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Books Shelf life: Why Tamsin McMahon is haunted by the work of Robert Aickman

Globe and Mail reporter Tamsin McMahon.

The Globe and Mail

Is there a book you return to again and again, a work that would make life on a desert island bearable? Each weekend, until Labour Day, Globe writers will share their go-to tomes – be it novel, poetry collection, cookbook – and why the world is just a little better for them.

I have long been a fan of horror fiction, though being a snob I tried to restrict myself to what I considered "literary" horror. Typically that meant anything obscure or Victorian.

It was while searching for something suitably high-brow that I discovered British writer Robert Aickman in an anthology of ghost stories. Each piece included commentary from the editor, Marvin Kaye. In his introduction to Aickman's The Hospice, Kaye wrote that he had pulled the story from an earlier anthology because he found it "puzzlingly obscure," and yet it had continued to haunt him. "Any work of fiction that exerts such a powerful hold on the imagination must be some sort of masterpiece," he wrote.

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I saved the story for last and was thankful that I did: Aickman's tale of a lost and injured traveller forced to bed down at a home for people seeking refuge from the modern world was unlike anything I had ever read.

Aickman described the outbreak of the First World War, shortly after his birth in London, as "the strange debacle of 1914, when man ceased to run his own world." The sentiment is a recurring motif in many of Aickman's 48 short stories, though they are never directly about war. The best involve ordinary people grappling with experiences that are at turns terrifying, erotic, humorous and often cruel.

There are recurring themes: hapless men whose cars break down, leading them astray; travellers attempting ill-advised shortcuts through the remote British countryside. Many characters seem to have been dulled by the harshness of the modern world and are awakened by a brush with something that often seems more bizarre than supernatural.

What to make of Bind Your Hair, whose protagonist discovers an orgiastic maze while on a walk to escape the boredom of life with her in-laws? Ringing the Changes is ostensibly about newlyweds who honeymoon in a town ringing its church bells in order to raise the dead. But much of the focus is on Gerald's insecurities about marrying a much younger woman. ("At heart, women are creatures of darkness all of the time," a character tells him.) The mystery is compounded by the fact that Aickman's stories can be maddeningly opaque. They often end without a tidy resolution and are open to interpretation. Characters rarely suffer directly from their experiences, which typically serve to expose a more existential suffering. In Aickman's hands, guilt, insecurity and regret become far more terrifying than ghosts and vampires.

My favourite story is The Inner Room, most easily found in the posthumously published collection The Wine-Dark Sea. It's a twist on the haunted dollhouse tale about a young girl, Lene, who is first enthralled and then comes to fear a dollhouse she receives for her birthday.

The house itself has all the trappings of a classic ghost story: It's built like a Gothic prison, houses nine decrepit dolls, and no matter how much she tries, Lene can't find a way to access the house. Instead, she watches helplessly from the outside and has unsettling dreams about its troubled inhabitants.

Her parents sell the dollhouse after her brother calculates that it must contain a hidden chamber. Lene's family eventually crumbles and Lene grows up aimless and underwhelmed by her life.

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The story ends with Lene encountering the house and its inhabitants in real life. The dolls confirm her worst childhood fears: that they suffered greatly because of her neglect and have become savage and vengeful. They show her a picture of their detested landlord: a photograph of Lene as a child, with a pin stuck through her heart. "Wouldn't you think her heart would have rusted away by now?" one of the dolls tells her.

The story touches on the fragility of family bonds and the power of childhood experiences to shape our lives in ways we can't always understand or control.

For me, it brings back one of my earliest childhood nightmares about a beloved toy that came alive and threatened me. I banished it from my room, but was soon filled with regret and asked it be returned. However, by then the bond between us had been shattered. To this day, I can still recall the feelings of shame and sadness at having doubted my faithful friend.

I suspect many Aickman fans must also be forced to interpret his work through a prism of personal experience. With little to guide the reader, one has to turn inward in search of an explanation. And Aickman seems to appreciate how terrifying self-examination can be.

Aickman's work largely fell out of print after his death in 1981, though he has made a resurgence recently, thanks to writers such as Ramsey Campbell and Neil Gaiman, who cite him as an influence.

I return again and again to his work because each reading unearths a new clue about a story's meanings. Yet as quickly as I can settle on an interpretation, I discover something else that casts it in doubt. That's what makes his writing so haunting.

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To lift a quote from the preface to Aickman's Cold Hand In Mind: "In the end, it is the mystery that lasts, not the explanation."

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