Robert Aickman’s Introduction to The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1967)

Aickman leads his fourth introduction to the Fontana Ghost Stories collection with a renewed attack on modern rationalism: “science will end the world,” he asserts. He goes on:

“Even if there is no big bang, we shall destroy the world in no time, if we go on as we are. We shall crowd ourselves out; starve ourselves out; bore ourselves to bits; choke with protest against all the wrong things.”

Such nihilism is offset for Aickman by his Romantic conception of the Imagination, where “Knowledge lies within us” in a manner that doesn’t respond to scientific enquiry.

“Truth can be found only through the imagination, and those whose imaginations have been cramped with answers will never find it,” he asserts.

He appears to argue that there is an individual truth that is lost through collective modern living. Aickman’s Truth – or, at least “a modest, but extremely significant, section” – can be partially accessed by the ghost story. “Ghost stories, believe it or not, are one of the last outposts of the spirit of man” he claims.

For Aickman, ghosts are “entities of the imagination” and “The essential quality of the ghost story is that it gives satisfying form to the unanswerable; to thoughts and feelings, even experiences, which are common to all imaginative people, but which cannot be rendered down scientifically into “nothing but” something else. In a world of meaningless fact and mean­ingless violence, people shrink from admitting that they still harbour entities of the imagination.”

Form plays a crucial role in the ghost story and Aickman views the best to have been written at the end of the Nineteenth Century when writers were preoccupied with formal crafting of narratives.

Once again, he draws the connection between the ghost story and poetry: “The ghost story, like poetry, deals with the experience behind experience: behind almost any experience.”

He goes on to discuss the role guilt plays (psychologically as well as narratively):

“In all of us the passion of guilt is terrifyingly autonomous: related at once to everything we do and to nothing we have done; strong or weak in us by virtue of forces which have little connection with our actions or conscious thoughts: expressed, more often than not, so indirectly and obliquely as to build up rather than diminish in the seeming release.”

About M.R. James, he writes that “To my mind, certain of M. R. James’s stories contain an element of patronage: one becomes aware as one reads of the really great man, the Provost of Eton, the engineer of the inscription on the Unknown Warrior’s grave, relaxing; all too consciously descending a little, to divert, but also still further to edify, the company. A School Story I find free from this defect. The Provost knew about schoolboys.”

Wilkie Collins is described as someone who “felt himself to be a man at variance with his epoch. This made his work very uneven, and his life very arcane. To this day, surprisingly little seems dependably to be known about him. Both in writing and in living, he hid his tracks; though perhaps leaving occasional toeprints detectable by the discerning. At its best, his work is so garishly penetrating that he seems to write by the light of gasflares. If he had lived at another time, he might have escaped the inner conflict that produces this effect. But art is so depen­dent upon conflict, that though he might have gained, we, his readers, would have lost.”

In a parting shot, Aickman wants the ghost story redefined:

“I should like to suggest that now the word “ghost” should be seen more as the German “geist”; that ghost stories should be stories concerned not with appearance and consistency, but with the spirit behind appearance, the void behind the face of order. Ghost stories inquire and hint, waver and dissemble, startle and astonish. They are a last refuge from the universal, affirmative shout.”