The Tales of Robert Aickman
Indulging in some nostalgia recently, I treated myself to some episodes from two television anthology series from the past, each featuring tales of the strange and macabre. Tales of the Unexpected, made by Anglia Television for ITV between 1979 and 1988 and initially hosted by a delightfully unsettling Roald Dahl, featured adaptations of stories by […]
Indulging in some nostalgia recently, I treated myself to some episodes from two television anthology series from the past, each featuring tales of the strange and macabre.
Tales of the Unexpected, made by Anglia Television for ITV between 1979 and 1988 and initially hosted by a delightfully unsettling Roald Dahl, featured adaptations of stories by Dahl himself, as well as other writers. Alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) sinister and blackly comic, the best episodes were splendid examples of what can be achieved with a tight budget, talented authors and a splendid cast.
Having pleasant memories of the 1985 – 89 revival of the classic Twilight Zone, made by CBS in America, I revisited some favourites. At its best, the Twilight Zone provided thought-provoking and mind-bending tales of wonder, terror and fantasy. The cream of supernatural and speculative literature was adapted for these television plays, tales from Stephen King, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke amongst them.
Which led me to speculate, if a similar anthology series were to be proposed today, where could we find authors whose tales reach the same high standard? And, most importantly, those which have been relatively neglected by television and film.
One author whom I feel would certainly fit the bill is the late Robert Aickman. While never a mainstream success, for many years his strange stories have been extremely highly regarded by devotees of supernatural literature, and in 2014, to celebrate the centenary of his birth, Faber published four collections of his work.
Unlike many authors of the macabre, Aickman does not provide stories of gruesome horror, traditional ghostly intrusions, or the unexpected twist in the tale. Rather, his characters seem to unwittingly discover some essential strangeness in the real world we all inhabit. It is as if, Aickman seems to suggest, a thin veil separates our everyday lives from a deeper, unknown reality which can engulf us at any time.
Witness the unfortunate traveller of The Cicerones who visits the Cathedral of Saint Bavon in Belgium to view a painting recommended by his guidebook. Inside he encounters a series of unsettling characters who lead him on a bizarre tour he had never expected. Or Maybury in The Hospice, a travelling businessman who, driving through the night and lost, takes shelter in a remote hostel. Inside, he discovers a number of strange guests living a surreal and sinister existence, which includes dining on mounds of indigestible food while chained at the ankle to the table. And this is only the beginning of Maybury’s traumatic night!
I believe Aickman’s stories, skilfully adapted, could make for a truly eerie and unsettling anthology show for television, something to follow in the footsteps of such series as Beasts, Supernatural and Tales of the Unexpected. But thankfully, in the meantime, we have the brilliant tales themselves, and the good news is that many of Robert Aickman’s collections, including Cold Hand In Mine, Sub Rosa, The Wine Dark Sea, Powers of Darkness, The Unsettled Dust and Dark Entries, for many years out of print and difficult to obtain, are now available to borrow from Fingal Libraries. So take a trip to Aickman country – I guarantee you, it’s quite unlike any place you have visited before.
By Alan Dunne, Swords Library