Doug Talks Weird Bonus Episode: Re-Reading Aickman. Additional notes and commentary, with some response to Jason Wilcox's "The Shadow Woman: A Re-reading of Robert Aickman's 'The Trains'".

[Contact Me] | [FAQ]

[Some "Dougisms" Defined]

[About Dickens of a Blog]

[Jump to Site Links]

Summary: I've released an [actually] short video talking about reading Aickman and the importance of re-reading his works, with a quote from Nabokov. I'll add in a few more details with this post and talk, briefly, about Jason Wilcox's recent article on Aickman's The Trains.

BLOT: (14 May 2015 - 08:52:59 AM)

Doug Talks Weird Bonus Episode: Re-Reading Aickman. Additional notes and commentary, with some response to Jason Wilcox's "The Shadow Woman: A Re-reading of Robert Aickman's 'The Trains'".

I've posted a bonus episode for Doug Talks Weird, this one about re-reading Robert Aickman's stories and the way it enhances enjoyment (and is a companion video to my Doug Talks Weird episode on Aickman's "The Trains" and irrealism). The original title was going to be "The importance of re-reading Aickman", and was going to say that Aickman has to be read two or three times for someone to "get it", but that's kind of dangerous talk. I still hold that Aickman is best upon a second or so reading, but the immediacy of the original reading is also very powerful.

In the above episode, I quote Vladimir Nabokov's "Good Readers and Good Writers", talking about reading. I'll share it again, here:

Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.

That quote is the first reason I give in the video, that we have to work upon a text like listening to a piece of music or watching a movie, we never catch everything right off and it takes time to fully embrace every nuance (and unlike books, movies and songs are generally something it is socially acceptable to re-enjoy). By Nabokov's reasoning, you do not fully understand a book until you have gotten past the act of "moving the eyes". In this way, only after you have read a book more than once have you been able to fully appreciate the text of the book and how the whole thing works together. I am not 100% behind this, in that I think some books are not meant to be read more than once (which is another dangerous statement and I'll leave it alone), or at least were written for the excitement of the first reading moreso than any subsequent ones. As a bonus, from roughly the same place in the same Nabokov lecture, another line: "The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book."

The second reason I give is that as we read, we bring in ourselves at a given time to the reading. Our emotions, our life circumstances, our sense-of-importance we attach to text-as-read, all of these are also-read when we sit down with a book. By re-reading at a different time in our life, a different set of circumstances, you are better able to assail the boundaries you place on a book and see it as more timeless.

I became aware of the re-readability of Aickman, perhaps ironically, with an audiobook. The Reece Shearsmith audiobook of Wine-Dark Sea was picked up by me as something to listen to while out walking at night (etc). The slower, human reading of the tale forced me to listen to the gentle, slower, human elements of the story. While I had previously thought of stories like "Into the Wood" as inexplicably strange and kind of creepy, I realized that was mostly set-dressing for a story about a woman dissatisfied with suburbia but yet too out of touch with the strangeness of reality to fully face it [at least at first]. I've enjoyed Aickman since the first time I read Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories (which has "Ringing the Changes"), but I truly fell in love with his writing on the second (and later) readings.

You can watch my video, below:

Funnily enough, in a recent article which I had the pleasure to read yesterday, Jason Wilcox talks not only about re-reading Aickman, but about specifically re-reading "The Trains":

["The Trains"] is a story that demands re-reading, as on a first read it engages us on the level of surface narrative, while most readers will, I think, be aware that much of its significance and detail is lost if the attention is paid only to this level. A second reading should reveal its hidden paths, or the level of the 'unconscious text' (a term which seems to have been first used by the French critic Jean Bellemin-Noel, a follower of Lacan). Which is not to say that Aickman as author is unconscious of this deeper level: on the contrary, I would say that he is writing most, if not all, his best stories with this level very much in mind.

That is from Jason Wilcox's "The Shadow Woman: A Re-reading of Robert Aickman's 'The Trains'", published in Wormwood 24 (i.e. The Spring 2015 issue). The gist of the article starts with, "it could be said that to attempt to 'understand' Aickman's stories is to fall into a trap...", but he holds that certain stories can be understood, and the article is him attempting to analyze "The Trains" by an "unconscious" understanding [that is, that elements of the story can be taken as a indicative of the story's unstated, though present, intent].

Warning, I'm going to spoil some elements of the story to discuss Wilcox's article. Leave now if you still need to read the story and care about specific plot points.

I believe Wilcox to be spot-on to point out the juxtaposition between Margaret and Beech (and between the largely unused Guest House with the Roper House). Margaret is a confused character. She is unsure of herself, but on the surface is merely plain. Beech's self-doubt is manifested in cross-dressing (and enhanced by a largely unexplored strange black ring, which could possibly be a sign of cult-like activity, or of secret marriage). In both, the real character is underneath, and in both the companion-of-choice—Mimi and Wendley, respectively—is a person that seems to be more socially acceptable though hides other layers. Much in the way the pattern of four-stones-to-a-map-of-a-house motif shows a reflection of the sad Guest House and the Miss Roper-less "Miss Roper's House", the character of Margaret can be understood by Beech and vice versa.

However, Wilcox links this to an attraction of Margaret for Mimi. This I am unsure about. While sexual confusion is there, and while Margaret is more positive in her assessment of Mimi's looks than of any man the story has to offer, I see it instead as Margaret being more jealous of Mimi's ability to wear herself in public, while Margaret cannot. As for lines such as the taboo of Beech barging in and of some of the discussions of sex and gender matters—not mention the quote about "you know what love is", which is perhaps Beech over-assuming—, this story still feels to me to be a comment on the gendered Victorian ghost story. What should not have mattered in a modern world, a female family servant to a male family member, becomes corrupt and confused because the house itself is a ghost of an earlier time.

Wilcox's interpretation bests mine, mind you, in that it asks the pertinent question of why bother with such a set-up, and does a nice job of comparing Margaret's killing of Beech with her own sexual confusion. I simply think assuming Margaret wanting more from Mimi besides to feel accepted is possibly, to quote Wilcox's own line, "a trap".

Is definitely worth a read, though, and is a good example of how Aickman comes across in layers, and how those layers show up not on first glances, but on subsequent ones.

Nabokov, Vladimir. "Good Readers and Good Writers". As collected in Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

Wilcox, Jason. "The Shadow Woman: A Re-reading of Robert Aickman's 'The Trains'". Wormwood 24, Spring 2015.

Robert Aickman


Written by Doug Bolden

For those wishing to get in touch, you can contact me in a number of ways

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The longer, fuller version of this text can be found on my FAQ: "Can I Use Something I Found on the Site?".

"The hidden is greater than the seen."