The Darkening Garden: Attempted Rescue

The following is an entry reprinted from The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, written by the World Fantasy Convention 2012 Encyclopedist Guest of Honor, John Clute. This is the sixth entry of several from The Darkening Garden to be reprinted on this site over the course of ten days. Some formatting has been changed from the original published form of the text. Bolded items within this entry can be found within The Darkening Garden as additional / complementary entries. – The Editors

Image © Jacob Covey

The first volume of Robert Aickman’s autobiography is entitled The Attempted Rescue (1966). As he describes its formative years in this volume, the course of his life, and by extension the course of human life in general, could be described as an attempt to rescue oneself from the iron cage of circumstance and destiny and gene: from family, disabling inheritance, accident, destiny, mortality: to make one’s adult self into a kind of vessel capable of floating free of these iron circumstances. Attempted Rescue is a shorthand for any understanding of the personality structure of the mature human being which conceives of that structure as being guardedly recuperative of past stages of the self and of the unconscious. More specifically, as far as the arguments suggested in this lexicon are concerned, Attempted Rescue can usefully refer to the personality structure of the twin who is visible, the twin on top of the world (in horror it is the invisible twin who counts in the end: the untermensch twin, the Monster, the twin whose Sighting spells the end of the Attempted Rescue personality of its mate above): see Double. Even the most successful self is only an Attempted Rescue. Throughout Aickman’s fiction, these escape attempts are futile.

In terms of horror, the term also describes a particular story structure, one which traces its protagonist’s literal attempt to escape his circumstances (see Difficulty for a contrast between monologic and dialogic Story types: the Attempted Rescue clearly being an example of the latter). Its most melodramatic formulation is in the Appointment in Samarra tale, where the protagonist flees a projected terror in exactly the direction fated to confront him with that terror. Quest tales in horror — there are relatively few of them, as opposed to the vast number of quests in fantasy literature — can be thought of in these terms too, as types of the Appointment in Samarra: for they are generally disguises for attempts to flee; they do not normally succeed (see Followed; Hook). In Slick Fantasy, the protagonist’s hubris (or mere trickery) is almost always punished by a plot twist which uncovers the foolishness of the attempt to gain an advantage on the world. For horror in general, any protagonist who attempts to repudiate his Double or his Twin, to abandon his past, to start anew, is normally doomed to gain, at the end of the trail, nothing but the sight of his own haunted visage (perhaps in a Mirror which reflects the past); his fate; his guilt; his future.

With so broad a remit — for the Attempted Rescue tale can easily be understood to manifest the underlying antagonistic dualisms that motor most horror tales (see Followed; Horror) — examples are very common. Most of Peter Straub’s work since Koko (1988) can be understood as extraordinarily complexified enactments of attempted rescue — certainly Tim Underhill’s obsessive novelistic re-creations of the past in order to liberate quite possibly dead children from Bondage, most clearly in lost boy lost girl (2003), can be see in this light. In The Throat (1993), his greatest Underhill novel, Straub quotes a “gnostic gospel” whose message is very close to what Robert Aickman has said about ghosts:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

Stories which enact the attempted rescue motif include Robert Aickman’s “The Unsettled Dust” (in Sub Rosa, coll 1968) and “The Stains” (in New Terrors #1, anth 1980, ed Ramsey Campbell), Joan Aiken’s “Die from Day to Day” (in A Creepy Company, coll 1993), Rhoda Broughton’s “Behold It Was a Dream” (1872 The Temple Bar), Joe Hill’s Twentieth-Century Ghosts (coll 2005) Vincent O’Sullivan’s “They” (date unestablished, circa 1915), Lucius Shepard’s Green Eyes (1984), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and many others.

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