Robert Aickman (1914-1981) described his stories as ‘strange.’ Probably because no other word quite does them justice. Interestingly, he came from a rich horror heritage, his grandfather Richard Marsh having been a rival in popularity to Bram Stoker with his occult novel, The Beetle. But, during his life, Aickman was known as much for his conservation work on British waterways as he was for his writing. A man ahead of his time in many ways.
Cold Hand in Mine is one of his award-winning short story collections, older editions of which feature cover art by the renowned Gothic artist Edward Gorey. (This could be seen as the 20th century equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch agreeing to illustrate Dante’s Inferno.) Remember how it felt when you read Clive Barker for the first time? Or saw Freddy Krueger first drag his metal talons along the wall? Discovering Aickman delivers that kind of virgin-territory thrill, albeit a more genteel experience. Aickman’s stories aren’t about zombies and demons and gore and blood. You certainly won’t be screaming in terror. But you may look a little paler after reading. And he’ll certainly take you to the dark places in the mind that you’re not sure you really want to visit.
It would be futile to try and accurately describe the stories in this collection to you. They’re just too…strange. But if you’re daring enough to take the step, you’ll find yourself in a universe in which men stumble upon odd fairground girls with detachable arms. You may meet your soul in old church, or something ancient and terrible beneath the water. There are traditional terrors too, though Aickman’s vampires are happy to stay in the shadows where they belong. You’ll stay a while at the weirdest hospice in the world and see a strange yellow dog that guards a house you probably don’t want to enter. An eldritch clock-maker dressed in black may come-a-calling for your wife. And you’ll regret having ever shared lodgings with Mr Millar. Does all that sound a little nightmarish? Well, don’t say you weren’t warned.
Copies of Cold Hand in Mine can still be found easily enough if you don’t mind a modern re-issue. Copies with the Gorey artwork may be a little harder to track down, but it’s worth the effort and, possibly, the additional expenditure – mainly because this is a book that you’ll re-visit again and again.