We Are for the Dark is a wonderful collection of ghost stories written by both Robert Aickman and his lover at that time, Elizabeth Jane Howard (of The Cazalet Chronicles fame). First published by Cape in the autumn of 1951, it is a collection of 6 stories, 3 stories written by each. However, at the time, the stories were not individually credited and were presented as a collaboration between the two authors.
‘The Trains’ is the first Robert Aickman story in this collection and according to me, it’s his finest. We meet two young women – Margaret and Mimi – who venture on a hiking trip in the country. As far as personalities go, Margaret and Mimi could not have been more different; Margaret is intelligent and perceptive but not blessed in the looks department, while Mimi is the attractive one, and more extroverted of the two. Soon, the morning blends into the afternoon, and the gentle countryside gives way to a dreary, desolate valley. The two women make their way through this unfamiliar terrain, they increasingly rely on consulting the map; each time leaving behind an empty square outlined by four stones (used to place the map on the ground). They eventually come across a railway line and decide to walk alongside it in the hope of finding lodgings, particularly a certain house they had spotted on the map. The first inkling of something strange is revealed when they both stop for tea at the Guest House whose sole customer is a man who spooks them by stating how the valley is quiet with hardly any locals visiting it.
When they finally make their way to the house, it towers over them, black and mysterious. An unkempt, dilapidated dwelling from the inside, its sole, eccentric occupants are the owner Mr Wendley Roper and Beech, his butler. Meanwhile, secrets and sinister happenings haunt the house – a madwoman waving a handkerchief everyday at the window, the dimly seen figure of the dead woman (the owner’s sister Miss Roper), possibly an apparition that haunts Margaret in the bedroom at night, and the looming dread the women feel of being trapped. Moreover, the constant, disturbing noise of trains as they rattle past at all times, even at odd hours during the night, serve as an unnerving force in the background. All of these factors have their own weird logic as the story chugs along towards its dark, claustrophobic conclusion. ‘The Trains’, then, is a superb, enigmatic tale of madness, identity, entrapment and terror with a gentle opening that quickly transforms into something strange and surreal in its final moments complete with an unexpected twist.
Then Margaret became aware of something very horrible indeed: it began with the upturned dead face of an old woman, colourless with the exact colourlessness of the colourless light; and it ended with the old woman’s crumpled shape occultly made visible hanging above the trap-door in the corner of Margaret’s compartment-shaped room. Up in the attic old Miss Roper had hanged herself; her gray hair so twisted and meshed as itself to suggest the suffocating agent.
‘Three Miles Up’ is simply the best story penned by Elizabeth Jane Howard in this book, in fact the best story in this entire collection. Like the Aickman story, this tale also involves a trip, but on water. John and Clifford are in the midst of their holiday exploring the narrow canals of England on their boat. Of the two, John is the expert at maneuvering the boat, while Clifford’s job is to pour over the map and give directions. The canal holiday, however, is doomed right from the start. A slew of minor disasters dampen the spirit, the unpredictable weather only makes matters worse, and the continuous bickering between the two of them ratchets up the tension. The situation mysteriously improves when, on one of their moorings on the canal banks, they spot a young woman slouched against the bark of a tree. She is Sharon and she joins them on their journey, the perfect companion and truly a blessing, she is cheerful and a great cook. The atmosphere suddenly brightens up and it looks like the holiday is saved. But who exactly is Sharon? And why does she readily agree to accompany John and Clifford?
Meanwhile, John and Clifford are secretly vying for her affections, looking to impress her in their own way. But now they have a crucial decision to make. Since there are hardly any days left of their holiday, they must either turn around and proceed back along the same route they had traversed (not an exciting prospect given that the route was arduous), or take a left and arrive at the starting point from the other side (but it’s possible that they don’t have enough time to complete this route). However, when they arrive at the junction where they must make their decision, John spots a third route a bit further to the right. Ominously, this is where the map ends, and so what this unknown waterway entails remains mysterious to the party. In a fit of bravado, both the men decide to explore this route simple because they want to show off to Sharon how adventurous they are. Sharon, meanwhile, is enigmatic, as she goes along with their opinions but never ventures any of her own.
‘Three Miles Up’ is a perfectly paced, chilling story – one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over the party of three as they navigate this alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying.
They saw no one else. They journeyed on throughout the afternoon; it grew colder, and at the same time more and more airless and still. When the light began to fail, Sharon disappeared as usual to the cabin. The canal became more tortuous, and John asked Clifford to help him with the turns. Clifford complied unwillingly; he did not want to leave Sharon, but as it had been he who had insisted on their continuing, he could hardly refuse. The turns were nerve wracking, as the canal was very narrow and the light grew worse and worse.
‘The Unsufficient Answer’ is another excellent tale where Leo Cust, a journalist, is entrusted with the task of travelling all the way to the Eastern part of Europe. His task? To convince sculptress Lola Hastings to make a brief but long overdue appearance in England. So far, entreaties in the form of letters sent to Mrs Hastings have produced no results, she has always provided vague answers for refusing to travel. Her presence in England is necessary to provide a boost to the sale of her artworks, which have stagnated, and now it is upto Mr Cust to find a way to lure her back.
But as soon as Mr Cust is accepted as a guest to Mrs Hastings’ home, an isolated castle built like a fort, Cust begins to notice bizarre things. The rooms are minimally furnished, bare and stark, arranged with black furniture and for most days Cust remains bored and frustrated with the hours stretching before him and not much to do. For the most part, Lola remains busy focusing on her sculpting, but at dinner transforms into a cultured woman conversing on a variety of topics. We are also introduced to her helper Miss Franklin, who is in charge of the day to day running of the castle, arranging meals and managing the complicated transportation arrangements of Mrs Hastings artworks across the continent to England. And yet, Cust notices the fractured nature of their relationship, as tensions between the two women reach a peak. Meanwhile, while Miss Franklin emits an air of foreboding, Mrs Hastings displays a streak of cruelty in her own personality. Things only get weirder when Cust encounters Felicity one night; she was clearly an inhabitant previously of the castle, but now appears as a ghost, there being something mysterious about her death. ‘The Insufficient Answer’, then, is another excellent tale of isolation, fear, paranoia, art and the trying relationship between two women who are completely cut off from the outside world.
Cust turned towards the warmth, exasperated and, unreasonably a little frightened. Then the bag fell to the stone floor and a tearing pain seemed to amputate his heart as he saw a young woman standing by the fire with one arm reaching up to the high mantelpiece.
‘Perfect Love’, the first story in this collection, penned by Howard, is also notable for the presence of a poltergeist in the form of a child who torments Maria Mielli, a world renowned opera singer. As she leaves behind a trail of suitors desperately in love with her and subsequently heartbroken, it traces the origins of her story – how a mysterious stranger (her patron) helps her launch her singing career and how she is later tormented by the presence of this poltergeist. Here, the narrator recounts this story through letters and newspaper clippings he chances upon while rummaging through his father’s paperwork.
And then we have the last Aickman story called ‘The View’ where a painter called Carfax, while on a cruise, encounters a woman (Ariel) who extends him an invitation to spend his vacation at her home, and they soon become lovers. The house is beautiful, tastefully decorated with lush furnishings and most of the rooms look out to the distant, mist-topped hills. To Carfax, these are perfect surroundings for a much needed rest and conducive to absorbing himself in his art. But he discovers an oddity – the room he is staying in has a very different view. The window looks out to the desolate sea and sky, a view that completely disorients him with respect to his bearings. It builds up to a point where he begins to notice subtle changes in the view over the days and he thinks he is probably losing his mind. This is a well-crafted tale of madness, love, ageing, happiness and what defines it and having a different perspective.
But one morning when he looked at the view for the first time that day, he noticed something nearer the house than the white, and lately multicoloured, buildings on the rather distant cliff edge. At first it seemed as though a big megalith, a rocky pillar of large circumference for a pillar, but medium height, had appeared midway between the sea and the house. At a second glance, however, what had looked a rock or a work of masonry, was seen by Carfax to be a huge motionless man, immobile and staring before him…
We Are for the Dark, then, is an unforgettable collection of weird tales; ghost stories that, according to the Introduction, defy obvious and easy explanations. While the strange and the supernatural are definitely potent forces in each of these tales, there is also a certain degree of psychological depth that enriches them.
Aickman seems to be greatly interested in architecture and all of his three stories collected here center around a house – the black house situated above the railway line in ‘The Trains’, the fortress-like castle inhabited by Mrs Hastings in ‘The Insufficient Answer’ which only highlights how alone she is, and the beautiful but deceptive holiday home with its disconcerting view in ‘The View’. My only quibble is that sometimes the language tends to be ornate and cumbersome; atleast that’s how a couple of the Aickman stories begin before settling into more breathable prose, and Howard’s ‘Perfect Love’ also suffers a bit from an awkward structure. But keeping these aside, I really enjoyed this collection, more so in this gorgeous hardback edition published by Tartarus Press, and would certainly recommend it.