Horror Rewind #3 – Robert Aickman’s “Cold Hand In Mine” (1975)

I’m cheating on two counts here. I’d intended ‘Horror Rewind’ to be a look back at works of fiction from the Horror Boom of the late 70s to early 90s, and in their original (or at least a contemporary) edition. Cold Hand In Mine is a 2014 reissue from Faber (a lovely thing, as all of Faber’s books are) marking the centenary of Aickman’s birth, and though originally published in 1975 – the year after The Rats and Carrie – it quite definitely belongs to an earlier period of horror.

The change from one era to another is not always clear-cut. Ira Levin and William Peter Blatty’s most famous horror works (Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, respectively) both pre-date the debuts of Stephen King and James Herbert (and are far closer to them than to Aickman), but it’s tempting to see 1974 – in the wake of the economic crises that shook Western economies – as the true starting point of the Horror Boom¹. The new Horror was more immediate, more explicit, and largely working-class (or at least, no longer the preserve of Oxbridge gentlemen).

Although the ghost story anthologies of the type Aickman edited (The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories) continued to be published into the 80s, Cold Hand In Mine can be seen as one of the last links with early-to-mid 20th century “horror” fiction. Indeed it’s difficult to describe these pieces as “horror” in the conventional sense, but then “horror” is a broad church².

Faber’s reissue comes with a foreword from Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen, Inside No. 9) which is a seal of approval in itself. This edition – Faber also reissued two of Aickman’s other collections – seems repackaged as part of the contemporary thirst for the Weird Tale. The original Weird Tales are usually from quite conservative figures (M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Aickman himself) but the new practitioners like China Mieville or Jeff Vandermeer are not.

What are these “strange stories” (as Aickman termed them) like? They’re unsettling, certainly. They seem to inhabit a dream-like universe that’s vague: or perhaps unspecific is a better word. I’ve seen them compared to Thomas Ligotti which you may think unlikely, but there’s a nebulous creepiness – inescapable because you don’t actually know where you are – common to both. There are few details to pin the story down to a specific time period, and no cultural reference points. The reader, correspondingly, is unmoored.  As one of the narrators says, “it is almost as if the nearer one approaches to a thing, the less it proves to be there, to exist at all”. The book’s epigraph is from Sacheverell Sitwell: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation”, and these stories live up to that premise. Spoilers may follow, though it’s difficult to know exactly what would constitute a spoiler in Aickman’s work. 

Most of the eight stories seem – even from 1975 – to be set in the past (either the Edwardian era, or occasionally post-War), and this immediately sets them at a distance from the reader. The one story which does seem contemporary – ‘The Hospice’ – moves rapidly away from the roads, roundabouts, and shortcuts of central England into a building (“somewhere at the back of beyond”) seemingly removed from time.

The narrator of ‘The Swords’ goes into a circus sideshow tent and finds himself watching  audience members (all male, all alone) be called up onto the stage to stick swords into a young woman. Like several of the tales, this one ends in a very different place from where it seems to be going and is quite European in sensibility – shades of Kafka, almost.

‘The Real Road to the Church’ is set, I imagine, on one of the Channel Islands. This story’s narrator has moved into a house which is not haunted in the conventional sense, but has a local folklore attached to it, albeit one that is never fully explained to her, even when she sees the legend itself unfold before her. Aickman’s narrator shares H.P. Lovecraft’s existentialist horror of the universe: “conventions are, indeed, all that shield us from the shivering void”.

The excellent ‘Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal’ reminded me of Arthur Machen’s classic ‘The White People’. The diary entries, by a naive English girl on the Grand Tour in Italy (presumably late 1810s or very early 1820s, because Byron & Shelley make a cameo appearance) form a first-person account of her transformation into a vampire. This was published the same year Stephen King rebooted vampires with Salem’s Lot, but they read like works from a century apart. That said, there’s an embracing of the Other that King rarely allows, but unlike Clive Barker where such embracing is a positive act, this is more akin again to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” where the act of embracing is the horror.

‘The Clock Watcher’ is probably my favourite. Narrator Roy has married Ursula, a German emigre who is clearly troubled in some unspecified manner, and has brought with her from Germany numberless clocks which fill their house. New clocks continually appear, but with no sign of their origin Roy becomes increasingly suspicious, and haunted.

These tales offer no safe resolution, sometimes no resolution at all: Aickman seems to choose his endings in a manner calculated to best leave us feling abandoned. I’m not sure how much I actually enjoyed most of the stories, but they lingered in my mind well after reading, and for much longer than most things I’ve read recently.

1975 also saw some quality “modern” horror: as well as the aforementioned Salem’s Lot, James Herbert’s second novel The Fog came hot on the heels of The Rats; Graham Masterton’s The Manitou, and the irrepressible Guy N Smith’s The Sucking Pit were all published. Although rarely thought of as “Horror” (though what else could it be?), cinema was transformed forever by the year’s first true blockbuster, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Less impactful, but just as terrifying, was David Cronenberg’s breakthrough film Shivers.

Notes

¹ The fact that its the year I was born is entirely coincidental.

² Douglas E. Winter, in his biography of Clive Barker, The Dark Fantastic, suggests that “horror” as a publishing & marketing genre (rather than as a literary effect) was a new development in the 70s.

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