Robert Aickman

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
Robert Aickman
File:Robert Aickman 7.jpg
Born Robert Fordyce Aickman
(1914-06-27)27 June 1914
London, England
Died 26 February 1981(1981-02-26) (aged 66)
London, England
Occupation Writer, conservationist
Nationality British
Notable works Cold Hand in Mine
Sub Rosa
"Ringing the Changes"
The Late Breakfasters
Relatives Richard Marsh (grandfather)

Robert Fordyce Aickman (27 June 1914 – 26 February 1981) was an English conservationist and writer of fiction and nonfiction. As a conservationist, he is notable for co-founding the Inland Waterways Association, a group which has preserved from destruction and restored England's inland canal system. As a writer, he is best known for his supernatural fiction, which he described as "strange stories".


Aickman was born in London, England, the son of William Arthur Aickman and Mabel Violet Marsh. On his mother's side, Aickman was the grandson of the prolific Victorian novelist Richard Marsh (1857–1915), known for his occult thriller The Beetle (1897), a book as popular in its time as Bram Stoker's Dracula.[1]

He originally received his training in architecture, the profession of his father. In the opening lines of his autobiographical work The Attempted Rescue (1966), Aickman described his father as "the oddest man I have ever known".[2]

Aickman was married to Edith Ray Gregorson (1914–1983) from 1941 to 1957.

With a keen interest in the theatre, ballet, and music, Aickman also served as a chairman of the London Opera Society and was active in the London Opera Club, the Ballet Minerva, and the Mikron Theatre Company in London.

Aickman died of cancer on 26 February 1981 after refusing to have conventional treatment. His obituary appeared in The Times on 28 February.


Aickman is probably best remembered for his co-founding of the Inland Waterways Association, a group devoted to restoring and preserving England's then-neglected and largely derelict inland canal system.

The association was sparked off by a letter sent by Aickman to L. T. C. Rolt following the publication in 1944 of Rolt's highly successful book Narrow Boat, describing the declining and largely unknown world of the British canals. The inaugural meeting took place on 15 February 1946 in London, with Aickman as chairman and Rolt as honorary secretary.

The IWA organized successful campaigns and attracted notable supporters, including as president the writer and parliamentarian Sir A. P. Herbert and as vice-president the naturalist Peter Scott. Scott's wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, was part-time secretary, working in Aickman's flat in Gower Street; she had an affair with Aickman, which she describes in her autobiography Slipstream (Macmillan, 2002).

Aickman began to have policy disagreements with Rolt. Aickman wanted to campaign to keep all of the waterways open,[3] whereas Rolt had sympathies with the traditional canal workers and believed it necessary to prioritize which canals could be kept open. The disagreement became public: Aickman had organized the IWA's first boat rally and festival in August 1950 and attempted to prevent Rolt from attending and promoting his book The Inland Waterways of England; nevertheless, Rolt attended, as did his publisher, Philip Unwin. Aickman engineered a change to the rules to require all members to conform to agreed IWA principles, and in early 1951 Rolt and others were excluded from membership.[4]

Nevertheless, the IWA has been one of the most successful conservation organizations in British history, succeeding in restoring and reopening much of the original canal network.



As a writer, Aickman is best known for the 48 "strange stories" which were published in eight volumes, one of them posthumous. The American collection Painted Devils consists of revised versions of stories which had previously appeared in other books.

Cold Hand in Mine and Painted Devils featured dust jacket drawings by acclaimed gothic illustrator Edward Gorey. August Derleth proposed that Arkham House should publish a book of Aickman's best stories, but was unable to meet the author's demands and withdrew the proposal. The original collections of short stories are quite scarce, though copies of the U.S. edition of Cold Hand in Mine are very plentiful.

Aickman's published novels were The Late Breakfasters (London: Victor Gollancz, 1964) and The Model: A Novel of the Fantastic (New York: Arbor House, 1987). The latter was a novella which had remained unpublished in his lifetime. Aickman had hoped to have had the latter work illustrated by Edward Gorey. Another novel, entitled Go Back at Once, remains unpublished. S. T. Joshi is at work on this and it may be published.

A previously unpublished short story, "The Fully Conducted Tour", appeared in the Tartarus Press periodical Wormwood in 2005.


In 1975, Aickman received the World Fantasy Award for short fiction for his story "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal". This story had originally appeared in February 1973 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; it was reprinted in Cold Hand in Mine.

In 1981, the year of his death, Aickman was awarded the British Fantasy Award for his story "The Stains", which had first appeared in the anthology New Terrors (London: Pan, 1980), edited by Ramsey Campbell. It subsequently appeared posthumously in Night Voices.


Aickman's autobiographical writing consists of the two memoirs The Attempted Rescue (London: Victor Gollancz, 1966) and The River Runs Uphill: A Story of Success and Failure (Burton-on-Trent: Pearson, 1986). In 2001, Tartarus Press reissued the former volume in a new edition with a foreword by the writer and Aickman enthusiast Jeremy Dyson of the British comedy quartet The League of Gentlemen.

For a time, Aickman served as theatre critic for The Nineteenth Century and After. His reviews remain, to date, uncollected in book form. He also wrote two books relating to his conservation activities, Know Your Waterways and The Story of Our Inland Waterways (both 1955).

Unpublished works

Other than Go Back at Once, mentioned above, Aickman produced a number of other works that remain unpublished. These include the plays Allowance for Error, Duty and The Golden Round. Another book, a vast philosophical work entitled Panacea: The Synthesis of an Attitude runs to over 1,000 pages in manuscript form. Copies of these items are preserved, along with all of Aickman's other remaining papers, in the Robert Aickman Collection at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.[5]

Career as editor

In addition to writing his own stories, Aickman edited the first eight volumes of the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories between 1964 and 1972. He selected six of his own stories for inclusion over the course of the series. The fourth and sixth volumes lack one of his tales. He also supplied an introduction for every volume except the sixth.


In 1968, a television adaptation of "Ringing the Changes", retitled "The Bells of Hell", appeared on the BBC 2 programme Late Night Horror. A radio play version based on "Ringing the Changes" was broadcast on the CBC Radio drama series Nightfall on 31 October 1980.

In 1987, HTV West produced a six-episode anthology series for television called Night Voices, of which four were based upon stories by Aickman: "The Hospice", "The Inner Room", "Hand In Glove" and "The Trains".[6][7]

A 1997 adaptation of "The Swords", directed by Tony Scott appeared as the first episode of the cable original horror anthology series The Hunger.

Jeremy Dyson has adapted Aickman's work into drama in a number of forms. A musical staging of his short story "The Same Dog", for which Dyson co-wrote the libretto with Joby Talbot, premiered in 2000 at the Barbican Concert Hall. In 2000, with his League collaborator Mark Gatiss, Dyson adapted Aickman's short story "Ringing the Changes" into a BBC Radio Four radio play. This aired exactly twenty years after the CBC adaptation, on Halloween, 2000. Dyson also directed a 2002 short film based on Aickman's story "The Cicerones" with Gatiss as the principal actor.


I think that Aickman is one of those authors that you respond to on a very primal level. If you're a writer, it's a bit like being a stage magician. A stage magician produces coin, takes coin, demonstrates coin vanished... That tends to be what you do as a fiction writer, reading fiction. You'll go, "Oh look. He's setting that up."...Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I'm not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully. Yes, the key vanished, but I don't know if he was holding a key in the hand to begin with. I find myself admiring everything he does from an auctorial standpoint. And I love it as a reader. He will bring on atmosphere. He will construct these perfect, dark, doomed little stories, what he called "strange stories".

His literary gifts were of an extremely high order. His prose style – supple, urbane, sophisticated, restrained, yet capable of surprisingly powerful emotive effects – never falters from the beginning to the end of his work. There are few writers who are as purely pleasurable to read, regardless of their subject matter or the success or failure of their actual work, as Robert Aickman. His major literary influences (it might be better to say analogues) appear to be M. R. James and Walter de la Mare, yet he excels the former in richness and variety of texture and the latter in the sustained intensity of all his literary work.

From the first I understood that he was a deeply original artist. This in no way implies that I understood Aickman immediately because I didn't. Sometimes I would look up at the end of a story, feeling that the whole thing had just twisted itself inside out and turned into smoke - I had blinked, and missed it all. It took me a little while to learn to accept this experience as valuable in itself and to begin to see how the real oddness of most of Aickman's work is directly related to its psychological, even psychoanalytic, acuity. Unconscious forces move the stories itself, as well as the characters, and what initially looks like a distressing randomness of detail and event is its opposite - everything is necessary, everything is logical, but not at all in a linear way. To pull off this kind of dream-like associativeness, to pack it with the menace that results from a narrative deconstruction of the notion of "ordinary reality", to demonstrate again and again in excellent prose (no dumb experimentation or affectation here) that our lives are literally shaped by what we do not understand about ourselves, requires a talent that yokes together an uncommon literary sensitivity with a lush, almost tropical inventiveness.

Robert Aickman has a gift for depicting the eerie areas of inner space, the churning storms and silent overcasts that engulf the minds of lonely and alienated people. He is a weatherman of the subconscious.




Short story collections

Original collections
  • We Are for the Dark: Six Ghost Stories. London: Jonathan Cape, 1951. (Collection containing three stories by Elizabeth Jane Howard and the following three by Aickman):
    • "The Trains"
    • "The Insufficient Answer"
    • "The View"
  • Dark Entries: Curious and Macabre Ghost Stories. London: Collins, 1964.
    • "The School Friend"
    • "Ringing the Changes"
    • "Choice of Weapons"
    • "The Waiting Room"
    • "Bind Your Hair"
  • Powers of Darkness: Macabre Stories. London: Collins, 1966.
    • "Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen"
    • "My Poor Friend"
    • "The Visiting Star"
    • "Larger than Oneself"
    • "A Roman Question"
    • "The Wine-Dark Sea"
  • Sub Rosa: Strange Tales. London: Victor Gollancz, 1968.
    • "Ravissante"
    • "The Inner Room"
    • "Never Visit Venice"
    • "The Unsettled Dust"
    • "The Houses of the Russians"
    • "No Stronger than a Flower"
    • "The Cicerones"
    • "Into the Wood"
  • Cold Hand in Mine: Eight Strange Stories. London: Victor Gollancz, 1975.
    • "The Swords"
    • "The Real Road to the Church"
    • "Niemandswasser"
    • "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal"
    • "The Hospice"
    • "The Same Dog"
    • "Meeting Mr Millar"
    • "The Clock Watcher"
  • Tales of Love and Death. London: Victor Gollancz, 1977.
    • "Growing Boys"
    • "Marriage"
    • "Le Miroir"
    • "Compulsory Games"
    • "Raising the Wind"
    • "Residents Only"
    • "Wood"
  • Intrusions: Strange Tales. London: Victor Gollancz, 1980.
    • "Hand in Glove"
    • "No Time Is Passing"
    • "The Fetch"
    • "The Breakthrough"
    • "The Next Glade"
    • "Letters to the Postman"
  • Night Voices: Strange Stories. London: Victor Gollancz, 1985. (Reprints "The Trains" and also includes the following):
    • "The Stains"
    • "Just a Song at Twilight"
    • "Laura"
    • "Rosamund's Bower"
    • "Mark Ingestre: The Customer's Tale"
Reprint collections
  • Painted Devils: Strange Stories. New York: Scribner's, 1979. (Revised stories):
    • "Ravissante"
    • "The Houses of the Russians"
    • "The View"
    • "Ringing the Changes"
    • "The School Friend"
    • "The Waiting Room"
    • "Marriage"
    • "Larger than Oneself"
    • "My Poor Friend"
  • The Wine-Dark Sea. New York: Arbor House/William Morrow, 1988.
  • The Unsettled Dust. London: Mandarin, 1990.
  • The Collected Strange Stories. Carlton-in-Coverdale: Tartarus/Durtro, 1999. (Two volumes.)


  • Know Your Waterways. London: Coram Publishers, 1955.
  • The Story of Our Inland Waterways. London: Pitman, 1955.


  • The Attempted Rescue. London: Victor Gollancz 1966.
  • The River Runs Uphill: A Story of Success and Failure. Burton on Trent: Pearson, 1986.


  1. Crawford, Gary William. Robert Aickman: An Introduction, Gothic Press 2003, p.3
  2. Aickman, Robert. The Attempted Rescue, Tartarus Press 2001, p.3
  3. A motion passed by the council in November 1950 reads "this council confirms that the policy of the Association is to advocate the restoration to good order and maintenance in good order of every navigable waterway by both commercial and pleasure traffic." Ian Mackersey (1984). Tom Rolt and the Cressy Years. London: M&M Baldwin. p. 87.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. David Bolton (1990). Race against Time. Methuen. pp. 89–91.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Crawford, Gary William. Robert Aickman: An Introduction. Gothic Press, 2003, p.71.
  6. IMDb entry for "The Hospice"
  7. IMDb entry for "Hand in Glove"
  8. Quoted in Darrell Schweitzer, ed., The Neil Gaiman Reader (Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2007).[page needed]
  9. S. T. Joshi, The Modern Weird Tale (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001), p. 218.
  10. Quoted in Stephen Jones & Clarence Paget, eds., Dark Voices: The Best from the Pan Book of Horror Stories (London: Pan Books, 1990), p. 191
  11. Quoted in Jim Rockhill, rev. of Akin to Poetry: Observations on Some Strange Tales of Robert Aickman by Philip Challinor (Baton Rouge: Gothic Press, 2010).
  • R. Reginald (1979). "Robert Aickman". Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, v. 2: Contemporary Science Fiction Authors II. 2. Gale Research Company. p. 791. ISBN 0-8103-1051-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Ashley, Mike. "In Memoriam: Robert Fordyce Aickman". Fantasy Newsletter (June 1981), p. 13.
  • Bolton, David. Race Against Time: How Britain's Waterways Were Saved. London: Methuen, 1990. (Contains a great deal of material about Aickman, including several photographs, and the final chapter is devoted to him.)
  • Briggs, Scott D. "Robert Aickman: Sojourns into the Unknown". Studies in Weird Fiction 12 (Spring 1993), pp. 7–12.
  • Challinor, Philip. Akin to Poetry: Observations on Some Strange Tales of Robert Aickman. Baton Rouge: Gothic Press, 2010. (Eight critical essays.)
  • Clute, John. "Robert Aickman, 1914–1981". Strokes: Essays and Reviews, 1966–1986. Seattle: Serconia Press, 1988. (Revised version of Clute's essay in Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, ed. E. F. Bleiler [New York: Scribners, 1985].)
  • Crawford, Gary William. "Love and Death in the Tales of Robert Aickman". Nyctalops 18 (1983), pp. 51–55. (Includes the bibliography "Robert Aickman: A Preliminary Checklist".)
  • ———. "The Poetics of the Unconscious: The 'Strange' Stories of Robert Aickman". Discovering Modern Horror Fiction II, ed. Darrell Schweitzer. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1988.
  • ———. Robert Aickman: An Introduction. Baton Rouge: Gothic Press, 2003. (The most detailed biographical and critical study produced to date.)
  • ———, ed. Insufficient Answers. Baton Rouge: Gothic Press, 2012. (Three critical essays by different hands.)
  • Howard, Elizabeth Jane. Slipstream. London: Macmillan, 2002. (Autobiography including an account of her relationship with Aickman.)
  • Joshi, S. T. "So Little Is Definite". The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.
  • Morris, Christine Pasanen. "The Female 'Outsider' in the Short Fiction of Robert Aickman". Nyctalops 18 (1983), pp. 55–58.
  • Ricketts, Martin. "Enigma Macabre: An Evaluation of the Short Stories of Robert Aickman". Shadow 3:1 (Nov. 1972), pp. 4–9.

Articles, essays and papers by other authors have appeared on the website Robert Aickman: An Appreciation, and in the journals Studies in Weird Fiction (published by Necronomicon Press), All Hallows (published by the Ghost Story Society), Studies in the Fantastic, Supernatural Tales and Wormwood.

External links