‘If any man examines his inner truth with both eyes open, he will be overcome with terror at what he finds.’ – Robert Aickman
This Christmas, Curious Tales is proud to present Poor Souls’ Light: Seven Curious Tales, a new book of winter ghost stories, one which is intended to instill our readers with the traditional seasonal dread, but one which is also intended to celebrate the centenary of one of Britain’s great short story writers and one of the most unsung.
A distinctive quality of his stories – the defining stamp of Aickmanesqueness – is that it’s almost impossible to say precisely what it is which makes them so compelling, so powerful and so frightening. There is his prose, marked as it is with the elegance and restraint of an era already bygone by the time he was writing. There are the characters, motivated by a palpable loneliness but yearning to make a connection. And there are the things which happen in the stories themselves, the stuff of true horror: spectral strangers, presences in houses, the dead coming to life.
But listing these aspects rarely gives a sense of the whole. A stranger alchemy guides Aickman’s stories: they run a dreamlike course, quietly fantastic events unfolding in seemingly natural sequences, segueing into conclusions which are at once grimly inevitable yet monstrously unpredictable, and, frequently, deeply affecting. A prostitute literally comes apart in ‘The Swords’; the dead are unwillingly revived in ‘Ringing the Changes’; a man’s car breaks down in ‘The Hospice’, forcing him to take shelter in a rest home populated with a disturbing cast of residents. But, again, summarising any one story invariably omits the nameless magical ingredient, the one which leaves an indelible mark in the reader’s mind years after encountering the story. Indeed, I’ll say no more about the stories themselves: giving away too much risks robbing potential newcomers of the woozy, transcendent thrill of reading Aickman for the first time.
In an excellent Radio 4 documentary, Jeremy Dyson talks to Mark Gatiss about a curious power Aickman’s stories often appear to have on the reader, one which I’ve heard reported by a couple of other people after reading him and which I’ve experienced myself. Pick up a book of Aickman’s stories for the first time, read it and then go out into the world. You’ll begin to suspect that your day-to-day life has been somehow tinkered with; you’ll find yourself having conversations with strangers whose back-stories seem weighted with obscure significance; you’ll wander, taking chance routes which lead you to odd places and quietly intense encounters; you’ll glimpse a world made up of connections and resonances, all of which have always been there but which you somehow never noticed.
Seriously. Try it.
By the time he died Aickman had become something of a fêted incongruity, the horror genre’s ‘writer’s writer’, a man of inner turmoil and Freudian disquiet in a rather silly world of evil Cadillacs and mutant rats. There was a posthumous collection but it wasn’t long before his books had drifted out of print. For many of us, the only way to encounter Aickman has been either a serendipitous find in a horror anthology or the Faber Finds reprints of his short story collections – decent enough books but costly for ones so riddled with typographical and punctuation errors. Recently, Tartarus Press have produced a series of hardback editions of Aickman’s books, objects of high beauty but ones whose price-tags make them unlikely purchases for a first-time reader. The last 30 years have seen him survive through the influence and appreciation he left behind: the League of Gentlemen, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell and Neil Gaiman all sing his praises given the opportunity. Thankfully, to mark Aickman’s centenary Faber & Faber have now reissued some of Aickman’s books, each containing a new introduction and a brief afterword from individuals who had encounters with Aickman. Free from errors and at a decent price, Aickman is available for everyone to experience. Heady days for weirdos like us.
So, in the interest of making 2014 a blow-out centenary, Curious Tales brings you Poor Souls’ Light: an anthology of brand new ghost stories which, collectively, form a loose yet heartfelt tribute to Aickman by a group of fans: all of us on the team have spent the last few months reading and re-reading him whilst preparing our stories and puzzling out the artwork for the book; we’ve watched and listened to the handful of adaptations in existence; we’ve had nightmares.
We are thrilled to be working with horror writer, horror historian and all-round horror ubermensch Johnny Mains, whose own imminent Robert Aickman: a Centenary Tribute will feature contributions from Adam Nevill, Robert Shearman and Reece Shearsmith amongst others. Johnny edits the Best British Horror series for Salt and is a winner of a British Fantasy Society Award. His most recent collection is Frightfully Cosy and Mild Stories For Nervous Types.
And we are also thrilled in equal measure to be working with sci-fi marvel, long-term champion of Aickman and writer of mesmerizing prose, M. John Harrison. Harrison’s Virconium sequence established him as a thinking person’s national treasure, and his subsequent books – most recently the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy – have won him critical acclaim as well as a Philip K Dick award and an Arthur C Clarke award.
Poor Souls’ Light will be comprised of a series of stories, written by our both guests and ourselves – Jenn Ashworth, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Alison Moore, Emma Jane Unsworth and artist Beth Ward – all of which strive for the Aickmanesque: mysterious, elliptical, uncanny, unsettling. Precisely what Christmas is all about.
Some of you probably bought a copy of The Longest Night, our ghost story anthology from last year which acted as an homage to MR James, and some of you probably missed out due to the book selling out of its limited print run. The good news for everyone is that Poor Souls’ Light will be much the same: a beautiful, tactile, fully illustrated book accompanied by a series of suitably atmospheric live reading events, including a very special launch at a very special venue where everyone involved will be present to read from, talk about and sign copies of Poor Souls’ Light. And, just like last year, it will receive a limited print-run (although a bigger one this year), it won’t be available on Amazon, and it certainly won’t be available on Kindle: once it’s gone, it’s gone.
We’re currently mired in the process of writing, editing and arguing about the book, preparing its illustrations, and attempting to coordinate our events calendar. There will also be two other very exciting Curious Tales projects released in the coming months – The Barrow Rapture and Bus Station: Unbound – both of which will involve guest collaborators, live events and an abundance of spookiness.
So, in short, stay tuned for more details.