What Joan Aiken brought to her stories was her own voice; she seems to be speaking directly to us, saying these stories are written for you. By reading them, and so, taking part in them, just like the beleaguered protagonists she so often portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers, or lonely unhappy children whose lives she transforms in fiction – she shows that we too can learn to take charge of our own experience.
It is possible, she seems to say, that just around the corner is an alternative version of the day-to-day, and by choosing to release our imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy we may find – as the titles of some of her early story collections put it – More than You Bargained For and almost certainly Not What You Expected…
One of the most poignant, hopeful and uplifting stories in a recent collection – and hope, she believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma – a very unusual ghost story.
Joan Aiken takes the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and encourages you, her reader, to take part in something hitherto unimaginable… learning how to live, from a ghost?
In the course of this one short story our expectations are confounded by the surprising ability with which Aiken generously endows her central character – to see something we would not have expected. Her heroine is trapped in a haunted house, in what we foresee will be frightening and unpromising circumstances, but she refuses to be cast down, and Joan Aiken offers her, through the power of her imagination, a wonderful release. By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – the ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, and finally the real desire to learn to communicate – Joan Aiken leaves us feeling like the characters in the story “brought forward.”
We are magically drawn in – given an example of how a story works its charm – an invitation to join in this process of creative sharing, which makes us ask with the heroine:
“Could I do this?”
And hearing the answer:
“Oh never doubt it.”
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This story can be found in The People in The Castle
out now from Small Beer Press
It also includes an introduction with more from Joan Aiken
on The Magical Power of Storytelling