Robert Aickman’s Introduction to The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1964)

Between 1964 and 1972, Robert Aickman sought to define the canon of supernatural stories and collected them in a series published by Fontana. The introduction to the first Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1964) has a bleak, nihilistic tone.

Aickman sets the contemporary view of the ghost story in a post-rationalist world when humanity not only denies its spiritual being but also seeks to physically destroy itself. He mentions that behavioural psychology rejects the unconscious, culture is in a process of disintegration and commodification, religion’s attention is the corporeal and that love itself has become “rationalised and domesticated”. The future is one of nuclear annihilation or overpopulation.

The introduction (not without reason as this is a collection of ghost stories) maintains an almost Romantic sense of thanatomania throughout. Aickman writes of the ghost story as if a poem. It is a work of the Romantic Imagination, a beautifully emergent manifestation of the unconscious (in Freudian terms, of course). It expresses a fundamental truth of Being expressed in the realisation of the mortal nature of human existence.

Aickman argues that there are only 30-40 “first-class” ghost stories in Western literature and then spends time defining the nature of the ghost story. It is distinguished from SF and horror (“purely sadistic” depends on power to shock) and “seems to derive its power from what is most deep and most permanent. It is allied to poetry.”

The ghost story provides insights into the true nature of things. It taps into our unconscious, submerged perceptions. Aickman’s own fiction has this sense that there’s a strange world about us that only very few of us get to experience. There seem to be parallels between the actions of a ghost story and the Freudian psychologist. Just like the process of psychoanalysis, the writing of a good ghost story is difficult:

“The technique, like the subject, is fragile but with a grip of iron. And a vital ingredient is beauty. In all beauty, said Hesiod, is an element of strangeness.”

There’s undoubtedly a Keatsian element involved here. Writing a ghost story appears to be like casting a spell or conducting a seance. Ghost stories can’t be summoned. The true, beautiful ghost story appears at an unexpected moment of something else completely. (Perhaps in crudely psychoanalytic terms of lifting repressed memories.)

For Aickman, ghosts remind us of the certainty of death. He wryly notes that most ghost stories don’t have an actual ghost. Ghosts are neutral, passive. Yet they are personally connected with us: ghosts are those we knew. “They are things within us which we have, as psychologists say, projected outside us,” he writes.

Aickman goes further, though, insisting on the reality of the supernatural. He believes that ghost stories could not exist without actual ghosts. Aickman argues that there are fewer ghosts today because modern life has intruded on the Imagination.