As I've repeated quite a few times already, I'm a sucker for short stories. They tempt me - they are bite-sized novels. I can't resist. Open Road Media sure knew what they were doing when they send me a collection of short stories and by an author I'd never heard about before, no less. Well, it turns out he was a great poet, novelist, literary critic, and father of two great writers (Jane and Joan Aiken).
I liked the Collected Stories, but it was as uneven as any other collection out there, specially taking into account that this collects the whole literary production of Conrad Aiken in the field of short stories, from the 1920s to the 1960s. We can see how Conrad grew and matured through his writing. And many things happened in those forty years: a world war, civil rights, women liberation, the first instances of the technological revolution that would shape our century. This is all reflected in Aiken's worldview, and it's a delight to see that world change through his work.
However, whatever the theme or the subject is, there are two constants to his stories:
1) Great quality of prose. I mean, the man has a Pulitzer, so it's not like y'all needed me to point this out, but his writing is like poetry. It is precious in its simplicity. Honestly, it reads like a writer's writer if I ever saw one.
2) An autobiographical streak. Because, see, Conrad Aiken didn't have an easy childhood. His father killed his mother one day and then committed suicide, leaving Conrad orphaned. This, of course, marked Aiken very deeply, who proceeded to explore different kinds of mental instability in his stories.
He explores the human condition - the good and the bad. Mainly the bad. Infidelity, pettiness, betrayal. What takes to ditch social mores. What happens when one ditches them. Is a killer insane or just off the social path? How does one get off? Is it slowly or just all at once? In many cases, there is a Christian sensibility to his stories: often religion is not the answer, or at least the persons who practice this religion are flawed.
Much as I liked his social/human stories, I couldn't help enjoying his horror stories even better. Which unfortunately were few and far between. The horror of Aiken is quiet and chilling, in a way that reminds me of Poe. In fact, his most anthologized short stories belong to this genre: Mr. Arcularis and Silent Snow, Secret Snow. He actually wrote a ghost story like no other, a story that is so good that is now in my top ten best short stories ever: State of Mind. It is so subtle, well-written, bone-chilling and reflective at the same time that it is a perfect story indeed.
I have to recommend this, it was a great book. Conrad Aiken is unjustly forgotten. Let's hope this new edition will bring up a little bit of recognition to Aiken.