Cold Hand in Mine

November 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

handCold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman

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This isn’t my first attempt at reading this collection. I tried it back in March of this year, read the first story, and then decided it wasn’t for me. A few months ago, I started my Valancourt Books reading project (while also working on my Dark Tower reading project and my Star Wars reading project), and saw that one of Aickman’s books was on their publication list, so I thought I’d try this one again with a fresh perspective.

The results are mixed. Some of the stories are good, others elude me, and one of them was surprisingly good. Aickman has a knack for atmosphere, which I would ascribe to the lengthy establishing scenes in his stories. Each of the stories started out with one, which helped in the long run, but was a bit of a struggle at the start, since I couldn’t quite get a sense of where the starting point of the story actually was. This is somewhat fitting, as the stories also lacked conclusive endings.

The collection opens with “The Swords”, an eerie erotic story about a man losing his virginity to a prostitute. Maybe. He definitely loses his virginity, but whether or not he loses it to a prostitute is in question. It was strangely disconcerting, not just due to the horror element, but also due to it being about sex, but reading like it was written in the 19th Century.

“The Real Road to the Church” follows, and I honestly don’t understand the point of it. My  best guess is that the soul walks a path with those who come before, but I could be wrong. I had difficulty following this one, but I see it’s a story that other readers didn’t quite get.

The next story is “Niemandswasser”, which is German for “No Man’s Water”, which is exactly what this story is about. There’s an unclaimed portion of water in the middle of a lake, where a suicidal prince has gone to grieve an ended love affair. He begins to obsess over it, especially after a friend is maimed by something in that section of the lake. There was on passage in the story that raised my eyebrows, though not for anything related to the story:

Women have no inner life that is so decisively apart. With women the inner life merges with the totality. That is why women seem to me either deceitful or elusive, or moralistic and uninteresting. Women have no problem comparable with the problem of merely being a man.

It’s a shockingly male perspective, blaming a woman for a man’s perception of her. It’s hard to tell if the passage is related to Elmo, the prince, or if this is some philosophy of Aickman’s that bleeds through. There’s a lengthy afterword written by a woman who knew Aickman, and she describes him as a jerk, even as she calls him a friend. Some people might call him “complicated”, but I’m inclined to say he was a bit of a misogynist. Luckily, this was the only passage out of the entire collection that was overtly so.

According to my research, “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” is the most well-regarded story from this collection, which is odd since it’s the most straightforward of all the stories, and least like the others in style and tone. It seems like the story is addressing class issues while being a vampire story, and there are nice touches here, like it opening with our narrator being bitten by bugs, and with the voice becoming more mature over the length of the story. It just doesn’t break new ground, either as a vampire story or as an Aickman story (limited though my experience may be).

“The Hospice” is probably my favorite from the book, and is easily a five-star slow burn of a story. A man’s car breaks down and he’s forced to find a place to stay the night. It’s easy to follow, maintains a quiet tension, and ends in an ambiguous manner. This story also shows off Aickman’s characterization skills the best.

The next story, “The Same Dog”, is almost two stories, each with its own way of spooking the reader. The first half is about our main character as a boy, and the second half is him after he’s grown up and returns to his home town. It’s a neat parallel in the story, and it also serves as a contrast to “The Hospice” in how Aickman develops character. The protagonist in “The Hospice” is relatable because he has something to lose, while the one in “The Same Dog” has already lost it. It’s interesting to see how I respond to them differently (more to “The Hospice” than “The Same Dog”), and I wonder if it’s due to those characterizations.

“Meeting Mr. Millar” follows, and is no easy story to read because the main character isn’t likeable. He’s stodgy and stuck in his ways, and after reading the afterword of this collection, I get the feeling this is the closest we get to autobiography in these stories. It has a lengthy build-up, which would be fine for an effective payout, but here it feels weak. It does have some eerie, atmospheric moments, but the story doesn’t support it as well as it could.

The closer of the book is “The Clock Watcher”, a story about a man from the US who takes a German wife after time spent abroad in World War II. It was a tough read, especially when I came across “There was a great deal to be said in favour of Nazis, of course, in many other ways.” It didn’t help that I read that line the Monday after the events in Charlottesville, and I almost quit the story all together, but I figured this could be a way to establish his narrator as unreliable, and persevered. It’s hard to tell, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it’s how Aickman feels about them. The story works in some ways (Aickman hints at the conflict to come in the same way Shirley Jackson does in We Have Always Lived in the Castle), but fails in others (I’m still not sure what happened at the end of the story). It’s decent, but nothing like “The Hospice”.

Aickman belongs in the Weird camp, even though he doesn’t write about cosmic, nameless horrors, but he also has a room in the Quiet Horror house. He’s a bit hard to place, but he has his own style. Fans of other stylistic horror authors (Thomas Ligotti and David Nickel come to mind) would probably like his stuff the best. I wanted to like this collection, but it turned out to be an OK read, at best.

Unfortunate Musical Connection: “No Son of Mine” by Genesis.

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