101 Weird Writers #35 — Robert Aickman

May Bury You (On Robert Aickman’s "The Hospice")

Image by Ida Kar, vintage bromide print, 1960

Image by Ida Kar, vintage bromide print, 1960

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Robert Aickman (1914-1981) was an English writer of what he called “strange stories”; he wrote over thirty of them in his lifetime. Aickman had a tremendous influence on weird fiction. His tales masterfully created an atmosphere of dread and disquiet. Moreover, his stories were beautifully constructed with prose that could easily rival other great writers like Vladimir Nabokov. Aickman was also known for his conservationism and co-founding the Inland Waterways Association. This year, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of his birth.

– David Davis, editor of 101 Weird Writers

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hospice: noun \ˈhäs-pəs\

1. a place that provides care for people who are dying

2. a place where travelers can stay; especially: an inn kept by people in a religious organization.

          –Merriam Webster Dictionary

1. Entrainment

Robert Aickman’s “The Hospice” emerged near the end of his life. The story is the pinnacle of a well-honed technique and persists as a modern classic. Small wonder, because over the course of his career, he’d been writing it piecemeal all along. To approach the story properly, I endeavor as he did, and that is circuitously.

In the course of a recent review, critic Rick Kleffel remarked that, “Aickman understood the many ways of haunting.”[1] Kleffel’s is a trenchant description of Mr. Aickman’s approach to weird fiction. I am not taken with the notion of gateway art or artists. Water seeks its own level. Unless pursued systematically, experience of one discipline or aesthetic does not imply reciprocal familiarity or access to another. However, I will advise this much: Don’t try to cut your milk teeth on this author. He’s a rare case, and with the exception of the literary equivalent of an occasional radio-friendly tune (“Ringing the Changes,” I’m looking at you), his work can’t be appreciated with the same relaxed ease as a top-forty pop-charter.

The surest way to comprehend Aickman is to read a lot of Aickman. You’ll have to work for it. You’ll return to his stories and turn them over, hunting for the access point, a seam, a code, or a hidden catch. Once you’re inside, once you’ve read and absorbed the message, you’ll return later to find everything has shifted, everything has changed, nothing is as you left it hours ago, or years ago. Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s the seed Aickman has implanted in your brain. A multiplying, damnably adaptable psychic virus that sprang from the man himself (gods know where he picked it up) and manifested as several collections of the uncanny. To interact with Aickman on any meaningful level is to experience a form of quantum entanglement. His ideas entrain the subconscious and mutate it in the fashion that transgressive art must. And yes, I’m implying that the old boy has fucked your mind. Buttoned down or not, it’s just what he liked to do.

Arguably one of Aickman’s most important stories, “The Hospice” is his lens, his micro-focus upon man’s journey into the Beyond. In relatively few pages, he brings to a boil questions of transition, identity, and agency. The mutability of perception, the thin veneer of loyalty and security. 

At its core, this is a fable of decay and disintegration. Among contemporary kindred, I’ve only seen its like faithfully reflected, albeit via a warped body-length mirror, in the intensely erotic imagery of Livia Llewellyn who shares a preoccupation with matters of degeneration and transference by spiritual or psychic osmosis.

Aickman’s work often presents a major thesis of Weird literature: Life is far stranger than we assume. He frequently asks, what do we know? The answer: Nothing, and possibly less than. He tipped his hand in the majestic, “Larger than Oneself.” Another story where a gathering of the eccentric (as opposed to an eccentric gathering) is charged with tension attending an imminent collision with the numinous. Another story of supernatural impingement, of an outsider scrabbling at the door, and one where death lurks offstage, huffing and puffing with baleful menace. Ultimately, mortal flesh gets added to a massive ball of cosmic clay. Transitioned right off this terrestrial coil.

“The Hospice” stops short of that previous cataclysmic denouement. The anticlimax of this story in relation to “Larger than Oneself” is further evidence of his oeuvre’s obsession with its own narrowing of focus. This late work is an exhibition of the terminal; addition by subtraction; a drawing back from a precipice; the retraction of a fang after the serpent has delivered its bite.

2. SlaCold Hand in Mineve Rowers of Purgatory

“The Hospice” begins, if not technically in media res, certainly amidst ongoing events that are superficially explained and thereafter dismissed. The material world and its connections and complications recede, with one or two recurring exceptions, into a fog not unlike the umbra of a persistent dream or a nightmare.

Lucas Maybury, our protagonist and a company drone, is driving lost into the back of the Beyond. All he wishes is to get home to his wife. Dusk swells against the windshield. His eyes grow heavy and his sight grows dim. The petrol needle drifts near the E, then penetrates. Identical streets and gated driveways arc in an infinite loop, repeat. When he exits the car to approach a house for directions, he is briefly assailed by a cat, or something catlike. The creature, if not feline, perhaps a gargoyle, perhaps an unnamable figment lent fleeting substance, slashes his leg and flees, or evaporates. The attack shakes Maybury and leaves him anxious about venom and infection. The universe has shifted from passively confounding, to directly aggressive. It has sunk a claw in. It has drawn blood.

Calamities are compounded, yet one gets the impression that this is the most excitement Maybury has had in years. This stuffed shirt mama’s boy is on an adventure!

I don’t know whether the Eagles enjoyed a spot of Robert Aickman in prelude to the composition of “Hotel California.” I do believe the particles that constitute the universe tend to clump into discrete masses. These supra-objects and their wedding trains of gas and dust hurtle outward from the instigating detonation toward whatever awaits beyond where light doubles upon itself and time flattens to the black edge of God’s shaving razor. The journey of material existence is always about accretion and dissolution. We combine, we divide, and we dissolve into infinity. Time is a broken ring. Its jagged braid will cut you. Mortal agency, always a tenuous proposition, will be nullified.

It is clear from the start that Maybury’s own agency is on the wane. Gripping the steering wheel of the car is an illusion of control just as material life itself is arguably an illusion. He is not the agent of his own destiny, a sad fact reinforced by each new development. Despite a pretense of self-determination, Maybury is merely a passenger headed for a predestined result. From its inception, Maybury’s journey is conducted by a company manager who compels him on a “shortcut” into the Beyond. The shortcut lies in the opposite direction of the destination, of home. This incongruity, this instance of being forcibly conducted, is but the first of many pills our increasingly hapless protagonist will swallow.

Maybury tries his luck at a building with a sign proclaiming it to be THE HOSPICE. From the moment Falkner, the proprietor, admits him into the hospice dining hall for supper, Maybury senses something vital has gone awry. Yet, his response to irrational occurrences is oddly muted. Hunger, weariness, and irritable civility cloud his perceptions to danger. Initially, he dismisses the mounting strangeness as eccentricity, or clannish custom impenetrable to his outsider’s perspective. Other guests occupy a single long table while he is seated alone at a distant orbit. Everyone sups from oversized bowls and plates that remind Maybury of how parents might outfit toddlers. Baby plates, is the term that strikes him. Baby plates with THE HOSPICE encircling the rim.

The room is too warm, much too warm. Hot as hell, a colloquially-minded wit might be inclined to suggest. Portions are enormous. Maybury begins to struggle. Meanwhile other guests tuck into their meals with gusto. They have ceded the field to their lesser angels. The process of reversion to the primitive mode is akin to decomposition. The solid state universe retrogrades with each indulgence of physical appetite, with each debauchery of the senses. Human psyches are in the process of being broken upon a rock and ground into a fine powder, or reduced as fat is reduced in a cauldron of boiling water.

Throughout the proceedings, the old refrain, “life is but a dream” mutters and murmurs, an unattributed background chant as prosaic reality deliquesces around our protagonist. Or, more likely, it is the protagonist himself who is melting, reducing to his base desires. Either way, the hymn is given throat by a company of slaves chained to the deck of a Roman galley. The inhabitants of the hostel exist in a condition of exalted captivity, catered to and exhorted by the staff. So-called guests. There is no mistaking that these guests are prisoners. Prisoners of gluttonous vice, and certainly possessed of debilitating fear, if one cares to infer aspects of their eagerness to please as stemming from dread of some unspoken punishment. The bonds transcend the metaphorical. One of the guests is literally shackled at the ankle while handsome men in white jackets and women in blue dresses hover, wielding encouragement like whips.

Maybury notes that while his own appetite has dulled partway through the second course, the others eat “as if their lives depended on it.” When he begs off finishing a prodigious and slimy turkey entrée (a natural soporific, no less), his server becomes enraged and dashes the pate to pieces. A fascinating projection as it is precisely the outburst one might expect of a wrathful child.

3. Genius Loci

The weird cascade effect is only ramping up.

Maybury endures his meal and the displeasure of the server, one Mulligan. He escapes to the lounge for a cup of coffee, black. This is a special request granted with dictatorial benevolence by Falkner. In stark contrast to the monstrously large supper settings, the coffee arrives in a tiny cup. The coffee is not part of the regularly scheduled program; it represents a liminal desire of wakefulness, and therefor at odds with the apparent measure the hospice staff have undertaken to drug their guests into torpor and compliance.

As is often the case in an Aickman tale, you’ll bear witness to a weird sexual encounter. Maybury is accosted by a fellow guest named Cecile. She of the tragic demeanor and cloying perfume. During the course of their cryptic conversation, major domo Vincent observes their interaction with rapt concentration. Cecile becomes increasingly familiar, a fact that despite his married status, Maybury seems of no mind to dissuade. Her fraternization escalates until she seizes his hand and presses it to her breast and then curls into his lap. The festivities are eventually disrupted when Falkner announces curfew. Cecile slips away, but not before whispering an invitation into Maybury’s ear.

He recovers from this peculiar dalliance and requests petrol for his car. The car won’t start. However, Aickman is too clever to obstruct his protagonist’s escape with a cheap ploy such as mechanical failure, nor does he resort to the logical premise of sabotage. No, he doubles down on the weirdness quotient; goes all in on the dream atmosphere. Maybury simply can’t depress the starter—it’s the stuff of nightmares. The ignition seems to be a decoy, or Maybury has inexplicably forgotten the trick much as many people report of dreams where they appear in the buff at social functions. In any event, the starter refuses to budge until another of Falkner’s minions brutishly intervenes. Even so, this solution merely peels another rotten layer of the onion—the hospice vehicles only operate with diesel. Alas, diesel is incompatible with Maybury’s model. He’ll be forced to spend the night…And what a night it proves to be.

With every passing moment, Maybury descends into the rabbit hole. Beginning with the opaque suburban maze, continuing through a semi-coerced meal to this shipwreck upon a lee shore, and punctuated by Falkner’s glib obfuscation, the snare has tightened around his neck. No matter how he twists, the cathode bends to accommodate and drag him farther into the gloom of the underworld.

He is paired with an elderly gent named Bannard, who warns him against the dangers of inadvertently waking other guests as the men tiptoe into their room. The old man exhibits similarly peculiar behavior as Cecile, including a rather coy offer for sex before lights out. Thoroughly unnerved, Maybury lies awake wondering what has become of him. He is further alarmed to discover Bannard stealthily departing the room. Shortly thereafter, a series of shrieks echoes throughout the building. Maybury apprehends it as a death cry, but at this point one might excuse a cynical reader for wondering if it might be a “little death.” Our hero decides to investigate, but as with the car ignition, the doorknob refuses to budge. The curtains reveal blank wall absent windows. These, as are most items in dreams, stage props. He returns to his bed in a state of anxiety, helpless except to wait. The lone light bulb fizzles and dies. Bannard creeps into the room reeking of Cecile’s perfume, leaving us to ponder whether the earlier scream was elicited by torment or ecstasy. He falls into slumber, snoring loudly.

Are these events real, or is Maybury trapped in the amber of a hypnogogic state? In the morning Bannard pries into his personal life regarding his wife and son. Maybury’s answers are evasive—as if he possesses the vaguest recollection of how his dear ones appear. They assume a blurry, ethereal quality in his elliptical confirmation of their physical descriptions and personalities. When pressed as to whether he loves them, he offers a glib retort. It rings hollow.

Odder yet, the fellow he knows as Bannard seems changed, an older, keener version, an imperfect doppelganger. This imperfection, this off-kilter mutability, may be the key to unlocking the secret of “The Hospice.” Everything that exists within this microcosm of reality could simply be extracted from Maybury’s thoughts. Falkner knew his name shortly after Maybury arrived; a detail never satisfactorily explained. Certain individuals are vexingly familiar, as if retrieved from the recollection of a television show or magazine article. Cars that won’t start, doors that won’t budge—not until the dramatic moment demands they do so.

Indeed, the hospice may function as a kind of Lagerstätte, a repository wherefrom trapped consciousness slowly leaches as through a membrane to some ultimate destination. The building’s physical characteristics may be illusory, conjured from the subconscious memories of its inhabitant souls. Memory and dream are fragile. Known faces blur and alter. We forget our pants, we fail at rote tasks, we try to run and discover our feet stuck in quicksand. Dream state is a rough approximation of the waking world. Only that which is necessary or dramatic is fully revealed.

Whether the hospice and its staff are manifestations of a sentient being is debatable. In the context of Aickman’s wider portfolio, I’d hazard an affirmative. So, what does this genius loci desire? Domination, mental and physical, is the exhibited purpose of Falkner and enforced by the facilely pleasant staff. By their combined arms effect, tenants of the hospice are not only imprisoned, they are degraded unto a subdued, yet orgiastic infantilism.

Domination to what purpose, is the larger question. Are Falkner and his minions actually helper spirits guiding the lost through a transition from flesh to spirit? Is the hospice a spiritual sundew that sedates and pacifies its victims and then slowly digests them, blood, bones, memories and all? We may speculate, but we cannot know. That which lies beyond the veil is an abiding mystery.

Hospital Bed4. The Passenger

Maybury’s final minutes as a guest are spent with Falkner who informs him (while unlatching a meticulously barred front door) there has been a death in the night. Vincent, clad in his white coat, leads four black-jacketed pallbearers down the stairs as they lug a coffin to a waiting hearse. Meanwhile a crowd of guests mills nearby, oblivious to the procession.

Falkner insists this transfer must be assayed quickly to spare his tenants pain. He offers Maybury a lift to town, which is accepted. Maybury is forced to ride in back with the coffin—the driver and a “director of the firm, a corpulent man” occupy the front seat. What firm does Aickman refer? Is this a sly insinuation that by logic of dream or a dying mind, we have circled back to the beginning as Maybury was directed to a nonexistent shortcut by a company man? What death is represented by the coffin? Both Cecile and Bannard are conspicuously absent from the throng of guests. Among the last comments Falkner makes, is that if Maybury leaves with the hearse he won’t be able to thank Bannard.

Some suggest, that Maybury himself was murdered in the black of night, that the silence within the hearse is not due to respect for the dead. Rather, it is symbolic that Maybury has begun the terminal approach to his destiny. At last, the driver leaves him at a bus station, saying, “It won’t be long.” Long before what? Before the bus arrives? Or not long until the last trickle charge of Maybury’s consciousness ebbs into the ether?

Whatever the true nature of the hospice, whatever the truth of Maybury’s fate, whatever the weird message this piece attempts to communicate, Robert Aickman ruthlessly cracks one’s skull open and rearranges the furniture. He intimates we are merely passengers in this existence, trapped, albeit briefly, on a repeating coil. As Maybury discovers while riding in austere silence in the rear of the hearse, we’re only getting out feet-first.

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[1] Kleffel, Rick. “‘New Strange’ Stories Hold A Chilling Mirror To Life.” NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2013/06/22/191375234/new-strange-stories-hold-a-chilling-mirror-to-life

11 replies to “101 Weird Writers #35 — Robert Aickman

  1. Loved the bit about the seed Aickman plants in your brain. The first time I read The Swords, in that massive Dark Descent collection, I was left puzzled but unsatisfied. Two years later, completely out of the blue while I was sitting at a bus stop, BAM. It suddenly hit me just what an incredible story it was.

  2. Thanks for an interesting article that has opened my eyes to new aspects of the endlessly explorable ‘The Hospice’ by Robert Aickman. I’d just mention that comparing it with ‘The Magic Mountain’ by Thomas Mann has also been fruitful for me.

  3. The lady’s name is Cecile, not Celine. This has some significance, as the name Cecile means “blind”, while Maybury’s first name, Lucas, means “light” or “illumination”. Cecile finds it “such a cold name”.

  4. Reed–thanks. The cumulative effect of multiple Aickman stories tripping around one’s brain is quite the experience.

    Des–I appreciate the heads up on Mann.

    Philip–Thank you for pointing out that mistake. My subconscious was determined to warm up her name it seems.

  5. The name she finds cold is “Lucas”, not her own. Now I think of it, calling her Celine would have been quite appropriate, given that the whole story is about Maybury’s long journey to the end of the night.

  6. Right. I considered talking about Maybury’s given name, but it’s a game that could have stretched out considerably. I almost wish I had. Cecile, feminine of Cecil, means “blind.”

  7. I stretched it out myself in my own piece on “The Hospice”. Aickman’s character names in general might make for an article in themselves. They’re rarely innocent even when they sound a bit more everyday than Nugent Oxenhope or Laming Gatestead.

  8. What I find particularly unnerving about Mr. Aickman’s stories is their innate simplicity. He astounds calmly, quietly. He needs no “monster” to be completely and or fully described. It’s the unnatural normalcy that creeps up on you. A true master of his own style of the written word.

  9. Robert Aickman was a very elegant writer.

    I have been reading his stories for over thirty years, and I still marvel at the sheer beauty
    of his prose.

    I am glad that his books are finally available.

  10. Pingback: Aickman in Gower Street – 1 : LondonBlog