Robert Fordyce Aickman was a British writer, conservationist and editor and though he wrote some 48 tales of the supernatural is little known today. If one was to look for anything written with his name attached to it nine times out of ten one would find a short story collection that he edited. Why this is may of course be anyone’s guess. Maybe because he spent a short time on this earth, 1914-1981, or that the short story market was not very popular during his time, or even that his tales were the wrong genre. It is easy to speculate why most of us have or will rarely come in contact with Aickman and maybe, like forgotten authors before him, he only needs a champion to bring him into the literary spotlight. Question is if he belongs there.
Cold Hand in Mine is a collection of seven short stories and is one of Aickman’s most notable works of fiction. The narrative in them is set up in very much the same way and all allude to some hidden, uneasy feeling or goings on in the background. The reader gets treated to a quite extensive build up, more often told from the main character’s perspective and sometimes by the person himself. The suspense of the stories are mainly built up by the narrator retelling a lengthy background story as it pertains to several of the characters and then slowly use different suspenseful techniques to create the sensation of mystery and terror. The main problem though is that the conclusion often falls flat.
That Aickman was a skilled writer, knowledgeable in the art of creating a mysterious narrative is undeniable. That he also was a great editor and knew exactly how a tale of suspense should be constructed is also not even debatable, yet the final product doesn’t work. That he also was looking to be known as a more modern H.P. Lovecraft is also obvious to anyone who has come in contact with the master himself and it here one needs to place and compare Aickman if one is to understand or even discuss his tales.
Just like Lovecraft did Aickman uses the confessional as his setting. His characters are damaged or come in contact with those who are. There always seems to be an uneasy feeling of untold dread that lurks in the dark, something close to the surface threatening to break through. Where Lovecraft always skillfully ended his tales of doom with a horrific twist, Aickman misses the mark again and again and leaves the reader hanging and wondering what just happened.
Aickman also seems to be preoccupied with the past, very much like Lovecraft, and his stories are mostly set some short time after the Second World War so as to be free to use modern automobiles and other amenities, though this is not always the case. On occasion he sets the story further back in time, but when is unclear, it may be early 19th century or even older. This also becomes his weakness, where Lovecraft was obsessed with the old days and was well versed in ancient history and often set his stories in New England, Aickman is everywhere and nowhere. He does not seem completely at home in the eras that he portrays and this causes the stories to lack depth and substance and at times confusing. Whereas Aickman often uses other people as his antagonists, i.e. gypsys, jews or mixed, he doesn’t fall into the same blatant racism that Lovecraft did.
One must respect Aickman’s literary efforts to follow the likes of Lovecraft or M.R. James, if this wasn’t intentional then it is very strange how much his storytelling resembles their body of work, and there is no denying his craftsmanship at setting up his tales, but the heart and soul that his predecessors poured into their writing is just not there.
Today very few of us know of Robert Fordyce Aickman and maybe there is hope that he would get the same renaissance and respect that Lovecraft got later in life, but his writing is just not strong enough to remain timeless.