The whole of Intrusions, the one-day tribute to Robert Aickman, is now uploaded to YouTube in five segments. John Ballat reads the deeply weird “The Inner Room”, Ray Russel talks about publishing Aickman, and there’s a discussion about the aims & methods of what Aickman called “the strange story”. In Segment 5 I read “Entertaining Angels Unawares”, a strange story which will appear in my new collection, and which begins, “I got two or three weeks’ work with a firm that specialised in high and difficult access jobs in and around Halifax. They needed a labourer, someone to fetch and carry, clean the site up behind them. The job was on the tower of a church about thirty miles northeast of the town. I wasn’t sure what I thought about that. I wondered what I’d say to the vicar if he ever appeared, but he never did.” You might well think, it suddenly occurs to me, that the narrator is wrong about that.
The subsequent question & answer period illustrates one of the things I was trying to suggest in Climbers, which is that fiction’s closest relative is the pub anecdote.
“Every day I was taken to a more terrible region and made to reproduce my error.”
Denis Johnson, The Stars At Noon
For fun I put some random blog entries through I Write Like, which told me I write like: Jack London, JRR Tolkien, Chuck Palahniuk (twice), Arthur Clarke (for the “Earth Advengers” post), Cory Doctorow, Gertrude Stein, Dan Brown (for the first paragraph of a review of a Peter Ackroyd novel), Ray Bradbury, David Foster Wallace (twice, once for “Keep Smiling With Great Minutes”), and HG Wells. After that, deciding that my samples must have been generally too short to give a consistent result, I tried the whole of “Imaginary Reviews” and got Isaac Asimov; a 4000 word English ghost story, set mainly at the seaside and featuring an ageing middle class woman called Elizabeth, and got Isaac Asimov again; and then “Cave & Julia” & got HG Wells again. For the whole of Empty Space I got Arthur Clarke; but for its final chapter, which ends with that memorable sentence of crawling Cosmic horror, “First she would separate Dominic the pharma from his friends, take him upstairs, and fuck him carefully to a tearful overnight understanding of the life they all led now,” I got HP Lovecraft.
He rang the bell three times & banged the doorknocker twice in the time it took me to get down from the top floor. “We’ve just had the new pictures done,” he said, as if we’d met previously, maybe in some pub, & discussed it all, & I’d asked him to let me know the moment they were ready. I had no idea what he was talking about. He stood bent at the neck a little, as if the doorway was too small for him & he had to peer under the lintel to look inside. He was dressed in a yellow short-sleeved shirt and he sounded a little like George Formby. He was in a rush. It was as if he had rushed to get here & now he was already rushing to get away. At the same time he was insistent. As soon as he saw I was 60-odd, he raised his voice a few decibels & shouted, “The pictures? The new pictures?” At this time I had not had a chance to speak. I had jogged down three flights of stairs at the end of the afternoon, which is not my best time, & I had left behind the last reasonably promising sentence of the day, the upshot of which I knew I would forget if someone encouraged me to take part in a conversation. “I’m sorry?” I said. “The pictures!” he shouted. “It’s the new aerial pictures! Of your house?” “Ah,” I said. “No thanks. Really.” He stood on the doorstep, acting as if I had forced him to look down under the lintel to get a glimpse of me. “Are you going to close the door in my face?” he shouted as I began to close the door. He was appealing not to me but to the street at large. When I got back upstairs I had forgotten not only the ending of the sentence but why I had been writing it in the first place. I was glad to be a man aged 60-odd, because if I had been a woman of that age he would not only have shouted at me as if I was deaf & stupid, he would have got a foot in the door & called me “petal”.
People with a European 4×4. People with an Asian 4×4. People with scarves. People who think they have a sense of direction. People wearing a complete outfit of rural fashion clothing– including identical oiled cotton jackets and hats– and carrying a peculiarly long kind of walking stick, who ask you if you’ve “been through the cattle” as if it’s a crime, or a rite, or the adventure of a lifetime. People with a “working dog” they can’t control. People who are telling each other as you pass, “Of course it’s still very Catholic round here.” People who, in the coming days, will have a wall knocked down in their Richmond home and find a great hoard of household rubbish–broken beds, cheap soiled mattresses, used unpaired shoes stuffed into plastic bags–which has been bricked in by a former owner, and for whom there will be no psychic upshot or metaphysical learning curve, only the end of the story. Or so you expect.
You wake up to yellow & orange flashing & loud silent thuds & explosions, like a monstrous old camera shutter going off outside the window, the other side of the blackout blind, only somehow it’s inside your head (although it stops as soon as you close your eyes) & at first you think it’s maybe the circulation of the blood, but it’s far too arhythmic for that both in pulse & intensity of light, and though your legs are soaked in sweat your heart isn’t “pounding”, & you finally realise that what you’re seeing is the nightmare you were just having, translated into a blurred, simplistic, modulated flicker, & that the non-rhythm is the rhythm of narrative with the narrative taken out, & that if you fell back to sleep this minute, exhausted by all this meaningless noiseless cacaphony in the half-waking world in the dark, the nightmare would just pick up again where it left off. & despite the sheer silent assault of it as experienced in this novel way, would prove to be not even very nightmarish.
For today’s Guardian books podcast I read a little bit of The Course of the Heart, mined out of this section from Chapter One–
For twenty years he had lived in the same single room above the Atlantis Bookshop. He was reluctant to take me there, I could see, though it was only next door and I had been there before. At first he tried to pretend it would be difficult to get in.
“The shop’s closed,” he said. “We’d have to use the other door.”
Then he admitted:
“I can’t go back there for an hour or two. I did something last night that means it may not be safe.”
“You know the sort of thing I mean,” he said.
I couldn’t get him to explain further. The cuts on his wrists made me remember how panicky Pam and Lucas had been when I last spoke to them. All at once I was determined to see inside the room.
“We could always talk in the Museum,” I suggested.
Researching in the manuscript collection one afternoon a year before, he had turned a page of Jean de Wavrin’s Chroniques d’Angleterre–that oblique history no complete version of which is known–and come upon a miniature depicting in strange, unreal greens and blues the coronation procession of Richard Coeur de Lion.
Part of it had moved; which part, he would never say.
“Why, if it’s a coronation,” he had written almost plaintively to me at the time, “are these four men carrying a coffin ? And who is walking there under the awning–with the bishops yet not a bishop ?”
After that he had avoided the building as much as possible, though he could always see its tall iron railings at the end of the street. He had begun, he told me, to doubt the authenticity of some of the items in the medieval collection. In fact he was frightened of them.
“It would be quieter there,” I insisted.
He sat hunched over the Church Times, staring into the street with his hands clamped violently together in front of him. I could see him thinking.
“That fucking pile of shit!” he said eventually.
He got to his feet.
“Come on then. It’s probably cleared out by now anyway.”
Rain dripped from the blue-and-gold front of the Atlantis. There was a faded notice, CLOSED FOR COMPLETE REFURBISHMENT. The window display had been taken down, but for the look of things they had left a few books on a shelf. I could make out, through the plate glass, W B Yeats’ The Trembling of the Veil–with its lyrical plea for intuited ritual “Hodos Chameliontos” –leaning up against Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. When I drew Yaxley’s attention to this accidental nexus, he only stared at me contemptuously.
Inside, the shop smelled of cut timber, new plaster, paint, but this gave way on the stairs to an odour of cooking. Yaxley fumbled with his key. His bedsitter, which was quite large and on the top floor, had uncurtained sash windows on opposing walls. Nevertheless it didn’t seem well lit. From one window you could see the sodden facades of Museum Street, bright green deposits on the ledges, stucco scrolls and garlands grey with pigeon dung; out of the other, part of the blackened clock tower of St George’s Bloomsbury, a reproduction of the tomb of Mausoleus lowering up against the racing clouds.
“I once heard that clock strike twenty one,” said Yaxley.
“I can believe that,” I said, though I didn’t. “Do you think I could have some tea ?”
He was silent for a minute. Then he laughed.
“I’m not going to help them,” he said. “You know that. I wouldn’t be allowed to. What you do in the Pleroma is irretrievable.”
He fished two cups out of a plastic washing-up bowl and put tea bags in them.
“Don’t tell me you’re frightened too!” he said. “I expected more from you.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t sure whether I was afraid or not. I’m not sure today. The tea, when it came, had a distinctly greasy aftertaste, as if somehow he had fried it. I made myself drink it while Yaxley watched me cynically.
“You ought to sit down,” he said. “You’re worn out.”
When I refused, he shrugged and went on as if we were still at the Tivoli:
“Nobody tricked them, or tried to pretend it would be easy. If you get anything out of an experiment like that, it’s by keeping your head and taking your chance. If you try to move cautiously, you may never be allowed to move at all.”
He looked thoughtful.
“I’ve seen what happens to people who lose their nerve.”
“I’m sure,” I said.
“They were hardly recognisable, some of them.”
I put the teacup down.
“I don’t want to know,” I said.
“I bet you don’t.”
He smiled to himself.
“Oh, they were still alive,” he said softly, “if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“You talked us into this,” I reminded him.
“You talked yourselves into it.”
Most of the light from Museum Street was absorbed as soon as it entered the room, by the dull green wallpaper and sticky-looking yellow veneer of the furniture. The rest leaked eventually into the litter on the floor, pages of crumpled and partly burned typescript, hair clippings, broken chalks which had been used the night before to draw something on the flaking lino: among this stuff, it died. Though I knew Yaxley was playing some sort of game with me, I couldn’t see what it was. I couldn’t make the effort, so in the end he had to make it for me. He waited until I got ready to leave.
“You’ll get sick of all this mess one day,” I said from the door of the bedsit.
He grinned and nodded and advised me:
“Have you ever seen Joan of Arc get down to pray in the ticket office at St Pancras ? And then a small boy comes in leading something that looks like a goat, and it gets on her there and then and fucks her in a ray of sunlight ?
“Come back when you know what you want. Get rid of Lucas Medlar, he’s an amateur. Bring the girl if you must.”
–It isn’t the best reading I ever did. But the interview that follows has its points.
Royal Opera House, 1987: Beauty and the Beast has the rhetoric of a Persil ad. All the energy and creative potential of the beast is washed out of him, to the delight of a thoroughly bourgeois audience. He not only comes out white, he comes out wet. He doesn’t dance any more, but primps and smiles about him, and supports the ballerina as she primps and smiles too. Nobody dances any more. The celebration of his taming is brief, vestigial, a tremor: then the ballet ends. He has allowed his raison d’etre to be amputated. He’s had an ontological lobotomy. This may be an artifact of the translation into dance. In the fairy tale the beast loses only his bestiality. Since, in the ballet, his bestiality is represented by dance, and by his best and most vigorous dancing, he loses everything. The other trouble with this medium is that so much of it goes on behind the head of the person sitting in front of you.
I dream a lot about watching strange organisms. They’re not large. Infestations. Algal mats. Microscopic activity in crustal basalt, detected only via byproduct, “perhaps the largest ecosystem on earth”. Not precisely animals. And most often, it has to be said, the kind of things that grow in layers in a drain. They’re soft and mushroom-coloured. I also dream of that wiry, fibrous stuff you get in a bad avocado. In this case it’s a dark red and it runs through everything.