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Elizabeth Jane Howard and Robert Aickman


Six Ghost Stories

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence
Note: I originally published this review on 25/7/16. Since then I have researched how the book came to be written so this is a revised version of the review (19/8/16).

Howard was having an affair with Aickman when this book appeared; she was already a published author whereas he was not. The collection as published does not give any indication of how the collaboration worked, but in her autobiography, Slipstream, she tells us that three of the six stories were by her and three by Aickman. She does not say who wrote which, but thanks to the wonders of the Internet I have been able to find this out.

Perfect Love, the first and longest story—in effect a novella—is by Howard. A young Italian girl from an impoverished family is taken up by a mysterious benefactor who pays for her to be trained as a singer. She becomes a celebrated operatic diva, a great beauty who has many lovers. She has a peculiar and unexplained dislike of children. After some years the mysterious benefactor reappears. He demands something from her, though we do not know what it is. She refuses; he kidnaps her briefly and she returns, distraught but unwilling to say what has happened. For the rest of her life she is haunted by a poltergeist-like child who destroys all her relationships until she gives up her lovers and her career to care for it.

The Trains, by Aickman, begins as a gentle comedy of manners that turns into a horror story. Two young women with differing characters and backgrounds are on a walking tour together. It starts to rain as they approach a railway line, and they take refuge in a house nearby. They are made welcome by the owner, a cultured and seemingly affable man who has inherited the house from his aunt, who died recently in unspecified tragic circumstances. As the evening goes on the mood darkens, there is a murder, and eventually both women find themselves trapped in an upper room in evident danger of their lives, with mysterious trains thundering past outside the house.

The Insufficient Answer (Aickman) is set in a remote castle in Slovenia, owned by a renowned but reclusive English sculptress, who lives there with a single female companion. Cust, a young journalist, is sent to interview her. The castle is full of mysteries and reminded me of Gormenghast in the Mervyn Peake novels. Cust finds a strange young woman in his bedroom who tells him she is imprisoned by the sculptress and asks him to help her escape. He agrees, but it is not clear that she is real. Eventually she disappears and Cust leaves without having understood what happened. His subsequent refusal to say what occurred leads to his being sacked from the paper.

Three Miles Up (Howard) concerns two men on a canal trip who pick up a young woman whom they see apparently sleeping on the bank. She agrees to cook for them, but her presence exacerbates the already-existing tension between the two men. They decide to explore a side channel not shown on the map, where they pass villages at night which disappear by the morning. They continue upstream in the hope of finding out where they are, but eventually they are trapped in unknown open water and the young girl inexplicably vanishes.

The View (Aickman) put me in mind of La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Carfax, an artist and musician, is going on holiday to recover from an unspecified but probably psychological illness. He leaves Liverpool on his way to an island—possibly the Isle of Man although it is unnamed. On board the ferry he gets into conversation with an attractive young woman who invites him to stay with her at her remote country house. He accepts, and soon he falls in love with her and she with him. They are idyllically happy but there is much he does not understand about her or the house; she goes out riding alone for much of the day and the view from his window keeps changing as the days go by. Carfax eventually finds himself in the same situation as Keats's knight-at-arms, 'alone and palely loitering'.

Left Luggage (Howard) was, I thought, the weakest of the six tales. A man is left a case of silver by his philandering uncle. It is haunted by a ghostly woman whose clothes keep appearing in the case. She was evidently badly treated by the uncle. Eventually the man throws the case out of a train window, although whether that frees him from the ghost is left unclear.

The tone of most of these stories is dreamlike with a recurring theme of disappearing enigmatic women. I had read only one book by Howard and nothing by Aickman previously, which probably explains why my initial guesses for who wrote which were no better than chance (I got only Three Miles Up right, but Howard says that most reviewers of the book were equally unsuccessful). On this showing I preferred Aickman's contributions, especially The View , although Howard's Three Miles Up came a close second.

25-07-2016; revised 19-08-2016

%T We Are for the Dark
%S Six Ghost Stories
%A Howard, Elizabeth Jane
%A Rober Aickman
%I Jonathan Cape jjj
%C London
%D 1951
%P 285pp
%K fiction

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