Wednesday 19 October 2011

Elizabeth Jane Howard and We Are for The Dark

The first edition of We Are for the Dark, Cape, 1951
On November 12th Tartarus Press will be publishing We Are For the Dark by Elizabeth Jane Howard and Robert Aickman. It will be launched at the Alt.Ghost Story Festival in Halifax where, amongst other attractions, we have permission to screen the 1995 TV adaptation of Howard’s 'Three Miles Up' from that collection. (We will also show Aickman’s equally-rare  ‘The Hospice’.)

As our new edition of We Are For the Dark will be the first hardcover reprint since its first publication exactly sixty years ago, we felt that it required a new Introduction that would explain the genesis of this landmark collection of ghost stories. Although the early uncertainty over the individual attribution of the stories has been cleared up (Aickman was responsible for ‘The Trains’, ‘The View’ and ‘The Insufficient Answer’, and Howard for ‘Three Miles Up’, ‘Left Luggage’ and ‘Perfect Love’), the degree of collaboration between the two authors has always been queried. In The River Runs Uphill Aickman wrote:

‘ …we touched up each other’s contributions (the spoof obituary notice from The Times in Jane’s terrifying tale ‘Perfect Love’, was written by me).’

Elizabeth Jane Howard and Robert Aickman on the Ailsa Craig
Literary speculation and guesswork is all very well, but it seemed sensible to talk to the surviving author, and Elizabeth Jane Howard kindly agreed to discuss Robert Aickman and We Are For the Dark. Her memories of the composition of the short stories are slightly different to those of Aickman. A part of the interview is reproduced here:

Elizabeth Jane Howard, by Michael Trevillion

RBR:  ‘Perfect Love’ strikes me as a perfectly ‘Aickmanesque’ story, playing games with the reader.

EJH: I didn’t see it like that. What made me want to write it was that I didn’t think that anybody had written a story about a ghost who grew up; who haunted somebody from being a small baby to a full-grown person. I thought this was a fascinating idea, and I chose Mielli as a good victim, as somebody who travelled around the place a lot for her work. I wasn’t conscious of playing games. One of the things you have to be careful of, when I wrote ‘Mr Wrong’, for instance, is that you have to obey all the laws. That had to have a murderer and a ghost in it, and I had to stick to the rules. It’s important, so that you know you’re not cheating.

RBR: Does Robert Aickman cheat?

EJH: I think that a lot of the time Robert Aickman does cheat.

RBR: How much was We Are For the Dark a collaboration?

EJH: We didn’t touch each other’s work. We read each other’s work, of course. Neither of us actually interfered with the other person’s writing. It was a collaboration only in the sense that he wrote three stories and I wrote three stories, and that was enough for a book.

RBR: He claims that he wrote the Times obituary piece in ‘Perfect Love’.

EJH: He might have. I don’t know. I haven’t looked at the story for a very long time.

RBR: Critics always try to work out what is autobiographical in fiction. For example, your daughter Nicola was growing up at the same time as you were writing about the ghost of a child in ‘Perfect Love’.

EJH: They had no connection.

RBR: I originally assumed that ‘Perfect Love’ was written by Aickman, and assumed it was about a horror of children.

EJH: He hated children. If it had been written by him that would be a reasonable assumption.

RBR: But written by you, a mother…

EJH: That wasn’t it at all. It was simply if you were going to have a ghost growing up you’d start with them being small. That’s what I thought. I stopped writing those stories because there are a limited number of themes that you can actually embrace. If you are M.R. James you can embroider on it, you can do it again in another context. I didn’t want to do that. Robert did go on writing them.

RBR: He did, although he said there were only, perhaps, thirty-forty good ghost stories in Western literature… You’d have been reading LTC Rolt’s ghost stories at the time? Sleep No More.

EJH: Yes. … Aickman got to know Rolt because he wrote a very good book, The Narrow Boat. And Robert was fascinated by canals. Together they formed the Inland Waterways Association, which I became a Secretary of, and so did Ray [Aickman’s wife]. That’s what brought them together. And then Rolt decided to write Sleep No More. I remember he read ‘Three Miles Up’ and had a totally different opinion of me after that. He said it was a damn good story. And he was writing Sleep No More, which he actually published before we published We Are for the Dark.

RBR:  Perhaps it is Aickman taking a few liberties, but I’m sure he claimed he found, at least, the title for Sleep No More.

EJH: It’s like he says he founded the Inland Waterways Association. He was very manipulative, and very keen on power. It might have been me or it might have been him that found the title, Sleep No More. I remember we had a discussion about it. ...

RBR: I remember reading them a few years ago and they are good of their kind, but a little flat. But I’ve never been a big fan Jamesian ghost stories.

EJH: No, I’m not a big fan of James. I can see that he very much had his day and was much enjoyed by his boys, but he kept repeating himself. Now the other James, Henry, ‘The Turn of the Screw’… I know that fascinated Britten, but I always felt that was a very unclear story. I rather like clarity. It’s more frightening… if one wants to frighten people.

RBR: It’s a personal thing, but the things I find frightening in real life are the things I don’t understand, or have any control over. Which is why ‘Perfect Love’ works for me. You’ve created the ghost of a child, but what’s happening? Presumably it’s hers? And then there’s the Mephistophelean patron who whisks her off. Is the child also his? It seems possible, but the story begs so many questions… Whatever you do, don’t tell me the answer!

EJH: I’m not sure that I know what the answer is now! Sometimes I know, sometimes I don’t. It’s interesting, because whenever I was writing a story I put into it everything that I’ve got. And then years later you look at it and you think, I could have done that better. At your worst, you think, I couldn’t even do that now. That’s the worst feeling. But I haven’t looked at them for a very long time. I think that ‘Left Luggage’ was a kind of parody of James. It was a Jamesian notion, and I think it is the least good one for that reason.

RBR: One of the things that confused me when I was trying to work out who had written which stories, was the fact that both of you were quite comfortable writing from the point of view of the opposite sex. ‘Perfect Love’, for example, is written, rather compiled, by a man who has had an eccentric father, and it seemed reasonable to think that it was by Aickman. And Aickman wrote from the point of view of women in ‘The Trains’.

EJH: He wasn’t very good with men. He and Rolt had a violent quarrel, and that was dreadful. It mucked everything up.

RBR: Are the two brothers in ‘Three Miles Up’ meant to be Aickman and Rolt?

EJH: No [laughs]. I didn’t have them in mind at all. The characters are quite different.

RBR: I always thought that he wrote from a woman’s point of view extremely well, although that’s from my perspective as a man.

EJH: He wrote about his ideal of women very well. He liked them to be mysterious and glamorous. Particularly mysterious.

RBR: He writes very good femmes fatale. Which is another reason I was confused because ‘Three Miles Up’ contains the ultimate femme fatal.

EJH: So you thought it was by him!

RBR: Yes, and ‘The Trains’, being written about women…

EJH: Well, that’s his best story, I thought.

RBR: The end strikes me as slightly farcical, with the cross-dressing butler and train tickets in the pocket.

EJH: He was a very good literary critic, and I thought those were the best things he did were for the review run by Voight, Nineteenth Century. He did marvellous reviews of things like ballet. You really felt as though you were really there. But I never thought his fiction was all that good. But we really quarrelled and didn’t see each other at all. I saw him when he was dying because he asked me to. He also wrote a play, a Ruritanian comedy.

RBR: And a long philosophical treatise called Panacea which is meant to be unpublishable.

EJH: He wouldn’t take kindly to people editing his work, I’m sure. He taught me a great deal because I really had no education at all. He taught me things like the pluperfect, which I didn’t really understand, but he never actually  interfered with my writing.

RBR: He has been described as a very controlling man…

EJH: Very controlling. 

RBR: He didn’t go through your manuscripts?

EJH: No. For example, he and Ray read The Beautiful Visit [EJH’s first novel], and I gave it to them to handle because I was Secretary of the Inland Waterways Association. They sent it to Cape who accepted it in three weeks, so there were no problems. But when I won a prize with it, Robert wanted some of the money, which I thought was rather infra dig.

RBR:  Ghost stories, for me, tend to work without satire or humour, because there is the danger of undermining the atmosphere.

EJH: I think you can be a bit satirical. One of the things about ghost stories, or horror stories, is that you lull people into a state where everything seems to be quite alright, really, only then it isn’t…

RBR:  I can’t think of many light-hearted ghost stories that are successful at producing a genuine shudder. Saki, perhaps, at his best, but he is usually being very cruel and satirical…

EJH: He is. I read some of his stories the other day and I was appalled! I hadn’t remembered how sadistic he was. At the least, they are about discomforture.

RBR:  They are too short, though, to really create an atmosphere…

EJH: Atmosphere is very important. If you are very good you can create atmosphere very quickly, like Evelyn Waugh. He was the best at implying things. He never tells you how people are feeling, ever. It’s only in dialogue that you come to understand. It’s sparsely written, and taut; it’s marvellous. Genius!

RBR:  Transport is a common theme in the stories: ‘The Trains’…, ‘Left Luggage’ is trains again, ‘Three Miles Up’ is canals, and the rest are all about travelling. (As is ‘Mr Wrong’, which is about cars). And canals feature in ‘Falling’.

EJH: Canals come into several of my books. They come in the Cazelet trilogy also. I love them. I can’t do them any more, but I love them.

RBR:  They have a wonderful atmosphere, especially early in the morning when there is nobody around. Even when you’re surrounded by industry.

EJH: You go through huge cities, and then there is suddenly wonderful country around you. It’s wonderful. They asked me to open, well, they’ve reopened Standedge tunnel. I was one of the last people to go through it. It’s three and a third miles long and we got stuck in it. Rolt was there too. I suppose because Rolt is dead, and Aickman is dead, they asked me if I would open the tunnel formally, but I just couldn’t get there. I felt rather sad about that. I would have enjoyed it, going through it.

RBR:  There’s something about the atmosphere of canal tunnels

EJH: Well yes, because people had to leg through them. They had to at Standedge because it didn’t have a tow-path. It did have adits to the main railway line so every now and then it was filled with smoke.

RBR:  Are you an admirer of L.P. Hartley and Oliver Onions?

EJH: I’ve read a bit of Hartley and I met him, and liked him very much. I read The Go-Between and then I read a science fiction tale about people all having the same face. I didn’t like it somehow. I haven’t read any of the others at all.  I’m still learning. 

RBR: Have you read Aickman’s autobiographies?

EJH: I read The River Runs Uphill … but I’ve discovered subsequently that he tended to exaggerate the facts. He told me about his childhood but I think he exaggerated that. I went to the house in Stanmore where he was brought up, and his mother did go and leave him, and that probably had a much worse effect than he realised on him. He was reading by the time he was four and he went to very good schools. Highgate was a very good school. I think it probably was a fairly lonely childhood…  He could be very prickly and difficult, or he could be very charming. He certainly had the gift of the gab. He could get up and make a speech about practically anything without any notes, or apparently having planned for it. I used to take dictation for weeks and months for him, to millions of people in the IWA. He just dictated them pat and there were never mistakes. He never changed his mind. Punctuation, everything. When the Market Harborough festival wanted to do a play, Springtime for Henry, they said they wanted a curtain-raiser and I’d written a one-act play called Illusion which was just about the right size and everyone was keen on it, but he went through the roof. He said "you can’t have a play on unless I have one", so I had to give way to that. 

RBR:  Was it his ego getting in the way?

EJH: Yes, yes. I think it was vast, really. And Ray colluded in a lot of that. She recognised that she was his mother all the time, and that was what he wanted. 

RBR:  Those who don’t like his fiction tend to point to the negative aspects of his life; that he was a control freak.

EJH: Being a control freak doesn’t mean that you won’t do good work…

We Are for the Dark is published by Tartarus Press on 12th November 2011.


  1. Fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  2. Thanks for this, Ray. Illuminating in many ways. But I must take exception to your characterization of Aickman's unpublished book _Panacea_ as "meant to be unpublishable". Meant by whom? Certainly not by Aickman, who had an agent trying to place it with a publisher just after it was finished around 1938. It is not "unpublishable" for any reason. An economically-minded publisher may complain that its exceptional length (a thousand pages in typescript) may make it seem unpublishable to the accountants, but the writing is as smooth and seductive as anything Aickman wrote. The idea that there is anything intrinsically wrong with _Panacea_ is completely without merit, and is a judgment that should not be proliferated. As one of the few people who have actually read a bunch of this manuscript I think my opinion means more than such hearsay.

  3. Hi Doug,
    Having not read Panacea, I bow to your experience. But tell me, why do you think Aickman was unable to publish it at the time, and why does it remain unpublished? Is it down to pure economics, perhaps?

  4. This interview compels one to ask: had EJH continued to write Ghost Stories, could she have given it a direction other than the rather "strange" one provided by Aickman?

  5. Hi Riju,
    EJH seems to have given up on Ghost Stories ("Mr Wrong", apart) because she insists that such stories should abide by the rules, and that was too limiting for her. She complains that Aickman broke these rules, so I'm not sure she would have felt that some radical new direction was appropriate.
    But despite her insistance on playing it straight, how do we explain the episode in "Perfect Love" with the black velvet bag which, once unclasped, disgprges "a mass of gleaming white hair"? Like the relationship between Mielli, her patron and the ghost, it feels that it ought to be explicable, but it isn't. It's what we would call "Classic Aickman", only it was writen by Elizabeth Jane Howard!

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  7. I loved this interview for the insights it gave into Aickman's character. I only met him once in the mid 1970's when he was guest of honour at FantasyCon. I was programme organiser that year and had the task of inviting him. He took some persuasion. His GoH speech was perhaps the strangest FantasyCon has ever had. It was all about literary luncheons at Foyles, etc., and Inland Waterways. I don't think he mentioned his ghost stories once so far as I can remember.

  8. Hi Ray:

    Further on _Panacea_, I'd say that when he first tried to publish it he was 24, had no name recognition whatsoever, and the length of the manuscript would certainly have made publishers blanch. I suspect that Gollancz accepted _The Attempted Rescue_ in 1966 because of Aickman's reputation with the Inland Waterways campaign, and only secondarily because he was known for a few books of "strange stories" and the Fontana series. Take a look at Aickman's own comments on _Panacea_ in _The Attempted Rescue_: "I sent Panacea to J.C. Squire, who was then associated with a literary agency named John Paradise. Incredibly, Squire himself wrote to me that he thought the book had exceptional qualities. It would be very difficult to sell, but he was willing to try. He tried about ten publishers, but, not surprisingly, had no success. After the dilapidating mass came back to me I did nothing further with it. I appear since to have lost all three typescripts, to say nothing of the original manuscript. I had a good look for them some yeas ago, but could find them nowhere." (p. 166-167) We can only wonder: would the Aickman of 1966 look favorably on the work he had written about 28 years earlier? It is basically what might be called a personal credo. Aickman did comment on its content a paragraph earlier in _The Attempted Rescue_: "I spent just over a year producing a book named Panacea. . . . The public examination for Mandarins in Imperial China set a single task: Write all you know. Panacea was a book of that kind, except the learning was freely oxygenated with comment, largely aesthetic. I did not claim to solve every problem, but those I did solve, I solved lucidly and for ever." The last line seems to support the idea of Aickman's continued faith in _Panacea_. And Squire was right too: the book does have exceptional qualities.

  9. Many thanks for this, Doug, but despite it's apparent literary qualities, _Panaccea_ would still appear to be a tough one to get published today.

    On the one side of the equation is the time and expense for a publisher. Although modern publishing methods (print on demand, ebooks etc) don't incur the traditional up-front production costs, the typing, typesetting and designing such a long work would be a huge labour of love (other obvious expenses have to be factored in as well, as you know).

    On the other side of the equation is demand. Aickman's stories are undoubtedly sought-after, but his non-fiction (judging by the example of the sales of his autobiography), is less so. Maybe another publisher will prove me wrong, but in commercial terms it doesn't seem to make sense. I know a hundred people who would love to have a copy and would even read it, and a hundred more who would buy it just to have it on their shelves, but that wouldn't be enough in either traditional book sales, print on demand, or e-book sales to make financial sense for a publisher.

    I'd like to clarify that when I used the term "unpublishable" in the interview I didn't mean that it would be "unreadable". Sadly, like a new reprint of Lindsay's _The Devil's Tor_, publication is uncommercial, no matter that the book might be of literary, biographical or bibliographical interest.

  10. Hi Ray:

    Whether something is "unpublishable" is a very subjective viewpoint, when made by a publisher, an editor, or a reader. The idea of "unpublishability" could come from commercial concerns, or legal ones (e.g., slander), or others. But that's entirely beside the point I was making.

    In your question to Elizabeth Jane Howard you characterized _Panacea_ as "meant to be unpublishable"--which postures a view of Aickman, and his attitude toward the book, that isn't true, as I hope I have shown. That is the point I am criticizing.

    By the way, you mention that this is "a part of" your interview with Ms. Howard. Where will the full interview appear?

  11. Your point is well made Doug, and accepted.

    I'm not sure when/if the rest of the interview will be published. I excerpted the most relevant and interesting parts of the discussion, and I'm not sure the remainder wil be of general interest.


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