My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Firstly, this is a collection about death. Hence the title. In most of the stories the death is never explicit – it could be the protagonist’s, or it could be someone they know. It could be metaphorical, as in “The Swords”, or even imagined, as in “The Same Dog”, but the impact of these kinds of traumas are longer lasting. Don’t read these expecting to be entertained, because they aren’t really that kind of weird story. From his interviews and those of his friends, I get the impression that Aickman was explicitly uninterested in writing something people wanted to read – he wanted to explore concepts and create ‘art’, and this is the result. I mean, you get that impression from reading this collection anyway.
In most of the stories, Aickman uses the same elements to tie them together as an anthology, so they are best read in order for that reason. Very little actually happens – they are more fragmented expressions of Aickman’s musings on depression, guilt, and of course, sex, usually of the transgressive kind, which is all very 1960s-70s, against the ticking clock of mortality (literally, in the case of “The Clock Watcher”). We have a protagonist losing his virginity to a fairground girl (paid for), in “The Swords”, a couple of affairs, and off-page hints at paedophilia in “The Same Dog” (more on that below).
Expect casual racism that covers pretty much everyone who isn’t White British, with the one explicit reference that Jews are by and large alright and treating them badly is where the Nazis went wrong (a particularly pleasant male protagonist, and more or less the opening of “The Clock Watcher”). Women don’t have exciting or deep inner lives, and while Aickman uses a secondary character in “Niemandswasser” to express this opinion, it’s fairly obvious that this is an authorial view from the fact that none of his female protagonists *do* have a deep inner life.
All the primary female characters seem to be in flux or in a state of movement from presence to absence. There are echoes here of Aickman’s own issues around his mother’s absence from his life (she left when he was four, and a friend noted that this had a bigger impact on him than he himself thought it did). In fact, Aickman’s stories are often peppered with absences – an absence of explanation, an absence of people, and in the “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” story, the monster itself is absent entirely. Only its effect can be witnessed, both by the Young Girl and the reader. Similarly, the scream in the night in “The Hospice” is only heard, the death connected to it never seen, and nor is the body, enclosed in a coffin. In the few instances where the external horror is viewed directly, it is always a reflection of something (hinted at) within the protagonist.
You do get a lot of dreamlike, folkloric elements in each tale, spun together with tropes and stock characters. There is some of the expected Church of England ambiguity towards Roman Catholicism, and Aickman dabbles in the Gothic fiction tropes as well the Weird ones. Watch out for veiled fairy and corpse road folklore in “The Real Road to the Church”, and what read to me as some evidence of influences by Montague Summers (“The Same Dog” in particular owes its nastier elements, including the alleged/apparent molestation of a child, to a translated pamphlet on the Werewolf of Bedburg, reprinted by Summers in his book The Werewolf (1933)).
On this happy note, if American/other non-British readers are unfamiliar with what the phrase “interfered with” means, it invariably means sexual assault. That seems to have been missed in other reviews of this story (“The Same Dog”), and is pretty crucial because nearly all the stories are about sex and death together, and it’s the nastiness of this particular incident which happens to the protagonist’s best friend/first childhood sweetheart, not seen but only heard second-hand in the playground, that forms his childhood trauma. His fixation on his dead little friend (Mary) as an adult leads to him being asked outright by a male friend [without much judgement] if he’s “a Lolita” as in, is he as an adult attracted to little girls like Humbert in the Nabokov novel, which he denies, so there’s also that.
Anyway, if you’d still like to read the collection and their vaguely weird, fairly uncomfortable tales, go ahead, there’s a lot going on for stories in which very little goes on.
If you want to read story-by-story reviews by other users and my full, very spoilery, a bit tongue-in-cheek reviews of the stories themselves, they are here: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/…