So wrote Joan Aiken about her early fascination with ghosts and ghost stories, and the inevitability of returning to these in her own writing career. In a piece about why we read ghost stories she continues:
“In the course of my writing career I have put together five or six collections of ghost/horror stories, and among my novels, three in particular had definitely supernatural themes –The Shadow Guests, Return to Harken House – and The Haunting of Lamb House; significantly, all of those have sold rather better, and continued to stay in print longer, than my non-supernatural works, which proves, to me at least, that readers like ghosts and need them. Perhaps ghost stories are a kind of homeopathic remedy against real terrors: Take one a day to guard against anything of this kind happening to you. Most modern readers lead lives which are, to a great extent, insulated from primitive fears. But this, I believe, leads to a build-up of unacknowledged anxiety that may be liberated and drawn to the surface by the artificial alarms of ghost stories.”
Lamb House was a perfect subject for her to tackle, a house she had known since childhood, and which had been inhabited by writers who had all written ghost stories of their own.
“A few years ago, I was approached by the National Trust, the body that cares for ancient houses in England, and asked if I would like to write a story about one of their properties. Enchanted, I at once said, Yes, I would like to write a story about Lamb House. This ancient house stands at the top of the hill where I was born, in Rye, Sussex, England. Up to 1918, it belonged to Henry James, who wrote many novels there, including The Turn of the Screw; after his death, it passed into the hands of E. F. Benson, who wrote his Lucia books and many ghost stories there. Then later, it was occupied by Rumer Godden, who had several strange psychic experiences (described in her autobiography A House with Four Rooms). Both James and Benson had fallen in love with the house, and both said they had practically been summoned to live in it by what seemed a meaningful chain of events. Comparing their lives, I found many interesting parallels: They both came from large, talented families; their sisters had breakdowns; they had supernatural experiences… I began planning a series of three tales, one to be wholly invented, preceding the lives of James and Benson, but linking them. I thought I would write the stories about James and Benson each in a pastiche of their own style, and the climax of each would be the type they themselves used in ghost stories: In the case of James, a kind of nebulous, sinister fade-out; in Benson’s case, a more robust and dramatic confrontation with the Powers of Evil, ending in an exorcism.”
Both Henry James and E.F. Benson had written ghost stories using Lamb House as a setting, and Joan Aiken had no difficulty imagining the haunting boyhood there of Toby Lamb, whose wealthy wine merchant father had built the handsome Georgian house in the 1720’s, and whose lost manuscript account of his life re-appears to haunt the later writer inhabitants. Rumer Godden, who describes a few ghostly occurrences during her time in the house, including her pen splitting from end to end when she laid it down at the completion of one of her own books, gives Joan’s novel a fantastic review in The Washington Post calling it ‘A little masterpiece.’
Both The Haunting of Lamb House and Return to Harken House – a semi autobiographical thriller for younger readers set in Joan’s own birthplace, Jeake’s House, just around the corner in Mermaid Street Rye, are being re-published by Orion this year on their SFGateway site, the modern incarnation of Gollancz who originally published Joan Aiken’s thrillers, and which is now bringing back ‘the greatest examples of Science fiction and Fantasy in the English Language’ – a category which in the case of this novel brings back a veritable clutch of classic authors.
The photograph above, taken by Joan Aiken shows the garden and back view of Lamb House when she visited with her painter husband, Julius Goldstein, a fellow American in the footsteps of Henry James.