Why is Compulsory Games, selected stories by Robert Aickman, as it is?
During his lifetime, Aickman published seven story collections (seven, if we include We Are for the Dark). After his death in 1981, Night Voices added five tales to the roster of originals; in 2015, Tartarus Press published The Strangers and Other Writings, a miscellany with a few excellent, previously uncollected (but not unpublished) stories.
When I first noted Aickman’s stories, sometime during the mid-nineties, it was difficult to find copies of his books (at least in the States). Book Club editions of Cold Hand in Mine were easy to get, the occasional Painted Devils (the only selected to be published during Aickman’s lifetime), and Peter Straub’s nicely complimentary selected, The Wine Dark Sea. Aickman’s novels and memoirs were the stuff of legend, especially The Late Breakfasters (1964).
Tartarus published the two-volume The Collected Stories of Robert Aickman in 2001. Not a compendium I could recommend—it was fabulously expensive, somewhere in the vicinity of a hundred bucks. I sure as heck wasn’t going to lend anyone my copy. I was a little afraid to read it myself. (Copies now fetch between $300 and $1000.) Tartarus also published The Attempted Rescue, the first of his two memoirs. Still pricey. (They’ve reprinted it—it’s about $40, totally worth it.)
Beginning in 2011, Tartarus has beautifully reprinted all his collections (about $40 a pop—not at all easy on the completist’s wallet). There’re a couple titles from Faber & Faber that’re more reasonable.
The point of all this is to say that while it’s easier to obtain Aickman’s work that it was circa 1996, it’s still costly, so whenever a paperback appears I’m pleased, and I was more than pleased to see NYRB add Aickman to their roster. And Compulsory Games, edited for NYRB by Victoria Nelson, is excellent—as far as the stories are concerned. But, so would be any handful of Aickman stories. Imagine you had a pile of Aickman collections in your basement, and they all got mildewed, so you could only read a couple stories from each collection—the mildew would have thus edited a selection, and all the stories would be excellent.
Compulsory Games is a selected, but selected from just four Aickman collections: Tales of Love and Death (1977), Intrusions (1980), Night Voices (1985) and The Strangers and Other Writings. That is, from the last four collections, two of them posthumous. Furthermore, Compulsory Games includes every story from Tales of Love and Death except one (“Growing Boys”—a story I love, thank you very much). I think that’s weird.
Maybe it’s something to do with Aickman’s estate, I dunno. I wish NYRB would simply have reprinted Tales of Love and Death. Aickman as Aickman assembled himself.
Nelson’s introduction generally describes what Aickman does, drawing on Aickman’s own notes about ghost stories (gleaned from his Fontana ghost story anthologies); I most appreciate the way she highlights his women characters: “He seems to like them better than men, actually”—certainly true. There’s a little biography in there too. Fortunately, she doesn’t look for his influence in contemporary authors (I’ve yet to encounter an author I’d call his “heir”).
Even though I’m perplexed by the nature of Compulsory Games, and would direct the curious first to the inexpensive Faber & Faber reprints of the original collections—Dark Entries (1964) and Cold Hand in Mine (1975)—I’m happy NYRB has taken an interest in Aickman.