The Houses of The Russians – Robert Aickman


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. 

devilsThe 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.


Filed under R.I.P. IV, Short Stories

9 responses to “The Houses of The Russians – Robert Aickman

  1. I am not a big fan of short stories, but something I do like about your book is that it’s old! I think older books are such a find.. many people don’t even know the authors from 20 yrs ago anymore.. I’m glad you are enjoying your book~

    • deslily -I have a couple of great short story anthologies, Black Water and Black Water 2 published in 1983 and 1990 and edited by Alberto Manguel that contain fantastic literature from as early as 1910. They are great fun.

  2. I’ve been curious about Aickman’s “strange stories” for years, but before the recent reissues they were quite hard to get a hold of. Luckily I got my hands on a copy of Cold Hand in Mind via Bookmooch – I’m looking forward to it even more now!

  3. Very intriguing! I’m glad the RIP Challenge is starting early, so that those of us who are just casual observers can get a ton of excellent spooky recommendations before Halloween time. I’ll have to check out Aickman!

    • Emily – I’m adding lots of spooky titles to my TBR list. My list on goodreads is over 4oo. Aickman is really creepy, great gothic atmosphere.

  4. “His use of commonplace settings, everyday events and ordinary interactions builds an atmosphere that is unexpected and utterly eerie.”

    You sold me!!!

    And is that an Edward Gorey cover I spy? I’ve got to see if I can track down a copy of that actual book now!

    Great review. I haven’t read this author, but now I really want to.

  5. Carl – You to read Aickman and yes, it is a Gorey cover. I found my copy used online. Good luck!

  6. Carl – You have to read Aickman! Yes, it is a Gorey cover. I found my copy used online. Good luck!

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