Robert Aickman’s strange stories (1): “Meeting Mr. Millar”

Robert Aickman’s “strange stories” are epistemological in nature. Consistently, each story portrays an increasingly baffling series of events. The events rarely culminate in some horrifying revelation (comprehensible or otherwise). Instead, they end with the obstruction of all possible access to that which has occurred, why the events in question have taken place, and the general significance of what has happened. Indeed, the events themselves are often almost completely obscure. At best, Aickman’s protagonists speculate. They are lost in abysses of exclusion and uncertainty.

For example, in “Meeting Mr. Millar,” the affairs of the eponymous character, ostensibly an accountant, are largely more opaque than nefarious. The protagonist, a mild-mannered writer and part-time editor, observes the arrival in the building where he lives of Mr. Millar and his firm, which displaces a small press responsible for the publication of a political broadsheet called Freedom. Millar, whose emotional distance and peculiarities alienate him from the protagonist and the other residents of the building (particularly a beleaguered housewife named Maureen, with whom the protagonist conducts an occasional affair), conducts his business seemingly at all times of the day and night.

The business in question the protagonist cannot rightly identify, for although it seems to involve a tremendous amount of noise and a high volume of visitors, many of whom appear disreputable, none of that which he overhears has much to do with accounting – or with anything at all determinate, for that matter. Rather, the purpose of Millar’s business just seems to be busyness itself, or else, perhaps, something vaguely criminal. It is also hinted that Millar might be involved in some species of pornography, although Aickman addresses this with his usual circumspection (and it introduce a further level of slight intrigue, as Aickman makes it clear that the protagonist, in order to make ends meet, finds it necessary to edit pulp pornographic novels). Over the course of his tenure in the building, Millar becomes increasingly harried, and his clients, if that is indeed what they are, become louder, seedier, and more threatening.

Late in the story, three passages, in particular, jump out.

Passage 1: The unknown downstairs

Everything remained silent and as usual on the Saturday night, while I worked away on some rubbish from Major Valentine; but after I had gone to bed, quite late, I was awakened by the noise of somebody moving about downstairs. Almost my first conscious thought was that the noise was nothing like loud enough to have actually awakened me. Then I remembered that it was a Saturday-Sunday night when there should (as I thought) have been no noise inside the building at all. I realized that my unconscious mind might have taken stock of this fact and sent out an alarm. I was frightened already, but that thought made me more frightened. The noise was totally unlike the usual stamping and banging. I could hardly hear it at all; and was soon wondering whether the whole thing was not fancy, a disturbance inside my own ears and head. But I could not quite convince myself of this as I lay there rigid with listening, while the gleam from the street lamp far below seemed to isolate my small bedroom from the blackness of so much around me. […] It was my duty to take action. I made my muscles relax, and with a big effort jumped out of bed. In the most banal way, I seized the bedroom poker. (At that time, even central London attics still had fireplaces.) I opened the door into my sitting-room, darker than the bedroom, but not so dark that I could not cross with certitude to the outer door, where the light-switch was. Without turning on the light, I opened the outer door. I looked down my pitch-dark flight of stairs. When a light was on further down I could from this point always see the glow. Now there was no light. I became aware that a smell was wafting up. It was quite faint, at least where I was, but, none the less, extremely pungent and penetrating. I must admit that the expression ‘a graveyard smell’ leapt into my mind at the first whiff of it. Even a faint whiff was quite enough to make me feel sick in a moment. But I managed to hang on, even to listen with all the intentness I could muster. There could be no doubt about the reality of the sounds beneath me; but every doubt about what caused them. Something or someone was shuffling and rubbing about in the almost total darkness: I found it impossible to decide on which landing or on which part of the staircase. In a flight of rather absurd logic, the thought of a blind person came to me. But, truly, the sounds hardly seemed human at all: more like a heavy sack wearily dragging about on its own volition, not able to manage very well, and perhaps anxious not to disturb the wrong person. As well as feeling sick – really sick, as if about to be sick – I was trembling so much that no difficult further decision was needed: investigation was just physically impossible. I withdrew into my own territory, and locked my door as quietly as I could.

The following day, one of Millar’s clients visits the protagonist rather rudely, and they have the following dialogue.

Passage 2: The interrogation

‘Seen anyone about?’ ‘Since when?’ I asked. ‘Yesterday or today,’ said the man, as if it hardly needed saying, which of course it did not. ‘No,’ I said truthfully. ‘No, I don’t think so.’ ‘Or heard?’ asked the man, staring at me still harder, consciously breaking me down. ‘What should I have heard?’ ‘People or things,’ said the man. ‘Have you?’ ‘Out of the ordinary, I suppose you mean?’ I was merely gaining time, but the vigour of the man’s affirmation shook me. ‘If you like.’ I was, in fact, so shaken that I hesitated. ‘What happened?’ asked the man. It was the tone the prefects used to learn in public schools for interrogating the juniors. ‘I don’t know what it was,’ I replied with extreme weakness of spirit. Doubtless I should have played my part as new boy and asked what business it was of his. ‘So they’ve arrived,’ said the man, much more thoughtfully. One might almost have supposed him awed, if such a man had been capable of awe. I felt a little stronger; as if life had passed from him to me. ‘Who do you mean by they?’ I asked. ‘I’m not telling you that, my boy,’ said the man; now within distant sight of equal terms. ‘What I’m telling you is that you’ll never see me again for dust. There’s an end to all things. Thanks for the tip-off.’ And he clumped off. In a moment, I heard his reverberant car explode into life and charge away as if unscorchable entities would any moment be clutching at the exhaust-pipe.

Befuddled and frightened, the protagonist goes to visit Maureen. Upon finding that she has had a sudden nervous breakdown, cause unknown, he has a short dialogue with her husband, a quietly unhappy factory worker. He tells the husband that the apartment house is “all wrong” and that he intends to move. The husband asks him why, and he refers to the disruptive presence of Millar and his firm, although it is never stated exactly what precisely has occurred. The implication seems to be that the protagonist suspects Millar of murder, at the very least. But nothing is certain.

Passage 3: The conversation

‘The people on the floors above don’t run a normal business.’ His brow creased slightly. ‘I agree with you.’ ‘I don’t know what they do.’ […] We paused a moment, lapping coffee. ‘Are you clairvoyant?’ he asked. ‘Not that I know of. I’m probably too young.’ He was perhaps six or seven years older, despite all those children. ‘Why? Do you think I’ve imagined it all?’ I put it quite amiably. ‘It just struck me for one moment that you might have seen into the future. All those people slavishly doing nothing. It’ll be exactly like that one day, you know, if we go on as we are. For a moment it all sounded to me like a vision of 40 years on – if as much.’ […] ‘There’s a bit more. Something rather different.’ ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ ‘I think I should.’ ‘Sorry the coffee’s finished.’ ‘It was good.’ ‘Well?’ So I told him about the even odder events of that morning and of the night before. After all, I had to tell someone. ‘So we’ve got the Un-Dead in too?’ he commented. I stared at him. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked. Isn’t that more or less what you were implying?’ I must have continued to stare at him. ‘Or did you mean something quite different?’ ‘On the contrary,’ I replied, ‘I think you’ve got it. It’s just that it never occurred to me.’ ‘That you were visited by a creature from another world than this? Or supposed you were. I thought that was your point.’ ‘What never occurred to me was —’ I couldn’t quite say it. ‘I’ve told you,’ I went on, ‘that Mr Millar gave me the impression of having something very much on his mind.’ ‘A haunted man, in fact. Yes, I got that,’ said Gilbert. I cannot pretend that my voice did not sink a little foolishly. ‘This house might be haunted by the ghost of his victim.’ Maureen’s husband looked straight at me. ‘Victims. Didn’t your friend in green put it in the plural?’ ‘Mr Millar might be always on the move, always running away. And going through the hoops in the attempt to forget. Through all the hoops he can find. […]’ […] ‘[…] Why do you call him Mr Millar?’ I could see that it might irritate a Harrovian. But my answer, though a mere inspiration of the moment, I rather liked. ‘To link him with the rest of the world. He’s the one who needs it.’ ‘I see,’ said Maureen’s husband. ‘I’ll think about what you’ve told me. I’ve never doubted that Millar was a dead loss. I suppose I’ve kept away from him for that reason. Of course we’re not in a position to move just at the moment. You might say that tangible factors outweigh the intangible. So forgive me if I don’t offer to sit up with you waiting for the line of nameless horrors. […] If you come screaming down the stairs at any time, don’t hesitate to knock me up. Knock hard, because I sleep hard after slopping all day at the filthy shop. Besides, it might scare away the apparitions.’”

The protagonist leaves. In the following week, he tries to find another place to live, but fails. Maureen returns. They run into each other in the hall. On retreating to the protagonist’s attic apartment for an assignation, he lightheartedly tries Millar’s door, which swings open. Aickman writes: “I tried to push Maureen out, but I failed. Mr Millar was hanging there, in the outer office for all to see; and from a large hook, meant for hanging overcoats on a wall, which he, or someone, must have spent much time screwing into the plaster of the ceiling, or rather, I imagine, through the ceiling into one of the wooden joists of my floor above. The most curious thing was that though there was no detectable movement of air in the room, the body swung back and forth quite perceptibly, as if it had been made of papier mache, or some other feather-weight expendable. Even the clothes looked papery and insubstantial. Was it the real Mr Millar at all who dangled there? It was remarkably hard to be sure.”

Then everything returns to normal.

One thing that is interesting about this story in particular (a number of Aickman’s other stories also suggest themselves, re: similar structures and themes, e.g., “The Swords,” “Ravissante,” and “The Clock Watcher”) is how Aickman makes the protagonist essentially unrelated to the series of events which he only indirectly and partially observes. To put it too simply, the “real story” here is Millar’s. In a more traditional horror story, Millar would be the protagonist, and the events preceding his death would be central to the plot. One can easily imagine this story written by H. P. Lovecraft (e.g., “The Thing on the Doorstep”), concluding with Millar’s terrified confrontation by the vengeful corpse of his victim.

But in Aickman’s story, it’s not even clear that Millar has any victims. Indeed, what has even occurred is partly unclear, but Aickman, as usual, skillfully implies that this lack of clarity stems from the protagonist’s fundamental lack of access to what has occurred. Something happened, a story unfolded, but that story is only observed imperfectly and from afar. The protagonist doesn’t understand what has happened, and that which he knows, he probably gets wrong.

More about Aickman later.