The Reviewer – for that was how he signed his name at the bottom of his column – sat down at his desk. He always took an almost physical satisfaction at it: the grain of the polished wood, the smoothness of the carving, the finish, all quietly spoke, in unison, of the taste of the man who sat before it. That was, the reviewer, thought, as it should be.
He picked up his pen, feeling it thick between his fingers, and paused, holding it above the fresh expanse of virgin paper that waited, spread upon his writing desk. Always, the pause; the delicious hesitation, the wait.
Ah, the wait.
The Reviewer allowed the wait to turn into the weight: the heavy load of words, building in his mind, swirling there in inchoate, pregnant silence.
When it was over, and he was spent, the Reviewer put the pen down, laying it neatly beside the sheet of paper: always, exactly parallel to the edge, and an inch away. Precision in such matters was a signifier of his own singularity.
With the pen retracted, the Reviewer turned his eyes to the paper. First, he cast his eyes over its entirety, taking the expanse in, in one single, appraising glance. The shape of the review was the first element of its felicity: how often had he, in his youthful, fumbling experiments, cast aside a work simply because the words made an unbecoming shape upon the page.
But here, the paragraphs were well proportioned, their very form propelling the reading eye onwards, down the page towards the final, juddering climax. For, of course, the Reviewer saved his best work for those authors he cared for most deeply: the ones he truly despised. For them: evisceration. The exposure of their incompetence was his satisfaction, the reason for his existence as a reviewer.
And this was one of the worst. A writer whose cod historical dialogue was meant to add veracity to his recreation of the 7th century, but who revealed, by the inversion of word order and his failed attempts to catch the alliterative punch of Anglo-Saxon poetry, only the tin ear of the 21st.
The Reviewer, satisfied with the form, steepled his fingers.
Now, to read.
The writing always came in a Bacchic flood, the word frenzy flooding his body and mind, so that he did not know what he wrote; only, that he was, finally, deliciously, spent.
The reading, however, was Apollonian: the careful, weighted appreciation of every word and phrase, every syllable and sentence. The Reviewer knew no purer aesthetic experience than the first reading.
He breathed out, calming mind and body, then brought his eyes to the page.
The Reviwer read through to the end.
He stared long at the page.
The words upon it did not change.
For a moment, he thought if, perhaps, some other hand had written them. But he was too fastidious in memory to allow himself that escape.
The words. Those trite, banal, graceless words were his.
They were worse, even, than the talentless hack he had sought to expose.
The Reviewer stood up. He left the paper white upon his desk, and went out into the street. The street lamp, its dirty yellow staining the pavement, lit him. The Reviewer looked up and down the street where he lived. No one left and no one came.
The Muse had left him.
No matter. The Reviewer knew where to find her again.
The last time, she had called herself Jade. The Reviewer’s lips ticked upwards in something like a smile. She had said, he had the biggest talent she’d ever seen.
He would just have to find the Muse again.
As he set off, walking down the street towards the cluster of drab yellow neon that told of the Muse’s presence, he wondered what she would call herself this time.
(There. Robert Aickman’s strange stories are, indeed, strange, and I wasn’t at all sure how to review them. But if you like this little tale, then you’ll enjoy Aickman’s stories too.)