From Compulsory Games
The English writer Robert Aickman is the model of a cult author. He is generally considered a genre writer, although that is reductive. The conventions of the horror genre with which he is most frequently associated are not sufficient to encompass his method, which has more to do with the psychology of the uncanny – with Freud’s notion of the subconscious – than it does with anything specific to the supernatural. Indeed, otherworldly elements may be ancillary to many of Aickman’s stories, but the experience of reading him is much more subtle and nuanced that this apparent trope would lead one to believe.
Aickman himself preferred the term “strange stories” to describe the mode in which he worked. And there is every reason to admit that his fiction is strange – both on a surface level and at a deeper, more allusive or elliptical plane. Matthew Cheney writes:
The “strange stories” label also helps us place Aickman in a broader lineage: not just that of great writers of terror and the supernatural, but also of great writers for whom there is no one label or even a recognized tradition. Though it is certainly accurate to say that Aickman’s work often falls into the realm of the ghost story, we will understand his achievement better if we think of him among such unsettling writers as Franz Kafka, Elizabeth Bowen, Paul Bowles, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, and even – particularly in his approach to story structure – Anton Chekhov.
The association with the great Russian realist may at first appear bizarre, but the two writers share in common an affinity for piercing the heart of human emotion and interpersonal relations. And, as Cheney points out, the two also share a tendency toward dispassion in their fictional presentation of events.
Perhaps it is this dispassionate poise that makes Aickman’s work so particularly unnerving. Take, for instance, the love triangle at the heart of “Marriage.” The story is told in a close third person perspective from the point of view of the idiosyncratically named Laming Gatestead – “Everyone gets it wrong,” he says. Laming is a sexually inexperienced man who lives with his mother; an avid theatre goer, he meets a woman named Helen Black at a performance and strikes up a conversation with her. In no time, he is invited over to Helen’s flat for supper; her flatmate, whose name is Ellen Brown, “will be doing most of the cooking.”
“What an extraordinary coincidence!” Laming exclaims about the confluence between the women’s names. Of course, the contiguity of Helen Black and Ellen Brown is only the beginning of the ways in which the women’s identities begin to merge and slide into one another. Laming starts tentatively seeing Helen, but takes a shine to Ellen after he is dispatched on an errand for his office, gets lost, and subsequently runs into the flatmate at a public park. She invites him to sit with her, they chat for a while, and then she offers the following: “I want you … Please take me.” Thus begins a torrid affair between the uptight Laming and the sexually provocative Ellen.
For a writer who traffics so assiduously in elements of the uncanny, Aickman might seem to be telling a fairly straightforward tale in “Marriage,” but appearances can be deceiving. Ellen lures the naive and inexperienced Laming into increasingly esoteric sexual adventures involving bondage and other fetishes. Meanwhile, his chaste relationship with Helen continues: he accompanies her to the theatre on a regular basis, meeting her in the queue to avoid having to appear at her flat. “They still shook hands each time they parted,” Aickman writes, “though, by now, only in a token way.”
Laming’s psychosexual maladjustment is apparent on every level of Aickman’s story, which on the surface is told in a manner that appears almost Victorian, but underneath seethes with perversity. When he encounters Ellen in the park, Laming notices the benches, some of which slope backwards “lasciviously.” Earlier, Ellen is described standing silently, smiling, “her hands locked together behind her skirt.” The sexual language used to describe Ellen is pervasive throughout the story; by contrast, the adjective most frequently associated with Helen is “dry.”
Laming, meanwhile (note the name’s euphonic chime with both “lame” and “lemming”), is portrayed as almost a caricature of a sexually opportunistic, though equally clueless, male. “Laming now had a girl, and such an easy-going one, so cosy, so gorgeous in every way,” Aickman writes about Laming’s reaction to Ellen, “and he knew that he would be certain to suffer within himself later if he did not do what he could to hold on to her – at least to the extent of walking up to the American Gardens and giving it one more try, Helen or no Helen. It is always dangerous to put anything second to the need we all feel for love.”
Yet Laming is unable to jettison the image of Helen from his mind. She appears at various intervals as he wanders around the city: whether she is actually there or just an apparition is unclear and ultimately unimportant. He sees Helen at the window when he is with Ellen; at one point, when he and Ellen are having sex, he witnesses “from what must have been the ceiling, or at least very near the ceiling, a pair of pale eyes … looking expressionlessly down on him, on the two of them.” The pale eyes are congruent with descriptions of Helen elsewhere in the story; the vaguely supernatural aspect of this scene lends the story an additional element of the uncanny, which exacerbates the psychological aspects of Freudian repression and guilt experienced by Laming regarding what he gets up to with Ellen.
Though the story adopts the surface mien of a Henry James tale, it ultimately proves much more twisted. When Helen demands that Laming take her back to the flat where he and Ellen have been carrying on their assignations, the situation ends badly, as it was always wont to do. The final scene includes one additional twist in the tale, providing yet another perverse layer to Aickman’s narrative. “Marriage” is truly a strange story, but in the best way. It reads like a proper English psychological study while it is unfolding; it is only later that the reader is struck by how deeply disturbed and unnatural it truly is.