The short stories of Robert Aickman ... take place in an ordinary world (albeit that of the previous century) in which bizarre, supernatural events unfold with real originality. His storytelling is good, his writing is clean, he’s funny but understated, and the stories themselves are striking ... Aickman’s stories have more in common with surrealism than horror or fantasy ... The plot—like the dialogue—of a story can at first seem drawn out, abrupt, or incomplete. He constructs his sentences with obvious care, but includes details selectively rather than exhaustively. We might know more about a woman’s outfit on one page than we know about our protagonist’s entire appearance ... The person we follow in an Aickman story is often unremarkable: usually a man, generally a civil servant of a solitary disposition, who’s not particularly useful or skillful, and seems to be of ambivalent sexuality. Female protagonists, on the other hand, are generally much more capable than their male counterparts ... Regardless of the character at hand, Aickman’s descriptive choices are confident and effective. He is master of his own game.
Opening with the title story, we are immediately privy to the kind of awkward intimacies among humans that Aickman loved to portray ... Exiting this vividly intuitive yet rigorously formulated labyrinth of frustrated desires and derangements of the senses, of existential dread and numbly accepted confirmations of preternatural forebodings, the reader has a better sense of Aickman’s tropes and tactics. Quotidian boredoms are transmogrified into supernatural prisons, and every potential opening for expansion of the soul–new lovers, new houses, new rivers, new hikes–becomes a double-edged sword of entrapment ... Ultimately, these stories, striking and accomplished as they certainly are, serve mainly to underscore the uniqueness of Aickman’s tales, which originated from a mind shaped by an ethos and environment now as effectively extinct as Babylon or Byzantium.
In Aickman’s fiction, peculiarity is intertwined with a drab twentieth-century realism that is very English and sometimes dryly funny. Think Philip Larkin, or Barbara Pym, gone eldritch ... That the habits of these characters are far from exciting only intensifies the gathering strangeness; at some point, and it is always hard to tell exactly where, logic jumps the rails, which is to say that one finishes an Aickman story not really knowing if it has ended in reality or hallucination, waking or sleeping, the land of the living or of the dead ... Aickman does not isolate trouble within a particular object or document, which, if properly handled, will bring that trouble to an end. Instead, Aickman‘s characters will tend to arrive at a wholesale purgatory—but perhaps, amid their daily routine, that is where they already were.
The stories in Compulsory Games are as eerie as folktales and as plausible as a crime scene report ... For all his frissons, Aickman is also a remarkably comic and subtle writer. The effect is both hilarious and unnerving ... Aickman was fascinated by incidents that rip apart the 'foggy tissue of things seemingly under control,' when we glimpse 'the spirit behind the appearance, the void behind the face of order' ... He can describe sex in surprisingly fresh ways, and his stories suggest that, if men are often snagged by sexualized monsters, that condemns the men more than anyone ... For the new reader, however, Nelson has made some odd choices. Rather more often than one might expect, the stories here include the familiar ghouls and vampires that Aickman generally tended to avoid ... Nelson’s taste seems to favor the more fantastic side of Aickman. There are several stories that are more eerie and unsettling than terrifying ... Aickman’s stories encourage the reader to open up Pandora’s box and see what happens next.
Aickman's prose is dry, often oppressively so. His tone, no matter the events he might be relaying, is relentlessly matter-of-fact. His meter does not change whether he is relaying the mundane or the supernatural; even as his characters start to panic, even as the skies turn red and the walls close in, Aickman's relationship with his readers is that of a mildly disinterested third party relaying an anecdote at a business meeting. Mostly, this is to his credit, for while his self-described 'strange stories' may contain elements of the supernatural, they tend to function as allegory for the most unremarkable situations our lives can offer ... While the subject matter and casts of characters vary wildly from story to story, much of it feels like the thought-out criticisms of 'modern (read: mid-to-late-'70s) culture' by a man for whom time was passing too quickly. Nobody in Aickman's stories tends to come off as entirely sympathetic, though we certainly see ourselves (or at least someone we know) in the immediacy of the wants and needs of the various characters ... As a collection, Compulsory Games is a book-length master class in allegory and the evocation of pure discomfort.
That maxim—a sound mind in a sound body—is the sort of bourgeois faux-wisdom that fails to equip Aickman’s civil servants to deal with the supernatural. He ropes English fairy story into the mix, a rural chill reminiscent of The Wicker Man. But each protagonist fails to meet the spiritual demands of those myths ... Aickman is not Gothic because his stories contain no romance and no serious interest in the past. The stuff of the past rears up—devils, bodies from the grave—but the setting is almost rigorously boring. His ambitions are smaller, less philosophical, and more amusing
English author Aickman (1914-1981) is regarded as a forefather of horror, and this reissue of his fiction by NYRB Classics shows that his reputation is justified ... His tales are devoid of angels, filled only with the dread of what lurks just behind the open door, of the possibility that your worst fears could be real—and could find you one day. As unnerving as it is sinuous; an absolute delight.
Insidious, haunting, and brilliant, Aickman’s stories present dreamlike, inexplicable realities in prose both strangely sensual and entirely disarming, making this collection a treasure for fans of Poe, Kafka, and Lovecraft.