John Magwitch’s Thesis on Robert Aickman & Cannibalism

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…”

“Also in the pantry were traces of proteinous foodstuffs which the hired staff
had withheld and taken home to sell.”


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.

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
lines later.


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?


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19 responses to “John Magwitch’s Thesis on Robert Aickman & Cannibalism

  1. I think these subtle references to cannibalism are just the sort of things the trickster Aickman would do. And they are very subtle, as so much of Aickman is.

    I note a terrifying violence simmering underneath the surface of Aickman’s stories–once again very subtle. Of course cannibalism is taboo for our society. I wonder if someone who has read Freud’s Totem and Taboo could relate what Freud has said about the things in our world that are taboo. I plan to read this work by Freud to see.

    • Thanks, Gary.

      As an additional separate point…

      One quotation that has haunted me ever since I started reading Aickman decades ago was this from THE CICERONES:

      “Next to her hung a further small picture, showing a saint carrying his own skin.”

      This was essentially Aickman-like for me, deliciously impenetrable with a meaning beyond itself, until I read this TLO thread about St Bartholomew.

      But now I wonder………?

  2. Of course that is an allusion to the saint. Aickman’s allusions or so subtle and fleeting that all one can do is wonder until . . . .

  3. … Or a double allusion, to St Bartholomew *and* to flesh as separable from the soul… a spiritual self-cannibalism where the body is food for the spirit??…

  4. There is more potential discussion on this topic on the Robert Aickman thread here:

  5. Possible additional recommended reading: THE CANNIBAL KINGS OF HORROR by Mark Samuels in his collection GLYPHOTECH AND OTHER MACABRE PROCESSES (PS Publishing 2008)

  6. Gary, It is a satirical fiction about the Horror genre scene. Obliquely relevant to the Cannibalism debate. I was being slightly facetious in mentioning it here, but it is a wonderful rumbustious story.

    • I don’t know what to think about all this – but below is, I believe, after some searching, a passage from Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS regarding Magwitch as told in Pip’s narration.
      (The person who started the wonderful thread on All Hallows was named John Magwitch.)

      [[“You young dog,” said the man, licking his lips, “what fat cheeks you ha’

      I believe they were fat, though I was at that time undersized for my years, and not strong.

      “Darn me if I couldn’t eat em,” said the man, with a threatening shake of his head, “and if I han’t half a mind to’t!” ]]

  7. Magwitch later says in Great Expectations to Pip:

    [[“…and your heart and liver shall be tore out, roasted and ate. Now, I ain’t
    alone, as you may think I am. There’s a young man hid with me, in comparison
    with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver.”]]

    I am enthralled…

    • I’ve acquired a copy of Freud’s Totem and Taboo, and he talks about cannibalism among primitives as a magical experience. In eating the flesh of another human, the native takes on the qualities of the person whose flesh he has eaten. Aickman was well-read in Freud, and he could have been aware of Freud’s remarks on cannibalism among primitives.

  8. In response to Gary’s comments about Totem and Taboo – I read this at Manchester University some years ago (1985) Even at the time it was considered outdated and it was mostly concerned with incest. Taboo can perhaps best be seen as boundary behaviour. A social group will set a boundary and a few individuals will cross that boundary. In some cases these are entrepreneurs who will after time change the boundary and in others the transgression will result in punishment. Guilt feelings associated with boundary transgressions belong to psychology but social anthropology generally looks at groups.

    An example. You would think cannibalism is universally condemned as wrong, taboo, monstrous but there are a few societies where it has been accepted. The key is in the context. When a member of the east African Dinka tribe hears his father is dead he has to steel himself to the following ordeal. Three months after burial he will dig up his father and eat the rotted flesh from the shin bone. It’s a ritual which probably like many of these rituals has something to do with incorporating the spirit of the dead back into the group – Healing social gaps. Most people know that certain new Guinea tribes ate the brains of foes and there are other examples of eating one of two twins born to a tribe. Amongst certain tribes man was referred to as ‘long pig’.

  9. Having completed my month-long real-time review of THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN by Thomas Mann (HERE), I am convinced that it must have been an enormous influence, outweighing any other influence, on the fiction of Robert Aickman. This is not only because of the similarity I seem to be the first to observe between The Hospice and The House Berghof, and their residents, and their meals, but also because of many other factors, including tone and beguiling disarming undercurrents and tropes, an absurd-weirdness that borders on nightmare as well as rationality.

  10. Meanwhile, some of you may remember the Aickman and Cannibalism thread that John Magwitch broached some time ago. I recorded it for posterity HERE
    Well, you may not be surprised to learn that there is a significant cannibalistic dream scene in Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain’ that, during my
    real-time review, I recorded at the start of the page HERE
    But only those with strong stomachs should look at that!

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