Robert Aickman's fiction is often referred to as "strange fiction" instead of "weird fiction."
Whether or not you're a fan of labels, they do exist even if they best serve consumers. What are the defining characteristics of strange fiction as opposed to weird fiction? Do the two ever overlap?
I wrote a whole essay on this topic for Nightmare magazine last December, so I urge anyone with an interest in this topic to visit that site and read the thing. The truth of the matter is these terms are in many ways unimportant. Horror, Weird, Strange, Dark Fantasy—whatever dark fiction is written, someone will come along and classify it. The thing is, these terms are to a large extent meaningless—the genre is so fluid that there really are no firm dividing lines between them. Some stories wholly occupy one space, some multiple. That's how it should be. But, that said, I did write an essay explaining differentiating the two. Why? Because I feel that it still serves an important purpose. Not to chop up, categorize, and sub-genrify Horror, but instead to identify some of its most pervasive and interesting threads. By understanding how the genre works, I feel we can better understand the genre itself. As writer, that understanding is a powerful tool.
But, your question. I suppose it's unfair to direct readers elsewhere, so the crux of the difference (to my mind; yours may differ) is this: the Weird seems to be primarily an American-led movement, and the Strange European-led. The Weird is concerned with the effect on us of the extra-planetary, and the Strange the effect of our internal world. This is due to a large degree on the mindsets of the two peoples as a whole, the Americas staring at the stars and exploring, the Europeans gazing at their shoes and reflecting.
I think it's safe to say that many horror and weird fiction fans have at the very least heard of Robert Aickman, and with new, affordable editions of his work published in the last few years many have had the opportunity to read his fiction. What sets Aickman's works apart from his contemporaries and those who came before him?
Aickman followed in a less-travelled line of ghost story writers whose concerns were of the ambiguously internal. His precursors were writers like Onions and, most specifically, de la Mare, but unlike them he had the influence of modern psychiatric thought and philosophy to bolster his beliefs. Using them, he was able to fashion his thoughts on sexuality, poetry, and dream-logic into something wholly unique at the time it was written. And, still to a large part, it's remained so. Aickman is difficult to imitate, precisely because what he wrote was so uniquely born of his own personality. Not many writers can claim such singularity.
What does Aickman and his work mean to you? How has Aickman influenced not only your work, but the weird/strange/horror fields? What current authors are currently carrying on his legacy?
Aickman has been immensely influential on my own work by showing me how much of a story can be intuited by a reader by only the scarcest of clues. Forming narratives that exist on a different plane than the page is fascinating, though the danger one faces is some readers are unwilling to follow along the entire way. This evokes confusion and frustration, but if I've played my cards right, never a sense of aimlessness.
Aickman's work was heralded by only a select few for a number of years, but I feel that tide is turning. "Aickman's Heirs" being, I hope, of the first of many to champion him. What effect this renewed interest will have on the genre remains to be fully seen, but already we're seeing writers picking up the baton. No one is writing quite like him, of course, but we're seeing strong threads in the work of Steve Rasnic Tem, Ramsey Campbell, Lynda Rucker, Daniel Mills, and Terry Lamsley. To name but a few.
Aickman's Heirs is your second time editing an anthology, with Shadows Edge being your first, with a third coming in the form of The Year's Best Weird Fiction Volume Three. What have you learned from editing? Is this something you enjoy and will revisit?
I've learned that editing is a challenge that demands one's full attention, and that there is little more exciting than the discovery of new talent. But all that time takes its toll, and the more I edit the less time I have for my own work. Some writers may consider it a fair trade, but I'm disinclined to agree. I think my own fiction has been under attended to for some time now, and I hope to remedy that over the coming year.
For the readers who have yet to read anything by Robert Aickman, what are five essential stories that they should start with and why? What makes these stories special?
My favorite perhaps is "The Inner Room", a tale unlike any others in its mystery and symbolism. But it's very oblique, and not where I'd send a new reader. Instead, perhaps I'd point them to my first Aickman tale: "Ringing the Changes". It's perhaps the most straight-forward of his work, yet still maintains that sense that there is more beneath the surface than immediately clear. Or, perhaps I'd direct them to "The Swords", a dazzle of sublimated sexuality, one that's in turn funny and disturbing. It doesn't go in the direction one might expect, though like great fiction, it's conclusions are inevitable. Since I'm naming the popular tales, I might as well suggest "The Hospice", which revels in its bizarre nightmarishness and dislocation. And, finally, a personal favorite: "Marriage", a story about the pull of love and lust.
There are so many more that this, though, that I could recommend. Aickman was absolutely fantastic, and I'm quite pleased to have this opportunity to help highlight his work by showing how its influenced this new generation of writers.
Thanks for your time!
The thanks are all mine.