Joan Aiken left over a hundred books, many more stories, and many, many more poems that still fall out of those books and stories. There is always more to discover.
This is from a story called The Feather and The Page, about a boy waiting to hear, or find some lost words after his mother’s death. His sister is trying to find a poem.
The boy hears the poem and passes it on, and he hears his own message too:
This January sees the reissue of Joan Aiken’s first adult thriller, published two years after her best known children’s novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which garnered some impressive reviews at the time:
The Silence of Herondale published in 1964, set the style for another dozen or so adult novels which were to follow, alternating with her now much better known children’s books. Initially published by Gollancz in their famous Yellow Jacket editions, the books were covered in remarkable reviews, like this one which soon earned her a devoted following, including many fellow crime writers. Now, more than fifty years after its first appearance, this, and the next five suspense thrillers she wrote are being re-issued by the Gollancz parent company Orion, and will hopefully have you reaching for the loofah…!
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Joan Aiken was sometimes accused of throwing absolutely everything into the page- turning plots of her novels. Her fertile mind used them as a backbone for all the ideas that were currently absorbing her in her daily world – music, philosophy, landscapes, travel, people, politics, art, and of course, the work of other writers. This is not surprising when you look at some of her literary influences, such as John Masefield who could also enjoy endless digressions into anything that took his fancy – whether it was church politics, ancient history, or juicy details about murder mysteries in the local paper – while his hero was on the way to buy muffins for tea. Another of her literary heroes, Charles Dickens, could be just as easily distracted from his main plotline since he had the occupational hazard of writing his plots serially, which gave him plenty of opportunity to totally change his ideas as better ones came along.
Among the writers that Joan Aiken admired, self-discipline was not the main order of the day, so much as an ability to enrich a tale by adding whatever embroidery would serve to bend the ear of the listener. She was often compared to Mary Stewart, who was writing her own thrillers at the time, and who used a similar Romantic or Gothic suspense format while also making full use of a wide literary background and extensive education; this and the use of exotic settings added enormously to the appeal of her books.
Aiken’s constantly active imagination, her quirky inventiveness, and imaginative recall of her own travels and journeys enabled her to blend all the available ingredients into a continual inventive tapestry of ‘What if…?’ without in any way detracting from the headlong progress of her story. Despite her magpie eye, Joan Aiken always maintained a firm grip on the plot, and was enormously skilled at keeping the reader on the edge of his seat…
Conversely, if she arrived rather too rapidly at her conclusion and found she had too many characters to deal with, she developed a rather cavalier habit of polishing them off in whatever speedy manner came to hand – automatic hedge clippers, kitchen beater attachments, exploding soup cans or spa-room steam cabinets. Having created some horribly seedy or demented villains, she would then show no mercy in dispatching them swiftly at the end; she could be gleefully ghoulish, but never gory – it was the lead-up to the climax she enjoyed, and suspense became her speciality….
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And Joan Aiken’s heroines? They were always a version of Joan herself of course, and would be heartlessly thrown in at the deep end. In the true Gothic manner of hapless heroines, they would become embroiled in a series of events not of their own making, but were usually possessed of many stalwart characteristics – not least a literary education – if not always endowed with obvious physical charms. Often they were, as she was herself, small, slightly gap toothed, and red haired, but they were generally extremely enterprising, physically intrepid and fearless to the end, and would emerge from their adventures breathless but undaunted. They were not necessarily rewarded with romance, and on the odd occasion did come to a sad end themselves, but shocked remonstrations from readers discouraged her from allowing this to happen too often.
What comes across most clearly is her impulse to share thoughts and experiences from her own life; as for example, with the agonising but often hysterical day to day business of living with a slightly dotty old lady, or the frequently curious requirements of a job working in an advertising agency, or even the alarming and humiliating possibilities of having treatments in a health spa – all was grist to her mill and became sympathetic background or even foreground, for the novel currently in her imagination. For those who knew her, there was also the dubious pleasure of discovering (albeit disguised!) episodes from their own lives in her books; but when these were re-told with her usual warmth and humour, her intelligence and added insight, one could almost be grateful to have shared a good story with her, and even more so not to have had one’s own experience end in the hair-raising way that she had gone on to imagine it….
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Six of Joan Aiken’s thrillers are now being reissued by Orion
See a full list of Joan Aiken’s suspense novels here
See more of Joan’s thrillers now available as E Books at Orion’s The Murder Room
It may be the darkest time of year, but we can light the lights, and share good cheer!
A Solstice Song from Joan Aiken’s Play Winterthing
music by her son John Sebastian Brown
Many Thanks to all who have visited this year ~
Please do come again!
And let us all hope for Silver Linings
Childhood favourites and Christmas Classics are often inextricably linked in readers’ memories, and sometimes have more in common than we realise – and sometimes there are many more stories to discover behind them…this is the story of John Masefield and Joan Aiken.
“The Wolves are running…” is the mysterious message the boy Kay Harker is given by the old Punch and Judy man in Masefield’s The Box of Delights; it was a potent image from Joan Aiken’s childhood reading, complete with snow… re-reading the book became one of the Christmas traditions that remained with her until she was able ‘to write the wolves out of her subconscious’ and into her own story many years later.
The poet John Masefield with his wandering, seafaring life had been a powerful influence on Joan’s father, the poet Conrad Aiken, who started writing himself from the early 1900’s; the first Masefield novel Joan came across was lent to her in the 1920’s by an old sailor in the village where she lived. As a small girl she was utterly gripped by this mysterious and terrifying tale, The Bird of Dawning, but Masefield’s books for children – The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights – didn’t appear until some years later, and she first discovered them in 1936 in her school library.
In a piece for the John Masefield Society about her love of his books Joan wrote:
So although readers may associate these two ‘Wolves’ books, John Masefield’s and Joan Aiken’s, with their stories of heart-stopping chases across snowy wooded landscapes, it was the first of his Kay Harker books, The Midnight Folk, that was to have the most lasting influence on Joan Aiken. And rather than her ‘Wolves’ title, it is another story of Joan’s that owes most to John Masefield – the one she made up at age 17, at the height of the Second World war, to comfort and distract her small brother. Aiken’s real first novel, which was actually published two years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, was called The Kingdom and The Cave. It was a pure, pleasurable homage to the Masefield books she and her brother knew and loved, and Joan Aiken, fully recognising her debt, never imagined that one day it would actually be published.
But years later, at a time when when she desperately needed to support a sick husband and two small children, she took out the old exercise book where she had written it down, typed it out and found a publisher who agreed to take it after a complete revision and some very substantial cuts, which finally made the story her own. As she said later:
‘All young writers learn by imitation…and certainly I could not have chosen a better model.’
It seemed absolutely fitting that Virago Modern Classics should agree to republish this book, Joan Aiken’s real first novel – written many years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – and that it should get one of its best reviews from a young reader who found as much delight in her story as she and her young brother had found in Masefield’s, so many years before.
The ongoing influence of great writing on young readers, and future writers is discussed in a review by Piers Torday who adapted The Box of Delights for a Christmas production at Wilton’s Music Hall. He describes the influence that John Masefield has had on many other writers for children, including Susan Cooper and C.S.Lewis; and we can all share their enthusiasm for Masefield’s wild imagination and skill in crafting an enduring fantasy, and their wish to create books like the ones that so delighted them as children.
Here is Joan Aiken’s own tribute to the master:
The Virago edition of The Kingdom and The Cave can be found here
and you can read more about it here
Excerpts above are taken from an article Joan Aiken originally wrote for
The Journal of the John Masefield Society
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