Aickman has been on my TBR pile for a while now. To a large extent, this is mostly figurative since it was not until last year that I actually obtained some of his works. (I found Cold Hand in Mine for 25¢(!!) in a used bookstore in Madison, WI.) His work has been highly praised by (among others) Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch and S.T. Joshi. One critic described his "strange stories" (as he called them) as "ghost stories in which there is no ghost." So, what I'm expecting is some good subtle weirdness.
"The Swords" certainly gets the collection off to a good start. The story is presented by the narrator as the story behind his first sexual encounter. It takes place during the two years in which he works as a traveling salesman. On one trip, he finds himself in a decayed English town holed up in a flophouse. (Accommodations having been arranged by the uncle who employes him.) With little to do, he visits a fairly pathetic carnival and wanders into a tent wherein a rather strange sideshow is being held.
The show features a young woman dressed up in sexy clothing and a collection of cheap-looking swords. The attendants to the show (who are all men) are each given the opportunity to stab the girl with one of the swords, after which they get to his her. Though she places her hands over the spot on her body into which the sword entered, no blood appears to flow and the girl evinces no pain. (Quite the contrary in fact.)
The boy sneaks off before his turn comes up, but he later runs into the girl and the showman in a restaurant. Here, the showman offers him a private performance by the girl. I'll skip summarizing what follows, since there's no way I could do it justice.
It's a perplexing story, one in which it seems pretty clear something strange is going on without it being really clear what.