I discovered Robert Aickman quite by accident. Years ago, while wandering through a used bookstore in Long Beach, California, I picked up a paperback called “The Wine Dark Sea” and opened it to the first pages. Twenty minutes later I found myself in a comfy, rather tattered, leather chair deep in the recesses of the store, having no idea how I’d gotten there.
The Houses of the Russians is from a collection of “strange stories” called Painted Devils, first published in 1964. A group of English fishery scientists, students and economists are at a conference in the country. Sitting in a local pub one evening they watch as their oldest colleague barely escapes being run over while crossing the busy road that runs through the village. One of the fishery experts offer to buy the shaken old man a drink. This begins a tale that takes place many years before in a small town in Finland and “a visible symbol of invisible grace”.
As a young man our storyteller had traveled to Finland with his employer. Their job, to find a house for an busy industrialist. Wondering through the villiage of Unilinna the young man discovers a footbridge to an island. The island is wooded and he can see several large houses, seemingly abandoned. He crosses the bridge, walks up a path and comes to a building.
Normally, I should have supposed the house to be empty, but it was not so. There was a fence around the garden, a heavy wooden paling, something with the weight and solidity of the wooden railing across the footbridge. Even so, there were gaps in it, and there was also a gate, which was lower than the rest of the fence. I had been creeping along the fence looking through the gaps, but it was across the top of the gate that I saw a woman sitting among the tall grass and in all that mist. She was not a young girl, but she had very fair hair, tied up at the back of the head. She wore a loose brown dress and she was doing something with a machine of some kind, not spinning but possibly weaving, or possibly something quite different.
I find Aickman’s stories very subtle. He was a master of description. His use of commonplace settings, everyday events and ordinary interactions builds an atmosphere that is unexpected and utterly eerie. The man wrote nightmares. There are scenes from some of his stories that are stuck in my head, even after twenty years. Maybe not a good thing but, to me, quite marvelous. If you are curious several collections of his stories have been reissued by Faber and Faber. You can find them on the internet.