The following is a review of the audio-book edition of Robert Aickman’s The Unsettled Dust (a collection of supernatural short stories first published in 1990), narrated by Reece Shearsmith and first released in July 2013.
I think Robert Aickman’s The Unsettled Dust will firmly divide opinions. I can’t see any reader, or listener, simply saying "it was alright" – I think they will either really like what they find, or really dislike it. The potential for the reading enjoyment of Robert Aickman’s work lies in whether the reader wants, and indeed expects, a certain structure to the narrative, whether they need a beginning, middle, and most importantly a end. You see, Aickman revels in an ambiguity, his stories do not have traditional endings and for a lot of people this will be a problem. It was for me. But if this type of story telling works for you then you are in for a treat as Aickman is very, very good with words and descriptive text.
Aickman was born in London in 1914 and published twelve volumes of horror stories, two fantasy novels and two volumes of autobiography before his death in 1981. Called by some "the supreme master of the supernatural" he was awarded both a World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award for his short fiction. As I have already said, his work my not have been my particular cup of tea but the praise for his short works is effusive, particularly amongst fellow writers:
"Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully." Neil Gaiman
"Robert Aickman has a gift for depicting the eerie areas of inner space, the churning storms and silent overcasts that engulf the minds of lonely and alienated people. He is a weatherman of the subconscious." Fritz Leiber
"From the first I understood that he was a deeply original artist. This in no way implies that I understood Aickman immediately because I didn’t. Sometimes I would look up at the end of a story, feeling that the whole thing had just twisted itself inside out and turned into smoke – I had blinked, and missed it all. It took me a little while to learn to accept this experience as valuable in itself and to begin to see how the real oddness of most of Aickman’s work is directly related to its psychological, even psychoanalytic, acuity." Peter Straub
And Peter Straub’s words are very telling – the first time reader/listener will probably be left more than a little bemused – I was – and as most reviews are based on the first read I acknowledge that this may be a problem and a likely reason for my slightly negative summation. The first three stories in the collection (The Unsettled Dust, The House of the Russians and No Stronger Than a Flower) meandered rather aimlessly through my mind and I could find no attachment to either the story or the characters, which is something vital to me when listening to a story. But from there on things improve: The Cicerones, The Next Glade, Ravissante, Bind Your Hair and The Stains proved to make for much more enjoyable listening. But I still had issues. I found the overall tone of the works to be highly misogynistic and while it is always difficult to tell whether these sentiments are the author’s own or his characters, by the end of the last story I believed that these characters simply echoed Aickman’s own thoughts on women and while the stories were written quite a long time ago they were still very difficult to read as a result. And the second problem I had was that while the characters spoke and behaved late nineteenth century, early twentieth, while the stories were set at least fifty years later, which proved a little jarring.
The narrator of The Unsettled Dust is Reece Shearsmith, a talented actor and writer who is arguably most famous for co-writing and starring in the award-winning television series, The League of Gentlemen, alongside Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss, and Jeremy Dyson. And the connection between The League of Gentlemen and Robert Aickman is strong: Jeremy Dyson has previously adapted Aickman’s work into drama in a number of forms and with Mark Gatiss adapted Aickman’s short story "Ringing the Changes" into a BBC Radio Four radio play. Dyson also directed a 2002 short film based on Aickman’s story "The Cicerones" with Gatiss as the principal actor. So it is fair to say that Aickman has been a massive influence on Shearsmith and the rest of the League. Because I didn’t overly enjoy the stories themselves it is a little difficult to comment on Reece Shearsmith’s narration other than to say he has a pleasant reading voice who relies of subtle delivery changes to distinguish between characters rather than opting for accents. It was the subject matter itself that led my concentration to waver, not the quality of the narration, which was fine.
Maybe the problem was that the stories simply didn’t lend themselves well to the audio format and would have been better read instead. This is something I have encountered several times before. Unfortunately I found myself constantly losing concentration and finding that minutes had passed without anything having sunk in. This could be because I rarely felt that anything was really happening, finding little to engage me. And I found the treatment of women and "foreigners" (a word used too often in the narrative for my liking) to be – using the kindest word available – dated.
I can only recommend Aickman to those who enjoy ambiguity, those who do not require traditional endings to stories and are happy to read said stories numerous times to understand the nuances and hidden meanings.
The Unsettled Dust (unabridged) by Robert Aickman
Narrated by Reece Shearsmith
Length: 8 hours, 36 minutes
Publisher: Audible Ltd
The Unsettled Dust is available only from Audible.co.uk