It’s sometimes hard to synopsise a ghost story without just describing everything that happens in it. That would give the game away. I’m not going to do that. Neither is Robert Aickman. Two children, a boy and a girl, spend their holiday from a mixed preparatory school wandering the sunny heaths of “southern Surrey”. As long as they’re together, they find plenty to do. We look at subsequent events and ask, What has happened here? Behind the first thousand or so words of careful introduction to the children and their milieu, before the ghost story itself has had a chance to begin, some social tension has already mounted up. There’s no reason for it. There’s no anxiety you can put your finger on until Aickman introduces you to their nascent sexuality–which they don’t even notice. Like another story of his, ‘The Swords’, this one is Freudian enough. But the Freudian conversion of that original unease into a guilt the children don’t feel (it’s for the reader, perhaps, to feel that) isn’t enough to put the hair up on your arms. Even the girl’s fate, the obvious horror, isn’t enough to do that. Something else does it, every time I read this story. So I’m not giving the game away here, and Aickman certainly isn’t. Two children arrive outside a house holding hands, and they don’t even go in, and when they leave they aren’t holding hands, and all they have seen is a dog. After all, what’s a ghost story but a set-up and a revelation? Something strange happened, that’s all, to two children: they saw a dog, yellow, in the garden of a house. For one of them that was enough to mar a life; for the other… well. Or perhaps I’m wrong and that isn’t it either. Perhaps it’s not even possible for me to give the game away.
First published 1974. Collected in Cold Hand In Mine, 1975, Faber Finds, 2008. You can hear Reece Shearsmith read it here