Review: “Larger Than Oneself”, Robert Aickman, 1966.
Aickman’s tales are famously obscure and this, the third of his I’ve read, is no exception.
There are certainly odd events and odd people. But plenty of stories with no fantastic element have those. That doesn’t make a story weird.
The description Aickman favored, “strange tales”, is apt — not ghost stories, not supernatural tales, not weird fiction.
And nothing supernatural or mystical may happen in this story though there is suggestion it does.
Aickman, according to a documentary I watched on him, was famously at odds with the modern. He regretted the passing of a world he just caught the tail end of with his birth in 1914: an aristocratic England of less mechanization. The latter, for instance, manifested in his involvement in reviving the disused canals, “inland waterways”, of England.
That dis-ease shows itself in the opening paragraph where we are introduced to Vincent Coner, a man who cashed out of his inherited mining operations and bought into “popular journalism with himself as editor in chief”. His publications find a market, which we’re told they wouldn’t have in any other place or time, selling “the sweet things in life . . . smeared and contaminated with envious guilt”.
Coner’s pet project, as a “typical man of his time”, is to synthesize “the best of this world and the best of the next.”. This “almost paranoiac pursuit of self-integration” leads him to mysticism and abstruse philosophy (“even the first thirty pages of Ouspensky”). He decides to host a symposium at his house, the usual household staff to be replaced by hired caterers. He hopes that, out of the competing visions of his guests from “newer spiritual movements”, a “deadbeat world” will get “metaphysical immunization against its own shadow”.
But Coner is not the story’s protagonist, just a character who creates the super saturated solution of personalities and mysticism which something strange may precipitate out of.
The main character is Mrs. Iblis. It’s an odd name. It’s also symbolic. Iblis is the Islamic equivalent of Satan (at least according to the Web of a Million Lies). Does that make Mrs. Iblis the wife of the devil? We’ll return to that question later.
Iblis shows up at Coner’s house while his symposium is in session, coincidentally at the same time as “prosperous businessman” Stillman and the rather disheveled Ruth and her obsolete luggage.
Still, it’s the chatty Ruth, complaining about the difficulties of getting around by train, who is warmly greeted by Coner though Ruth has shown up uninvited.
Stillman and Iblis aren’t on the invitation list, “suspect guests”. Coner tells his assistant Mavis he leaves the matter up to her discretion but he doesn’t want any guests “unless they harmonize”.
Iblis has to share a room in the large house with Sister Nuper – the dietary advisor and supplier of answers on matters of “personal hygiene as well”. If Nuper, “an extremely good-looking woman of bold proportions” and seen in her underwear and furry slippers before she walks past Iblis without a word, possesses any symbolic importance it may be in her name, a Latin word meaning “newly, lately, recently”. The connotation of youth fits in with her appearance and non-adult garb. We’ll see if anything else is implied.
Iblis looks over Nuper’s opulent room, complete with a “ghastly and lurid cartoon of the Crucifixion by Edward Burra” which may or may not be in favor of religion. She also comes across a
bedside book entitled Bowel Discipline . . . a lesser work by a well-known member of the Labor party
which, I suppose, is Aickman being snarky.
Iblis makes her way down stairs to the “melee” of about fifty people in the Forum.
As much as anything is important in this story, there is a scene where Iblis chats up Ruth, the only person there she’s spoken to before. Ruth doesn’t have a clue because she’s “strictly orthodox”, orthodox as in a “Full Anglican” and accepts “the Thirty-Nine Articles” unconditionally. Iblis chimes in with a mild agreement. Ruth gives her a spot quiz on the exact words of Article Thirty-Three. It’s the one about an excommunicated Anglicans needing to be reconciled by penance and a judge to the “whole multitude of the faithful “. Iblis can’t recite it, and Ruth tells her she’s no Anglican.
Ruth goes on to say she does penance daily because she’s sinful but not wicked, Sin, she says, requires a “sense of something larger than oneself”.
Ruth leaves Iblis. The latter has several encounters with various symposium attendants. Each has their pet hobby horse, their prescribed path to enlightenment.
There’s the Swiss, Professor Borgia, who says reading won’t do it. We must grope for “the spirit”.
An unidentified woman seconds Borgia, asking “What is the use of words if the spirit is wrong?” That causes Iblis to think there’s a remarkably little respect for words of those who use them so much. (I suppose you could see this as Aickman satirizing certain sorts of contemporary intellectuals and spiritual seekers.)
Another is a Canadian, an editor and publisher. He thinks every man and woman is yearning for a “big spiritual revival” – which he facilitates by having Bible quotes in every one of his magazines and ministerial “words of cheer”. He goes on to say “denominations, creeds, dogmas, rituals” are nothing compared to “man’s eternal quest for something larger”. When asked by Iblis if this symposium is going to lead to anything, he assures her it will: “There’s just nothing that can’t be had if you’ll give your soul to it.”.
He gets interrupted by a friend who tells him the best stuff “comes from inside the Salvation Army”.
It’s off to the billiard room and the crowd of handsome young men gathered around Nuper garbed in a stylish nurse’s uniform like something out of a silent movie. Above the room, through the high windows, a “livid autumnal glare” shines through. The equinox? ponders Iblis.
Nuper, incidentally, says to the young men she worships St. Nicholas.
The next party bore is O’Rorke, “founder of the New Vision Movement”. He thinks the world needs a new faith. No more prostration before “medieval anthropomorphism”.
“Evil is, after all, so very small,” he proclaims.
“Is it?”, asks Iblis.
There is a significant bit here where O’Rorke goes on about how small the Devil is. He stumbles over Iblis name, the name of the Devil in fact, before he goes on to declaim God, the spirit of the universe, speaks through him.
Coner’s wife then shows up and helps Iblis escape with the excuse of not feeling well.
Retiring upstairs, Iblis has an encounter with Lady Cecilia Capulet. If, as said earlier, truth lies in Salvation Army literature, it doesn’t seem to be of much concern to Lady Capulet. She leaves her book behind, departs in her fetching Salvation Army uniform (“The number it fetches might surprise you,”) after stating the Forum will give out if glands aren’t stimulated.
More bores and more hunger for Iblis. She hasn’t eaten since that morning.
So, it’s downstairs again for a brief chat with Ruth, another glimpse of Nuper cooing to the men about her, her shapely legs ending in very high heels. Iblis gets some mediocre cake from the caterers.
Iblis next speaks to Coner who thinks the symposium is going splendid though “no real synthesis has emerged”. He wants to know what Iblis thinks of the whole affair. She can’t venture an opinion. She’s whoozy on Coner’s homemade alcoholic cider.
She tells him he has, as a publisher, power over people’s mind but it’s a “terrible thing”.
Then Coner blurts out that Iblis should really wear black, a look she can pull off unlike younger women. Then he puts his hand on her to show just how low cut that black dress should be. Then Coner finally asks Iblis her name and wants to tell her his life story.
He speaks, eventually burbles, about how the human mind is just a “minnow” and needs a guide. Following Aickman’s own belief in Freud, he talks about the subconscious mind is so much larger than the conscious.
It’s now past 11 pm, and it’s raining and thundering.
When Coner tells Iblis that everyone there is just trying to find themselves
“I gather not,” rejoined Mrs. Iblis, with what might almost have been acerbity. “You’re all trying to find something larger than yourselves.”
Just as Iblis is finding the evening pleasant at last, Nuper and her male admirers, twelve to be exact, go for a walk. Or maybe something more given Coner’s reaction.
Iblis finally gets to bed only to be awakened by Mavis the secretary.
She is worried. Mrs. Coner is sleeping in her usual drugged manner. Everybody else is out of their room, and there’s a “queer light” outside. And Mavis claims there shouldn’t be a moon that night. She knows. She composts on a lunar cycle.
Everybody in the house is in their nightclothes and staring at the front door. Ruth starts to open it which causes, in the others, a “conflict between a dreadful curiosity and the instinct to flee”.
Through the doorway is a “strange luminosity” and a shape, a shape that reminds Iblis of “the feet of the gods on the mountain”.
The Forum members creep outside. Mavis, Stillman, and Iblis go to the roof. There they see the Forum members huddling about the garden wall. To Iblis, the light seems to come from a “vast shining figure” filling earth and sky. Mavis is terrified, Stillman unmoved, and Iblis looks into the sky. “ . . . what she saw nearly finished her.”
On being revived, Stillman tells her the other Forum members have “merged”, to never be seen again. They all got what they wanted, and the light is gone.
Downstairs they find Coner, blurbing again of needing something larger than himself as he knocks back the whiskey.
Then the conclusion which drags the supernatural back to the quotidian.
Nuper and admirers show up, “cheerful and gay” though their clothes are disordered and muddy. Iblis doesn’t like the way Nuper looks:
Her eyes were filled with such happiness that Mrs. Iblis was thoroughly scared all over again.
Iblis packs her things and leaves and the story ends.
Unlike his most famous story, “The Hospice”, this story has at least something paranormal, something fantastic in it. There is that light. The Forum disappeared.
What were Nuper and crowd up to? An orgy? A religious rite which does bring something new, as per her name, into the world? Is she some sort of Antichrist with her own twelve apostles?
Why do we have a character married, at least in her name, to the Devil? A character who sees danger in this quest for transcendence, or, at least, distaste for its result? Has the modern world birthed something to abhorrent for the Devil and his mate?
Then again, maybe something that makes the Devil’s wife recoil at its joy is a good thing.
What’s up with Nuper’s sexy nurse’s garb and reading about bowel habits? An Aickman comment on body obsessions of the modern world?
What’s up with sexy Salvation Army woman? Did Aickman regard it as a sham religious cult having nothing to offer? (I have no knowledge of Aickman’s religious beliefs though he was interested enough in the paranormal to joint the Society for Psychical Research and investigate haunted houses.)
You get the point. If I’ve done a good job with the plot summary, you can come up with more questions.
If you gauge your weird fiction by how many unanswered questions it generates, you have to put Aickman near the top of the list of writers. If you judge it by presenting a satisfying story, well . .