I would like to share a very exciting thesis presented by John Magwitch on the All Hallows internet discussion forum in the last few days. He has given me permission to use his words on my blog.
JM: I’ve reread some of Aickman’s short stories recently and am left with the impression that cannibalism–literally, as in people consuming human flesh (though in a delicately implied way, of course)–was something of a recurring motif, at least among those I revisited. First, there’s “Mark Ingestre, the Customer’s Tale” to consider, which piece suggests at least a strong interest on the author’s part in the “legend” of Sweeney Todd. Then two tales–“The Hospice” and “The Inner Room”–that seem to make explicit (well, explicit for Aickman, anyway) references to acts of cannibalism, as central features of each story; “The Hospice” in particular, read a certain way, could almost be a refashioning of the Sweeney Todd story, spiced up with a touch of Aickmanesque enigmatism.
Are there any other titles that come to mind? Maybe not. I certainly wouldn’t suggest, on this basis, that cannibalism has some broader significance in Aickman’s fiction. What’s worth noting here is the rare talent on display in these stories, which summon a powerful sense of horror from the merest intimations of this grisly act, this last taboo, without so much as the hint of a single spilled drop of blood.
DFL: I think I see what you mean. Not overt, but an undertaste.
From your post, I imagined him sitting on one of the thankfully dark Aickman Islands … around a campfire, the sounds and smells of roasting wafting…
Some of his stories are also about plastic surgery, I recall. The obvious after-effect?
DFL: “On the warm, wintry grass before them lay what was left of a human body. / The
boys had already eaten their way through most of it…”
from GROWING BOYS
“Also in the pantry were traces of proteinous foodstuffs which the hired staff
had withheld and taken home to sell.”
from LARGER THAN ONESELF
DFL: At the end of THE INNER ROOM, there is a fingering of the protagonist’s clothes
repeatedly – almost like feeling a prime piece of meat??, and “the youngest was
passing her dry, pointed tongue over her lower lip.” And the sinister reference
to entertainment followed by ‘It is the room where we eat.’
JM: Yes. Thank you, Des. That hidden inner room… perhaps cannibalism represented to Aickman a kind of “ultimate horror” as being buried alive was for Poe. A horror so appalling to him (and perhaps, at the same time, a source of appalled fascination) he had to hide it away in that unseen room, and could only address it through the most oblique references. Or, of course, perhaps not.
Incidentally, maybe, I note that “The Cicerones” also features a similarly mysterious room which we are unable to see into, but in which, we can be sure, terrifying things occur. A story that deals (in a typically disturbingly oblique way) with the grisly horrors the history of Christianity (and perhaps, by extension, all religions) is so rife with. And wasn’t it Christianity that elevated cannibalism to a sacred ritual?
And, of course, how could I forget “Growing Boys”?
DFL: “No breakfast, no man,,” my father had always said.
–from MEETING MR MILLAR
That’s a bit *too* subtle, but Mr Millar (in a story that involves supposed
graveyard smells in the building) is found hanging from a hook….attenuated as
if the meat had been drained off his body??
Meanwhile, I daren’t explore THE SWORDS in this light!
DFL: In fact, there is an even stronger case for ‘cannibalism’ in THE INNER ROOM than
I made earlier, I feel. ‘Eat’ is changed to ‘feast’ with a dark undertone a few
DFL: From ‘The Attempted Rescue’ (RA’s autobiographical work):
“…my Father installed a costly and elaborate system of sewage disposal. The
guileless would be invited to drink from a crystal fountain at the far end of
the vast garden, and after they had confirmed the purity of the water, would be
told that it was straight from the bacteria beds.”
That’s too subtle!
As far as I can establish, however, in this RA autobiography, although there are no direct references to cannibal fantasy, there is evidence that Aickman was interested in Jean Genet’s approach to ‘phantasies’.
Genet’s work represented in turn (I understand) an expression, inter alia, of cannibalism.
That’s as far as we have got to date (6.55 pm GMT 12 Nov 2010)
Anyone else with input?