Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The Unsettled Dust

Robert Aickman - The Unsettled DustRobert Aickman
Faber & Faber

Robert Aickman, the supreme master of the supernatural, brings together eight stories where strange things happen that the reader is unable to predict. His characters are often lonely and middle-aged but all have the same thing in common - they are all brought to the brink of an abyss that shows how terrifyingly fragile our peace of mind actually is.
'The Next Glade', 'Bind Your Hair' and 'The Stains' appeared together in The Wine-Dark Sea in 1988 while 'The Unsettled Dust', 'The House of the Russians', 'No Stronger Than a Flower', 'The Cicerones' and 'Ravissante' first appeared in Sub Rosa in 1968. The stories were published together as The Unsettled Dust in 1990. Aickman received the British Fantasy Award in 1981 for 'The Stains', which had first appeared in the anthology New Terrors (1980), before appearing in the last original posthumous collection of Aickman's short stories, Night Voices (1985).

'The Unsettled Dust' was a posthumous collection released some 9 years after the authors death.  The stories included all bear Aickman's characteristic strangeness which can result  in them being equal parts frustrating and enthralling.
The opening - titular - tale is an almost straightforward (by Aickman's standards) and old fashioned  haunted house tale as a representative of a trust is subjected to the dubious hospitality of two sisters in their dusty old house in a quietly sad tale of family, pride and unreconciled loss, themes that are echoed in 'The Houses of the Russians', an intriguing little tale of an island of abandoned homes and the memories they hold of  their former inhabitants.

'No Stronger Than A Flower' was the first Aickman tale I ever read and this story of a woman's metamorphosis loses none of it's brutal power in a reread several years on and with a wider knowledge of what to expect - that is if one can even remotely 'expect' anything in an Aickman story.

'The Cicerones' is another story I was familiar with, this time through the adaptation made by Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson - watch it here.   I'm not particularly enamoured of it but I was struck by how closely the filmed version stuck to the text.

'The Next Glade' is another story that I found somewhat uninspiring.  Unusually for Aickman the strangeness here felt contrived and a little but forced.  I can't put my finger on anything in particular about it but for me it failed to gel and the story was both dull and flat.

Things get very much back on track with 'Ravissante' as we're shown into a world that is both mannered and deeply strange filled with simmering sexual repression and denied release and the folk horror duo of 'Bind Your Hair', another beautifully ambiguous enigma of rural weirdness and the book's award winning closing tale, 'The Stains', a story of love lost, love found, family, responsibility, innocence and lichen which sees about as Aickmanesque an ending to to this write-up as I'm going to come up with.

Buy it here -  The Unsettled Dust


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