Conrad Aiken was an American poet and author born in Savannah, Georgia in 1889 and died in Savannah in 1973 aged 84.
His family were wealthy, originally from New England, but his father was an eye surgeon who moved to Savannah.
Most bizarrely and disturbingly, Aiken’s father murdered Aiken’s mother and shot himself in 1901. Aiken was 11 at the time. He heard the shots and ran through to find the bodies. Aiken then went to live with his great aunt in Massachusetts. He went to Harvard where he became a life-long friend of the poet T S Eliot.
Aiken was deeply interested in philosophy and was taught by George Santayana. This influenced his poetry as did his admiration for the work of Walt Whitman. Aiken was also heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud and was due to go and meet him but never did, because he had second thoughts and money was running short.
Aiken was a prolific writer and very influential in literary circles. It was his influence which led to to the recognition of Emily Dickinson as a great poet.
Aiken moved to England with his Canadian wife and had three children there in Sussex. His daughter Joan became a well-known writer of children’s stories, including the famous Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
Aiken was divorced in 1929 and then he returned to America. He suffered from nervous problems and was terribly frightened he was going mad. He attempted suicide at least once.
Conrad Aiken published Mr Arcularis in 1931. It was selected by the Library of America for inclusion in a two hundred year retrospective volume of American fantastic tales.
Mr Arcularis is a strangely disquieting story. Not quite a ghost story, because he isn’t dead but dreaming until the end. The narrative becomes more dreamlike as it goes on and is threaded with the fantastic.
The unsettling oddness has something of Robert Aickman’s stories to it. It’s not a moral story either. I suppose, to me it’s a curiosity — very well put together. And, on reflection if all art is to make us feel something and that is its main purpose - to work in us at the level of feelings rather than thought, then it certainly works. The description of journeys among distant frosty stars is very beautiful.
It actually reminds me of when I was much younger and had some teeth out under general anaesthetic. In those days it was done by gas with a rubber mask clamped on my mouth while I struggled by the dentist. I had weird dreams that morphed in and out of reality and featured hints that I was having teeth out. This story reminds me of that rather unpleasant experience.
It’s hard to know what Conrad Aiken meant by calling his protagonist Mr Arcularis. I’s not a common name. An arcularius in Latin is a maker of small chests, boxes and jewel caskets. Is Aiken alluding to this? Or is it merely because, as Mr Acularis says, his name rhymes with Polaris. Polaris the North Star, where the dead go.
The first hint we get that everything is not what it seems, to me at least, is when Harry has put him on board and is about to leave and says for Arcularis to bring him a sprig of edelweiss and a postcard from the Absolute.
That may make our minds cast themselves back to when he is in the car and he misses big stretches of the journey, quite plausibly by falling asleep, but certainly the story begins to acquire a more dreamlike quality from here on in.
The action jumps from him being cold in his cabin to sitting opposite the freckled girl whom he recalls but can’t think who she reminds him of. Later, he feels she may be his soul — which makes me think of the Jungian concept of the Anima.
The Parson, the Doctor and the Freckle-Faced woman seem almost like stock characters from a Mummer’s play. His Old Friend Polaris even has a bit part peeping out from a door.
Jackstones are the things you throw on the ground to play a skipping game.
The jarring, inappropriate references to death come thicker and faster now. From the first awkward conversation with the steward whose hors d’oeuvres may kill him, the story is peppered with strangeness among the apparent ordinariness of a cruise voyage.
The corpse in the coffin in the hold, to which Mr Arcularis gets ever closer on his sleep walks, is going to Ireland. It made me think of looking towards Ireland from Britain where it is the land to the west — where the sun sets. Aiken was American of course, but had links with Britain. His daughter Joan was a very famous children’s author.
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