Robert Aickman’s Introduction to The 2nd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1966)

Little new ground is covered in Aickman’s second introduction to Fontana’s Book of Great Ghost Stories series (1966). He retreads his previous suggestions about the nature of ghost stories from the first volume and notes that the 1960s seem to favour Nineteenth Century arts (ghost stories, music), blaming the “new forms of society” for this preference of the past over the present. Aickman continues to express his dislike for modern society which he seems to view as falsely rationalising.

Aickman argues that the ghost story is mainly a late Romantic form and asserts that “A world in which everything is officially susceptible to reason, and also capable of improvement, is not a good world for writing new ghost stories either.” What he sees as an undue emphasis on reason results in a “vast and uncontrolled irrationality, mainly taking the form of violence worship”.

The ghost story has a social function, he claims, in reassuring us that there are aspects of our existence that simply can’t be rationally explained:

“The good ghost story gives form and symbol to themes from the enormous areas of our own minds which cannot directly discern, but which totally govern us; and also to the parallel forces of the external universe, about which we know so little, much less than people tell us.”

He appears to view ghost stories as a means of connecting us with the fantastic aspects of our lives that we struggle to comprehend: “It reassures us with reminders of love and death, of our own ignorance, of the continuing possibilities of drama and astonishment.” He uses the German word Ehrfurcht, reverence fo what can’t be understood, as this social function.

Later in the introduction he points out that “the straight ghost of supposed tradition, full-bloodedly bloodless, with skull, shroud, chains, and perhaps groans” was overused in early gothic fiction (in what Aickman seems to present as a symbolic manner). Changes in scientific and philosophical thinking established a distance between human beings and “fears of sin and thoughts of death”. He sees this as altering the presentation of the spectral : “Ghosts became shifty and occasional.”

Like the introduction to the first volume, Aickman ends by insisting that there is a reality of the ghostly experience beyond the printed page. Many people, he claims, have supernatural encounters and ends by stating that

“Some people hope there are ghosts. Some people hope there are not. Most people, I suspect, manage to combine both these aspirations, hoping and dreading at the same time.”

Interestingly, Aickman describes Elizabeth Bowen as “the most distinguished living practitioner” of the ghost story (Bowen’s The Demon Lover is included in this volume).