Robert Aickman’s Introduction to The 3rd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1966)

In this introduction to the third Fontana collection of Great Ghost Stories, Aickman engages with the nature of our desire to read supernatural fiction. He views it as “the need we all must feel for some degree of reconciliation with death”.

Ghost stories themselves haunt modern society, allowing imaginary freedom from a modern mechanistic existence, a “compulsorily egalitarian society”.

Once again, Aickman insists that ghost stories emerge from the “same strata of the unconscious” as poetry. A successful ghost story, he asserts, “must open a door, preferably where no one had previously noticed a door to exist; and, at the end, leave it open, or, possibly, ajar.”

Aickman’s contention is that – rationally – we want certainty and security in our lives but we’re aware unconsciously that there is more than the physical, material modern world: “Our unconscious knows full well that if this hard, tangible world of ubiquitous decay were all there is, we should every one of us draw back at. the threshold of it, and our odd race cease to exist.”

Ghost stories both reconcile us with death through the suggestion that it is possible to survive death (“we too may not be obliterated when we die”) but also that death acts as “an instrument of justice” (that “the chances and evils of the world are knitted into justice at the end”).

As the ghost story arises from the unconscious, it’s not subject to modern rationalist thought and empirical knowledge: “The ghost story, therefore, can include ingredients from the totality of experience, as can poetry; mainly, once more, experience which is neither fully conscious nor a field for deliberate and prudent selection. Only poetry and the ghost story draw on a world so wide.”

(Aickman’s drawing a great deal from Freud. In On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia, Freud believes that the image of death is the catalyst for human reflection: “It was by the corpse of the beloved that he invented spirits, and it was his sense of guilt over the satisfaction that was mixed with his grief that meant that the first spirits he created were fearful, evil demons. The physical changes of death suggested to him the division of the individual into a body and a soul—originally several souls; in this way his train of thought ran parallel with the process of decomposition brought about by death. The constant memory of the dead person became the foundation of the hypothesis of other forms of life, and first gave him the idea of continuing after apparent death.”)

Once again, Aickman understands the experience of the supernatural as a common one: “England is generally regarded as the metropolis of the super­natural, as of lyric poetry. In England you cannot gather together more than twenty random people without it trans­piring that at least one of them has had a paranormal ex­perience, and very likely seen an apparition. What is more, there will regularly be among the twenty a further person who has been through something considerably more up­ setting than the tale told by the first speaker in the group; so upsetting that the person does not care to talk about it, except sometimes to a single individual of proven sympathy.”

The Beckoning Fair One Aickman regards as “one of the (possibly) six great masterpieces” of “larger” ghost stories. He regards it as “an almost perfect story” and applauds the “disconcerting blend of worldly knowledge and unworldly lyricism”. He includes Blackwood’s The Wendigo and Hitchens’ How Love Came to Professor Guildea. He also recommends Quiller-Couch’s novel, Dead Man’s Rock and says that it “glitters with unnatural phosphorescence”.

Aickman clearly respects ghost-less hauntings: “So it is with most phantoms: nothing about them is so confirmatory as nothing.”