Wilful Obscurity and other Aiken Fun!

Wild Animalsrotate

    By creating her own period of alternate history Joan Aiken gave herself the freedom to exercise her wild imagination, and also the opportunity to use a  vast array of stored knowledge from her wide reading and her life-long fascination with history, mythology, music, the natural sciences, and stories of travel to far away lands.  All of these elements,  combined with a riotous ear for dialogue and a facility for creating eccentric characters meant she could fill her invented worlds with a wonderful variety of bizarre detail, which, in her fast moving and free wheeling plots could be employed pretty much to her heart’s content.

But sometimes she did go rather over the top…!

Her general ebullience and the enjoyment of her own creative powers perhaps reached its peak in The Whispering Mountain, a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles series of books, set in Wales, and making use of a good deal of Welsh language and colloquial expression.  The story also contains characters as varied as The Seljuk of Rum – a foreign potentate who speaks in a language (tongue, talk, dialect, parlance!) of his own taken straight from Roget’s Thesaurus – and a Prince of Wales with a list of Christian names that covers almost all periods of the English Monarchy, but who speaks broad Scots.  On top of this there are a pair of dastardly villains who speak in their own Victorian underground language – known as Thieves Cant – a pair of peevy coves who mizzle at the first sign of trouble.

Grappling with all these characters is the sympathetic young hero – a learned, lonely small boy called Owen, who is mercilessly bullied by the other boys in his village, because as an avid reader he has too many fancy ideas and an overwhelming desire to share them… Owen is armed with a small book that has taught him all he needs to know, very like one that Joan herself had treasured from her childhood, which goes by the marvellous title:

“Arithmetic, Grammar, Botany &c; Thefe Pleafing Sciences made familiar to the Capacities of Youth”

Book of Knowledge

     This and Owen’s own natural intelligence finally allow him to win round the bullies, treating  one boy’s wounds from a wolf bite with a cobweb bandage,  or making a rope from strands of “Clematis Vitalba or Virginiana” which, as he can’t resist explaining, perhaps to the bewilderment of the other boys: “is a beautiful plant covered with white bloffoms or furry fruit clufters”…   As we discover, the typeface in his little book of knowledge is so antiquated that it has ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s just to add to the general confusion and charm.

Using, among other skills learned from his precious book, this plant knowledge and his mathematical capabilities, he saves the gang of boys from a flood by building a rope swing from the Clematis vine to get them all across a gorge:

     “To find the strength of a rope,”‘ he informs his companions, ‘”you should square the circumference in inches and divide by three, for the breaking strain in tons.”  I am joining these two pieces together with a rolling hitch, as they are of slightly different sizes;  I shall secure one end to the tree by means of a timber hitch, thus -“

Winding a spare strand of creeper round his waist, and slinging the crossbow on his back, he shinned up the tree with great agility and tied the end of his rope to a suitable branch; then he laid hold of the rope and slid down it to within four feet of the lower end.

“Letth cut the rope now, eh, Hwfa?” whispered Soth, but Hwfa, watching Owen’s actions with the utmost interest, took no notice of his henchman.

“What’ll he do now, he can never drop from there? – Ah, I see – he is going to swing!”‘

(Oh yes, and poor Soth has a lisp…!)

Joan not only gleaned her information from antiquated instruction manuals, but also from the Victorian or Edwardian children’s books her Canadian mother had brought over to England, and introduced to the family.  Particular favourites were Ernest Seton Thompson’s Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known – written from the author’s own experience of being a lonely little boy in a strange country.  He was in a fact a Scot growing up in Canada, and to escape from his bullying father, he spent much time on his own,  studying nature and Indian lore out in the wild. Joan Aiken experienced the same kind of pleasure  as a rather isolated child growing up in the freedom of the Sussex countryside, imagining herself in a far wilder landscape, surviving with these books as her guides and companions.

As an adult she created opportunities, as here in The Whispering Mountain, to share the mysterious magic of all this language, knowledge and spirit of adventure.  The exotic and obscure vocabulary that her reading offered her as a small child, was probably just as bewildering to the children of her own home village, but fired their curiosity  and so encouraged her desire to tell wild and wonderful stories. When she became a writer she was determined never to underestimate the ingenuity of her readers by talking down to them.  She was convinced that putting old and new ideas and imaginative language into an exciting context would help to bring her fantasy worlds to life, and communicate the ideas and customs of other times and countries to her readers.

But even she admitted that sometimes she got a bit too carried away, and possibly, in this particular story – as the Seljuk of Rum might say – became:

‘Fantastical, Rhapsodic, Whimsical, Absurd, or even Obscure….’

*****

TheWhisperingMountain_COVER REV2

The Whispering Mountain, which can be read as a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles

is  published as a Puffin Book, so that the whole series is now in print together for the first time.

See all the books at Joan Aiken.com

Random House/Red Fox/Penguin Children’s Books Joan Aiken page

Wolves Chronicles

To see a film of Joan talking about The Wolves Chronicles, and reading from her own copy of the little Book of Knowledge visit the website here.

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Mortimer the Raven – an unexpected hero – for Primary School Teachers!

New Puffin

Famous for munching up flights of stairs, and even escalators (where do you think the word ‘ravenous’ comes from!?) Mortimer the raven is best known as the hilarious troublemaker who first appeared in Joan Aiken’s Arabel’s Raven stories on Jackanory – and of course in Quentin Blake’s wonderful pictures!

But his adventures with the Jones family and his beloved friend Arabel,  have surprisingly also made him a HERO with teachers of reluctant readers. Here’s a letter from one of them –  (thank you, Anne!)

    “I had a class of 10 and 11 year olds, one of whom was having great difficulty in learning to read. Well, let’s be blunt about this, he couldn’t even read his name. He and I worked long and hard on this problem, mainly with the help of his brother’s motorbike manual, and eventually he began to make sense of the words on the page and I began to understand how to strip a bike engine. (All the best teaching goes two ways!) But, at last, the day I knew he’d really made it as an independent reader was all down to Joan Aiken. 

Every afternoon in that class began with us all putting our feet up with a good book and reading silently for twenty minutes or so. (How else does a hard pressed teacher get time to read?) On this particular afternoon we were all well into our books when there comes a suppressed snigger from the general direction of this lad’s desk. I decide to ignore it. Then there is another, rather less well suppressed, and finally an outright chortle. He was almost unaware of what he was doing so engrossed was he in the book that he could now read well enough to really enjoy. And the book?   Aiken’s ‘Arabel’s Raven’. I bless her regularly for turning him into a real reader.”

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Jones Family Photo

The BBC TV series (as above) was produced with puppets based on the

wonderful illustrations by

Quentin Blake

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Read more about  the Arabel and Mortimer stories here

Two New Puffin Bumper Collections out now!

Two New Mortimers

and you can even do the jigsaw!

Utopian publisher seeks humane thrillers…from Joan Aiken of course!

Product X strapline

New paperback edition of hilarious Joan Aiken thriller

When it first came out in 1965 her publisher called this a thriller with humanity – a rare commodity nowadays perhaps – let alone one so charmingly praised by her utopian publisher?  This letter from Victor Gollancz to Joan Aiken written over 50 years ago shows the degree of warmth and encouragement she received from him in the early years of her career, and exemplifies the kind of devoted following she was to gather from her readers throughout her long writing life.

Gollancz

(And no, she didn’t live in The White House, it was an old pub called The White Hart, but in later years she got letters addressed to White Hot House, the White Hut, and more…enough to give a budding writer plenty of useful ideas!)

Her first thriller – The Silence of Herondale – had earned glowing reviews for the writer and publisher, and only a couple of months beforehand Victor Gollancz had written to her saying:

Gollancz 2

Of course she did have another one up her sleeve – in fact her imagination was so fertile that from then on, she went on to produce as many as three books a year for both adults and children in every possible genre.

This second highly entertaining thriller makes gleeful use of her experience a year or so earlier of working for an advertising agency in Mayfair, to whom she dedicates the book with a rueful comment:

JWT dedication Product X

Aiken’s imaginary agency Salmon & Bucknell are filming a TV commercial on location in Cornwall for a new client, the eccentric owner of a chemicals company, which has invented a new and almost irresistible perfume; heroine Martha is in charge of shooting the romantic ads – unfortunately starring the client’s difficult daughter-in-law. In a witty parody of the classic Gothic style popular in the 1960’s, Martha soon becomes embroiled in a conspiracy over the missing perfume formula and other increasingly astonishing plot strands – including an amorous sheik, a series of exploding soup cans, mysterious black robed monks in a cliff top monastery, and a kidnapped baby ‘who steps into a key role in a headlong series of chases…’ as one reviewer wrote, adding: ‘This is a superior stylish thriller…with the characterisation of bizarre cast bang on target…’   all of which mounts of course to a hair raising climax..

Trouble with Product X  is an absolute romp of a read – funny and terrifying and also a hilarious parody of her experience in the Mayfair advertising agency – think Madmen re-set in rural England, with Mary Quant being chased over the Cornish moors by Patrick McGoohan from The Prisoner –  carrying , as another reviewer put it  ‘one of the nicest babies in literature.’

(I am happy to confess that the baby was based on myself, and is given my own family nickname!)

Readers who grew up on Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles may not be aware that she wrote equally exciting novels for adults, and some are just discovering these wonderful Gothics for grown ups, as here:

“It was only THIS WEEK that I realised she’d written books for adults as well. Naturally, I’m hooked once again. “Trouble with Product X” is beautifully written – Aiken could describe a person or landscape completely in just a few words – and crammed with twists in true murder mystery style. It may have been written in days of yore but it packs as much of a punch as anything produced today. Awesome.”

Period covers give a wonderful flavour:

Product X cover

Also published in the USA with the tantalising title Beware of the Bouquet

2020-02-21 13.22.08-2

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No surprise then that Orion, the modern incarnation of Joan Aiken’s first publisher has brought out

a set of her early novels as EBooks

Also available as paperbacks and new Audio recordings by the author’s daughter Lizza Aiken

Read more about Joan Aiken and the fashion for 1960’s Gothics

Girls Running from Houses

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And on the Joan Aiken Website

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

How to keep the Reader on the edge of his Seat? Joan Aiken writes suspense…

Silence

Joan Aiken’s first adult thriller,  published two years after her best known children’s novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has been re-issued in paperback, and now as an audio read by daughter Lizza. Its original début garnered some impressive reviews:

Silence review

The Silence of Herondale  first published in 1964,  set the style for another dozen or so adult novels which were to follow, alternating with her now better known children’s books.  This series appeared in Gollancz’ famous Yellow Jacket editions, the books also 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 Joan Aiken suspense thrillers  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 – all 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 adds enormously to the appeal of their books.

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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….

Gollancz cover

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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1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

 

The Silence of Herondale was re-issued in paperback in January 2020 

And Trouble With Product X coming January 2022

Also available as an AUDIOBOOK

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