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
There are many Robert Aickman (1914-1981) stories that I could have chosen – famous contenders like ‘The Hospice’ and ‘The Swords’ are rightly celebrated and could easily be on this list. But it is the long short-story ‘The Stains’ that has stayed with my thoughts more than any other.
‘The Stains’ focuses on that most Aickman of characters, a sad and unremarkable middle-aged English civil servant, Stephen, whose wife Elizabeth has recently died. Bereft and unsure of what to do with himself, he takes a leave of absence from work to stay with his brother in “the north” who has published “two important books on lichens”. Stephen, perturbed by his brother’s wife, begins taking long walks on the moors; and one day he meets a young woman named Nell who is collecting mosses and lichens. She fascinates him, and he is intensely attracted to her. She becomes a kind of path toward liberation for him, representing a mysterious and ancient world that he craves in the face of creeping modernity. It is strongly implied she is an aspect from nature, a nymph of some sort. She, if she exists at all, is a relic from a deep past that Stephen romanticises, much like the lichens his brother studies. He fetishises her “aboriginal” nature.
Then he notices a strange lichen-like stain on her body. They move into together, the walls of the house they attempt to domesticize becoming covered in strange fungal and lichen growths. The stains spread to Stephen’s body, before nature comes to claim him utterly.
‘The Stains’ is the most intriguing, nuanced, and saddest of Aickman’s stories and its meaning can be endlessly deciphered and interpreted but never fully pinned down; as with all of his work, that is its great and enduring strength.
First published in New Terrors, ed. Ramsey Campbell, Pan Books, 1980; collected in The Unsettled Dust, Faber & Faber, 2014
The thing about other people’s dreams is that they are always great to listen to. Do not listen to those who say otherwise. They are wrong. This tale is very much like being stuck in an anxiety dream. Someone else’s.
First published in The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, 1964