Robert Aickman Treasure Trove Goes on Sale

Sunday, May 22, 2011


If you have a spare $65,000 sitting around, you can now purchase over two hundred rare letters written by Robert Aickman to his literary associates. The horde reveals some startling details about Aickman's career from around 1967 to 1981. For instance, at one point, Aickman toyed with the idea of having a story collection issued by August Derleth's famous Arkham House, but ultimately decided the publisher was unable to provide the compensation he sought. Here's a few gems from the official description:

It starts in 1967 with a gracious reply from RA to a fan letter from KM (American literary agent Kirby McCauley), whose combination of warm praise and critical acuity represented ‘the exact amalgam that every artist wants, needs, and, lacking, dies …’ (30 Sep 1967) Their friendship grew slowly and patiently over the next few years before there was any discussion of business between them. The early letters in particular document the discovery of each other’s taste in literature, film, politics, etc. and they are richly detailed. Aickman’s own skill as a critic emerges clearly.

As he points out, he had worked as a film and theater critic, as well as editor of the first eight volumes of the annual Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories. Aickman belongs in the same tradition of author-critic (before these roles bifurcated in modern times) that includes Johnson, Coleridge and T.S. Eliot, and he strikes one as very well-read indeed, especially in regard to continental writers. Among 20th century author-critics of supernatural fiction, Aickman was probably the most cultured and critically acute. What’s almost more impressive is the apparent ease with which KM followed suit.

These letters show no trace of condescension from RA. His judgments are always interesting and often surprising. Graham Greene is ‘the confused product of a hysterical and decadent epoch.’ (25 Oct 1971) The much-touted 1968 film ‘Belle du Jour’ was ‘quite simply, one of the worst films I have ever seen.’ (21 May 1968) He admired Bierce for his authentically American voice. He cites Thomas Mann as a major influence on his style, as well as E.T.A. Hoffman and many others (though curiously had not read Gustave Meyrink). He loathed the tendency towards sadistic violence in modern horror literature. And, while hating her politics, admired the artistry of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Of August Strindberg in particular, and of ground-breaking artists in general, he made the remark, ‘Often it seems to me that life needs the individual heretic but seldom the ensuing heresy.’ (6 May 1969)

Like many Brits his knowledge of American writers was somewhat parochial. KM keeps trying out Lovecraft Circle authors on him -- with little success generally. On the other hand, he scored a direct hit with Russell Kirk, whose collection, THE SURLY SULLEN BELL, was, in Aickman’s words, ‘quite simply, the best collection of new stories by a single writer that I have read for at least twenty years, and perhaps much more.’ (10 June 1969) Aickman and McCauley (and Kirk, too, for that matter) shared a political and cultural conservatism, with Aickman confessing more than once that he was not very fond of the present age. He was skeptical about democracy. ‘I think that television and the automobile and the flying machine are all worse dangers to man than the atomic bomb.’ (8 July 1967) (In many of his views, he reminds one of H.P. Lovecraft, who was probably his stylistic opposite when it came to writing weird tales.)

In the course of their getting to know and trust each other, it became apparent that the American representative of Herbert van Thal (RA’s English agent, whom he liked very much) was not up to his task, and in the early 1970s, Kirby began making some modest sales for RA in the US magazine market. Soon there were negotiations with August Derleth for an Arkham House collection. After this point much of the correspondence is taken up with details of literary agency, showing us another side of Aickman as a careful and prudent businessman. Aickman acknowledged Kirby’s salesmanship skills as graciously as he acknowledged his critical acumen. He finally turned down Derleth’s offer. ‘I can well believe that Derleth is in no position to pay more, but that of course does but further reduce the attractions of being linked with him commercially.’ (19 April 1971)

KM eventually landed better deals with Scribners. But the next ten years’ worth of letters are still loaded with nuggets of substantive literary interest and tidbits of gossip. Of L. P. Hartley, Aickman writes, ‘His literary talent is of a high order. It is just that he has a rather nasty mind.’ (27 Jan 1969) He tells how famous editor Max Perkins made Elizabeth Jane Howard (Aickman’s collaborator in his first collection, WE ARE FOR THE DARK) re-write the ending to her novel (THE BEAUTIFUL VISIT), ‘revising the enigmatic British conclusion (not completely successful, perhaps, as I acknowledge) into an entirely conventional, and entirely unconvincing, ‘happy ending’; with the ironical consequence that the book was reviewed merely as a conventional romance, which it is far from being, and hardly sold at all.’ (9 April 1973) Aickman’s critical observations cover dozens of writers, film directors and actors, composers, styles and movements.

Wherever these letters end up, one hopes it will be in the hands of a seasoned scholar. They offer rare insights about Aickman's literary advancement, as well as interesting connections across the Atlantic between weird fiction representatives and agencies in the late 20th century. Those on a limited budget just discovering Aickman should check out Dark Entries and Sub Rosa, two handsome hardcover collections recently reissued by Tartarus Press. Older editions of Cold Hand in Mine and Painted Devils are still affordable too.

Affluent buyers can head over to the L.W. Currey listing and pick up the letters, if desired. While a golden library like this harbors priceless content, I wouldn't be surprised to see the collection broken up or lowered in price to turn a quicker sale.

-Grim Blogger

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