“Sometimes I would look up at the end of a story, feeling that the whole thing had just twisted itself inside out and turned into smoke – I had blinked, and missed it all.”
— Peter Straub, on Robert Aickman
You cannot rush a Robert Aickman story. You have to let it sit with you, you have to absorb it, you have to let its words twist their way through your brain and around your tongue. You have to wonder, when he describes the complexion of an unknown party as “rubicund or umber” (as he does in the claustrophobic “No Time Is Passing”), why he has chosen such specific and unusual terms. You have to revel in the freedom that opening a story with the sentence “The situation at home had left Robin Breeze entirely free to choose what he did with his life” (from “Letters to the Postman”) offers in terms of past, present, and future.
There are details to contend with. There are passing thoughts on which to dwell, at least a little bit. By all means, do not hurry.
Here is the reason such advice might be necessary: Aickman’s prose is dry, often oppressively so. His tone, no matter the events he might be relaying, is relentlessly matter-of-fact. His meter does not change whether he is relaying the mundane or the supernatural; even as his characters start to panic, even as the skies turn red and the walls close in, Aickman’s relationship with his readers is that of a mildly disinterested third party relaying an anecdote at a business meeting. Mostly, this is to his credit, for while his self-described “strange stories” may contain elements of the supernatural, they tend to function as allegory for the most unremarkable situations our lives can offer.
Compulsory Games is a collection of Aickman’s later-period work, originally published in the late ’70s and early ’80s, much of it after his death in 1981. While the subject matter and casts of characters vary wildly from story to story, much of it feels like the thought-out criticisms of “modern (read: mid-to-late-’70s) culture” by a man for whom time was passing too quickly. Nobody in Aickman’s stories tends to come off as entirely sympathetic, though we certainly see ourselves (or at least someone we know) in the immediacy of the wants and needs of the various characters.
Take, for instance, “Laura”, a story that appears near the end of the collection. There’s a male narrator, and then there’s Laura herself, the untouchable object of the narrator’s affection. He seems a perfectly normal fellow, if a bit introverted, and his life is prone to accidental upward mobility and incidental bad luck with relationships. Truly, he takes very little responsibility for the state of his life; he didn’t do anything to make it that way, it just is that way. Much of this abdication of responsibility he ascribes to the title character, a woman he happens to run into multiple times, get on with wonderfully for a few hours, at which point she disappears. The very fact of her unreachable existence causes what appears to be an incapability for intimacy, not to mention a lack of caring for other pursuits. He obsesses over her, occasionally finding her, only to be repeatedly crushed by her disappearance.
At first glance this would appear to be a tale of a fickle woman, prone to leading on and then disappearing, but really, it is the tale of a man who cannot get out of his own way. By the end of the story, we are to wonder whether this Laura actually exists, or if she is simply an ideal construct fruitlessly chased by an obsessed drone, a made-up excuse for his personal failings.
Throughout Compulsory Games, there’s a fairly common thread of strong women and weak-willed men, a tendency that likely points to Aickman’s own failed marriage and reported dalliances. In 2018 one would stop short of calling it feminist, given its proclivity to mild cliché as a means to get its points across, but in the context of 1970-1980, many of the stories may actually wield that title. In particular, the story that gives Compulsory Games its name starts with a man in a tired marriage who nearly falls into an affair with a friend, only to be rebuffed near the point of consummation. It’s from this point forward that he’s punished, not in any overt way, but through the slow withdrawal of his wife via that same friend, with whom she suddenly shares a multitude of interests (at least from his point of view, where the story is told). Slowly he is driven mad as he watches his marriage dissolve around him, never once showing enough self-awareness to know what the reader does: that he caused this sequence of events.
You might wonder what is so “strange” about these stories that tend to dwell on such mundane, utterly everyday situations. Without wanting to give away too much of what actually makes the stories special, Aickman’s ability to imbue them with just a hint of the supernatural — a phantom sound here, a ghost there, animals and objects that seem to appear and disappear of their own accord, vaguely psychic conversations — pushes them from the utterly average into absorbing, fascinating territory. His touches of otherworldly influence are never explained, but rather simply exist for the sake of whatever mood or point he is trying to evoke. The closest modern media equivalent to a Robert Aickman story would be the recent tendency of horror films toward allegory, flims like David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2015) and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014),whose monsters tend to stand in for our own failings and anxieties. The art in an Aickman story is not in the careful crafting of plot, so much as it is in the evocation of mood, toward some sort of symbolic end.
This is heavy reading, and as mentioned before, it can be very dry. Absorbing more than one of Aickman’s stories in a single sitting is nearly impossible, because Aickman’s tone, even across wildly different plots, is utterly without variation. Still, these are fascinating stories, perfect page turners for rainy nights in a quiet room, stories whose details will stick with you long past the times at which the themes and plots have been forgotten. It’s difficult work to love, but it’s rewarding to follow Aickman’s commitment to metaphor. As a collection, Compulsory Games is a book-length master class in allegory and the evocation of pure discomfort.