Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
Last month, to mark the centenary of horror author Robert Aickman’s birth, Faber & Faber made good on the first part of their promise to bring the best of his sinister fiction back into print. New editions of several of his short story collections are now available, including Cold Hand in Mine and Dark Entries, alongside reissues of his exceedingly rare novels The Model and The Late Breakfasters. The Wine-Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust will follow in August and September respectively.
But why wait? In truth, I couldn’t resist rummaging around the aforementioned collections for favourites, and in short order I came up with a characteristically controlled tale that scared the pee out of me when I was still in single digits. Wonderfully, I found ‘The Same Dog’ to be every bit as effective as I remembered when I reread it recently.
Hilary is the youngest Brigstock by far, and with a decade and change dividing him from his immediate elder, not to mention a fuming father and no memories of his mother, he’s a lonely soul at home. Luckily, his isolated life takes a welcome turn when he starts attending a well-to-do Surrey school. At Briarside, he forms “a close and remarkable friendship with a girl, two years older than himself, named Mary Rossiter.”
The twosome are soon inseparable—which is a touch taboo in the socially stilted fifties of the first section of ‘The Same Dog’:
The establishment liked the boys to play with the boys, the girls with the girls, and normally no admonition whatever was needed in those directions; but when it came to Hilary and Mary, the truth was that already Mary was difficult to resist when she set upon a thing. She charmed, she smiled, and she persisted. Moreover, her father was very rich.
“As for Hilary, no one greatly cared—within a wide span of hours—whether he was home or not,” to wit he and his sparkling wee sweetheart take “long, long walks [through] the rather droopy and distorted southern-Surrey countryside.” During one of these random rambles, they discover a large walled property, as forbidding as it is fascinating to Hilary… if not his other half.
And then the dog started barking—if, indeed, one could call it a bark. It was more like a steady growling roar, with a clatter mixed up in it, almost certainly of gnashing teeth: altogether something more than barking, but unmistakably canine; all the same—horribly so. Detectably it came from with the domain behind the high wall.
This—the author’s suggestion that the sound of the hound is noticeably unnatural—is about as speculative as ‘The Same Dog’ gets, yet there’s something out of the ordinary about the whole of the story, both before and after this, its most potent moment. As The League of Gentleman’s Reece Shearsmith asserts in his introduction to the new edition of Cold Hand in Mine:
Aickman tells stories that leave you haunted as if from a half-remembered nightmare. The characters he paints are often creatures of habit, pernickety, unlikeable even. But the insidious horrors that befall them are often difficult to pinpoint. One of the remarkable things about Aickman is that he rarely gives you an easy answer. There will be flashes of terror—but just as quickly it will be gone. This approach makes everything so much more real. Aickman is the master of restraint.
Quite. What’s special about these stories is that they very rarely resort to the obvious. In the best of them, their insidious elements are only ever insinuated. What they might mean is up to us. In this sense, Aickman is an author who clearly respects his readers; who trusts us to put the pivotal pieces of his puzzles together. Sometimes, I’d say, he trusts too much, but in ‘The Same Dog’ Aickman achieves the perfect balance between the obvious and the obscured.
In any case, upon hearing its howl, Hilary and Mary set about sourcing the unnatural animal. They find it lurking behind padlocked bars, gazing their way with big, flat eyes they can’t help but stare at for ages.
After the fact, Mary says some strange things, scaring her suddenly queasy companion, and the pair go their separate ways. But “the outing must have upset Hilary more than he knew, because the same evening he felt ill, and was found by Mrs Parker to have a temperature. That was the beginning of it, and the end of it was not for a period of weeks.” Hilary, however, seems to have gotten off easily, because when he returns to school on the other side of his inexplicable sickness, Mary is nowhere.
Mary, as a matter of fact, has died. “She was interfered with, and mauled about,” Hilary finds out finally, from his housekeeper. “Bitten all over, they say, poor little thing. But it’s been hushed up proper, and you’d better hurry and forget all about her. That’s all you can do, isn’t it?”
And that’s what Hilary does do. Until twenty years later, when the second half of ‘The Same Dog’ takes place… which you can find out about on your own time, folks. Know, though, that I’d resolutely recommend it. Cold Hand in Mine is an essential collection for fans of strange stories, and ‘The Same Dog’ is “so odd and yet so real,” to return to Reece Shearsmith’s shrewd ruminations, that “it leaves you haunted by the new knowledge of it.”
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.