 1972).

Robert Fordyce Aickman


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.