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The Cicerones

In which a British tourist has an unusual sightseeing experience in a Belgian cathedral.

By Robert Aickman

First published in 1968

Anthologized in The Unsettled Dust

The central fact found in every article, encyclopedia entry, and essay about Robert Aickman is that he referred to his fiction as “strange stories.” He never did make it clear what that meant. Read enough of his work, however, and the term defines itself.

What makes a story “strange,” in Aickman’s sense, is its unresolved ambiguity. The events it describes could be the result of the supernatural, or explicable in everyday terms, or a symbolic account of unconscious conflicts; the reader is never provided with enough information to draw a definitive conclusion. This is what makes Aickman’s writings powerful, as well as discomforting. Fans of tidy plots will dislike them. The rest of us are likely to be sucked in.

“The Cicerones” is the perfect concise introduction to Aickman. A British tourist named John Trant is on holiday in Belgium, not due to a love of waffles or his desire to put his Dutch skills to the test, but almost by accident, “because Belgium was near and it was late in the season, and because he had never been there.” We learn that he’s 32, unmarried, and sees himself as quite ordinary, except perhaps in the systematic way that he organizes his trips. This is all we learn about Trant, but it’s enough; we get the impression of a rather shallow man who lives by the clock. That’s unfortunate for him, because in Aickman’s stories well-defined timetables have a habit of going irredeemably awry.

Three motifs appear throughout “The Cicerones.” We’re introduced to them almost immediately:

  • The first is silence. Trant is repeatedly surprised by how almost unnaturally quiet the cathedral is, especially since other Belgian churches he’s visited have been bustling with activity.
  • The second motif is art. At times, “The Cicerones” almost reads like a series of excerpts from a museum catalog, one in which the paintings are predominantly medieval depictions of martyrdoms, and graphic ones at that. The action is also like that of seeing an exhibition: stopping, viewing, moving on.
  • The third motif is the subjectivity of viewpoints. Throughout “The Cicerones,” Trant sees things that appear one way when viewed from a certain angle, but which prove to be radically different once he changes his position. There’s an alarming example of this early on.

These motifs may give readers the idea that some sort of hidden order underlies the events of the story.  I am not giving anything away, however, when I say that the nature of this order won’t be revealed to you. Give up on that one before going in.

Also, to point out the blazingly obvious: there are cicerones in “The Cicerones,” four of them, in fact. They are best experienced within the context of the piece.

Aickman remains a cult writer not only because of the unusual nature of what he wrote, but also because his work is the antithesis of mainstream horror fiction as it has been practiced for the last forty or so years. His stories are subtle and assume intelligence on the part of the reader. Aickman remains out of step with commercial publishing trends in almost every way, and that’s his strength.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a quote from “The Cicerones.” It captures the tone of this story, and that of Aickman’s writing in general:

What’s that?” asked Trant, taking the initiative and pointing. Right on the other side of the crypt, as it seemed, and now visible to Trant for the first time through the forest of coloured columns, was something which appeared to be winking and gleaming with light.

“That’s at the end,” replied the child. “You’ll be there soon.”