Robert Aickman knew how to craft a spooky tale, of this I have no doubt. Several strong collections of his work stand testament to this (Sub Rosa: Strange Tales being the 1968 publication from which The Inner Room originally featured).
The novella/short story being reviewed here is as strong an example of his ability to create a world, and with it characters and situations that pull you hypnotically in, and then leave you in a sense of daze and disarray as you begin to second guess exactly what is going on.
The Inner Room is a simple story really, or at least it appears to be on the surface. Dealing with an average family, with their habits and ways, and their quirks and foibles. The decision of the family’s young daughter (and subsequent narrator of this tale) to buy a dolls’ house when offered a choice of any gift by their father whilst on a trip creates the hub of the story, and from it flows a mystery that might not look so out of place in a tale by M. R. James.
That is to say it might have done, if that esteemed author of the classic ghost story were to have taken a heady sip from a cup of surreal juice, as there is definitely a blend of that genre mixed in here.
After some wrangling with a slightly errant toy-shop owner the father secures the present, and it is then delivered to the family home. Not surprisingly from here it becomes an object of interest, and then of slightest menace to the girl. It is sealed closed, and she refuses aid to open it; meanwhile the figures within cast a furtive air upon the place.
These are not happy toys, nor could they be in their ‘variants of rust, indigo and greenwood’. The house begins to dominate in other areas, creeping into her psyche and lingering in her dreams in more than just a melancholy manner. Its dimensions too just don’t add up, as discovered by her brother when he’s testing some mathematical theory he has learned in class on the house’s measurements.
I won’t give any more away – it is just a short tale after all. But it is a powerful one, and leaves a strong impression on the reader long after it has been finished. Toward the latter half of the story there is definitely a curious feeling as to what the protagonist is experiencing, whether their story is allegorical or cautionary, or whether they really have fallen through the rabbit hole, so to speak.
Nonetheless it really is quite creepy too, and I’d recommend you check it out for yourself, either by checking eBay or AbeBooks for a copy of Aickman’s Sub Rosa collection or grabbing yourself a copy of the special edition paperback published by Tartarus Press.