Thursday, 28 April 2022

Robert Aickman: The Six Best Ghost Stories


In The Third Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (Fontana/Collins, 1966) Robert Aickman wrote:

 
Of ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ [by Oliver Onions], it must be said that it is one of the (possibly) six great masterpieces in the field; constellated here with Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Wendigo’ in the first collection, and Robert Hichens’s ‘How Love Came to Professor Guildea’ in the second.

 

Having mentioned three of the six (possible) masterpieces in the ghost story genre, Aickman tantalisingly refuses to tell us which are the other stories. It seems reasonable that they are not to be found elsewhere in the first three volumes of the Fontana books he edited (otherwise he would have mentioned them.) This rules out stories that connoisseurs of the genre might have thought strong candidates, including Walter de la Mare’s ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ and Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the three remaining stories are to be found somewhere in Aickman's five subsequent Fontana volumes, although we must allow for the possibility that Aickman was unable to obtain copyright permission for them.

Another clue is Robert Aickman’s own library, which was catalogued after his death when it was sent to Bowling Green University. A large number of ghost story writers we know he read are not to be found among these books, so it is very possible that in his later years, having downsized from his large flat at the Barbican to smaller rooms at Gledhow Gardens, Aickman ‘pruned’ his collection. There is a strong possibility, I would argue, that he would have retained those three remaining ‘masterpieces’ on his shelves. I suggest that it is in the over-lap between the Fontana collections and his library that we will find the remaining three stories….

Possibilities from the 4th Fontana volume are:

‘The Sphinx Without a Secret’ by Oscar Wilde
‘The Wolves of Cernogratz’ by Saki
    ‘When I was Dead’ by Vincent O’Sullivan
 
from the 5th

‘The Firmin Child’ by Richard Blum
‘A Question of Time’ by Elizabeth Walter
‘The Great Return’ by Arthur Machen

from the 6th

‘Sorworth Place’ by Russell Kirk

from the 7th

    ‘Dearth’s Farm’ by Gerald Bullett
    ‘Esmeralda’ by John Kier Cross
    ‘The Visit to the Museum’ by Vladimir Nabokov
    ‘Where the Woodbine Twineth’ by Davis Grubb

from the 8th

‘Bezhin Lea’ by Ivan Turgenev

All of the above stories were in collections that Aickman retained. Of course, it is possible that he didn’t need to keep a copy of all the ‘masterpieces’ in their original publications, as they were in his own copies of the Fontana volumes.

The only story other than the initial three which Aickman called a masterpiece (actually, an ‘unqualifiable master­piece’) is Turgenev’s ‘Bezhin Lea’. It is, perhaps, the most likely addition to the list which would now comprise:

‘The Beckoning Fair One’ by Oliver Onions
‘The Wendigo’ by Algernon Blackwood
‘How Love Came to Professor Guildea’ by Robert Hichens
‘Bezhin Lea’ by Ivan Turgenev

That the remaining two are to be found in the other stories mentioned in this blog is likely, but who can say which they are…

 

Oliver Onions (left) and Algernon Blackwood (right)

Robert Hitchens (left) and Ivan Turgenev (right)

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Robert Aickman and Meum Stewart


Meum Stewart from a 1921 Cigarette Card

 

Robert Aickman’s March 1946 article on the playwright Clifford Bax in The Nineteenth Century and After resulted in an invitation to dinner. When Aickman presented himself, however, Bax was ill and in his stead Bax had arranged for Meum Stewart,

 

. . . to take me out and entertain me . . . not very long before that time, Meum Stewart had been customarily referred to by much of the popular press as ‘The most beautiful woman in London’.

 

Aickman remembered Stewart as ‘not only the most beautiful but also the sweetest and most sensitive of women.’

 

Having later introduced Aickman to Bax, Meum apparently tele­phoned Aickman, seeking sympathy. He asked her out to lunch where she explained that although Bax had been attached to her for years, he had fallen in love with someone else.

 

Meum’s real name was Dorothy Lindsell-Stewart and she had been an artists’ model when she met Jacob Epstein (c.1916), with whom she had a child, although she was still married. By the time Aickman met her, she had enjoyed a slightly lack-lustre career in theatre and cabaret. She was twenty years younger than Bax, and twenty older than Aickman.

 

 
Meum Stewart by Bassano Ltd, 1919

Aickman’s sympathy led to their friendship, and he was asked to Meum’s eccentric ‘M Days’. These began at half past nine on a Sunday morning and took place at her impressive house at 5 Oak Hill Park, Hampstead. A man in livery admitted guests, and after signing the visitors’ book (which boasted ‘glittery signatures’), one went in to breakfast, which was of ‘the eighteenth-century type, with chops, steaks, and devilled drum­sticks’ rather than the usual post-war rations. The house was,

 

. . . decorated with paintings, drawings, and sculptures of Meum. They were the work of the most famous artists from all over Europe . . .

 

Conversation at breakfast would be dazzling, and afterwards the party moved into the garden where very intellectual games were played, many of them devised or discovered by Bax. Aickman says he was always the least eminent person present, and the youngest. He was at a loss to understand what was happening. However, he later surmised that the intention of M Days, which broke up in the early afternoon, was to enable guests to find, ‘a kindred spirit with whom to depart for an afternoon and evening of solace, joy, and inspiration’.

 

When Meum Stewart died in 1957, Aickman inherited her books and four drawings of her by Epstein, which he hung on his walls. He says that Meum’s solicitors forwarded a letter from her,

 

. . . to the effect that I had always meant more to her than I had seemed to realise.
 

 
Meum Stewart’s bookplate

 

 

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2022

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Robert Aickman and Picnic at Hanging Rock

Original film poster for Picnic at Hanging Rock

On the 29th November 1976, Robert Aickman wrote to Ramsey Campbell:

Very many thanks for recommending Picnic at Hanging Rock. Despite a certain naivete in the direction, it is a very good film indeed, and, I should say, in important respects unique. It is indeed also a quite remarkable simulacrum of my methods: not only my type of theme (I have never seen any other film like it), but also in the proportions maintained between the mysterious and the familiar. Who, please, is Joan Lindsay, who wrote the book? I have never heard of her, and should like to read it. I take it that the film is based on something that actually happened? I supposed that it was, but was then made to wonder by the comprehensiveness of the intimation at the end that no character in it was based on any real person, living or dead. Perhaps as a critic you have received documentation that answers this question? In fact, I should be most interested to see any documentation you may have. It is a most extraordinary film: most like me are the unexplained accessories, the lady who had lost her skirt, and the girl who makes the unexplained return.

Picnic at Hanging Rock, made in 1975 in Australia, was directed by Peter Weir. It was adapted, quite faithfully, from the 1967 novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay.

It is difficult not to offer a major ‘spoiler’ for the film, but I hope this won’t put anyone off seeing it, if they haven’t already. On Valentine’s Day 1900, the students at a private school for girls in Victoria, Australia, go with their teachers to picnic at a local geological formation known as Hanging Rock. (It is a real place.) Later, with permission, four girls explore the rock, but, near the summit, next to a monolith, they mysteriously fall asleep. When they awaken, all but one, Edith, move further into the rock formation. Edith runs away in terror. When the party returns to the school, three girls and one teacher are missing. Much later, one of the missing girls, Irma, is recovered, but she cannot explain what happened to her, or to her friends and teacher.

Still from the 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock
 
The film has been long regarded as a classic, although there have always been dissenters who are annoyed that the fate of three characters is never explained. The critic Roger Ebert called it ‘a film of haunting mystery and buried sexual hysteria’. It is beautifully and languorously filmed, and the sexual undertones are handled with admirable restraint.

Aickman may sound a little self-important in saying that the film is a simulacrum of his methods and that its devices are like his, but the similarities are remarkable, especially the ‘unexplained accessories’. Peter Weir succeeds in creating an Aickmanesque film not least because of the several mysteries that he refuses to resolve.

First edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne,1967
 
The film is very faithful to the book by Joan Lindsay, who deserves credit for writing an excellent novel. It is highly unlikely that she was aware of Aickman’s stories when she wrote Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was first published in 1967 in Australia. (It was reprinted by Penguin in the UK in 1975.) The idea of leaving the mystery unresolved was, in fact, not Lindsay’s own. It would appear that the original draft of the book included a final chapter that explained everything. At the suggestion of her editor, Sandra Forbes, Lindsay removed the final chapter, which, of course, only led to some readers wanting to know what it contained. Perhaps unwisely, ‘Chapter Eighteen’, as it is known, was published posthumously in 1987 as The Secret of Hanging Rock. Admirers of both the book and the film are advised not to read it!

Still from the 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock
 
As for Aickman’s question as to whether it was based on a real event, the answer appears to be no, even though the novel is written in the form of a true story, with a pseudo-historical prologue and epilogue. The setting and several towns mentioned exist, and the school is based on a real one (located elsewhere), but there is no record of any such events occurring. Aickman may well have admired Joan Lindsay’s refusal in interviews to either confirm or deny whether it was based on fact. In a 1974 interview she said, ‘It was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery.’

In this spirit, it is suggested that apart from The Secret of Hanging Rock, admirers might also want to keep away from The Murders at Hanging Rock, 1980, a book of hypothetical solutions by Yvonne Rousseau.

 

 

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2022

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.

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