Outside, the bells seemed to be booming and bounding immediately over their heads…
‘They’re ringing to wake the dead.’
Gerald had turned very pale. ‘That’s a figure of speech,’ he said, hardly to be heard.
Nope, it’s not. The church bells really are ringing to wake the dead, as they do on one night every year in the curiously deserted seaside village of Holihaven. Gerald, who has checked into its one dingy hotel with his young wife for an off-season break, should be cursing the fact that TripAdvisor doesn’t exist yet. It’s far, far too late to leave. And besides, we (the readers) really do want to see exactly what will be coming up the main street from the sea. I turned on the radio once, only to hear this dialogue and – despite the mid-morning warmth – immediately felt the temperature drop. I’d accidently tuned into a Radio 4 programme about Robert Aickman and was hooked. Ringing The Changes is perhaps his most famous short story. The plaintive ‘That’s a figure of speech’ is a little masterstroke: by that time, even Gerald doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. It’s all ridiculous, of course, but utterly chilling. It’s a good one for Halloween, as are the other five stories in Dark Entries, published in 1964. Outsiders feature heavily. Quite apart from poor Gerald, there is Clarinda in Bind Your Hair, who spends the weekend at her fiancé’s parents’ place in rural Northamptonshire and begins to have doubts. ‘His London personality seemed merely a bait with which to entice her into the capacious family lobster pot,’ she thinks. Typical of Aickman for the metaphor to involve death by boiling water. I’ve always thought there was something slightly odd about Northamptonshire, and Clarinda’s experience in its misty, muddy byways bears this out. In The School Friend an innocently terrifying question is posed: ‘Do you love children, Mel? Would you like to see my baby?’ You need to read it. Aickman wasn’t short of self-confidence, considering MR James something of a hack when placed next to his own extraordinary abilities. He was also co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association, dedicated to preserving Britain’s canals. This is proof that it takes all sorts.