“The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” – Joan Aiken’s timely warning.

This haunting picture by Goya and its resonant title quoted above, was often taken as the Spanish painter’s manifesto, and was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy novel The Cockatrice Boys.   Her magpie mind was ever alert to the news of the day, about scientific discoveries or impending disasters, and she followed the work of other artists and writers, past and present, who shared her concern about our ever changing world, and our inability to keep up with it.

Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist,  surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century.  Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth,  twenty-five years ago. 

In her fantasy novel, it is the dereliction of human awareness that creates this threat to life on our planet and leads to an invasion of monsters – the Cockatrices of her story – who are descending on the earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.

These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing will to imagine, and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies who are carelessly, or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children.   Joan Aiken, like Goya, and a current trend of fantasy writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, could save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.

But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces,  in reality, as much as in our imagination – falling into Goya’s ‘Sleep of Reason’ could be equally harmful.

Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, is sent on the train with The Cockatrice Boys a raggle taggle army of survivors, to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities. Here, she asks her fellow traveller, the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:

Cockatrice Sleep of Reason

It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –

not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness

  all we have to do is stay awake….

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Joan Aiken’s own manifesto, The Way to Write for Children is a guide to the importance of children’s writing, in which she emphasises the need for every child to have access to books, stories and myths to stimulate their imagination. She writes:

“A myth or fairy tale interprets and resolves the contradictions which the child sees all around him, and gives him confidence in his power to deal with reality. We don’t have angels and devils any more, but we are still stuck with good and evil.”

Now out as an EBook, click to find this gripping Y.A.Fantasy novel

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Joan Aiken’s Desert Island Stories

Winterthing Island

Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas. She was once so moved by a news story and a powerfully melancholy piece of music, written to save a Scottish island, that this story, and the story told by the music itself, inspired her to write her own mythical supernatural tale, The Scream about an endangered and lost island. It was linked in her mind, to the famous Munch painting of this name, and an an extraordinary present she had been given –  a screaming pillow, which also comes into the story…

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Farewell to Stromness when the  future of the Orkney Islands where he lived, was threatened by a proposal to mine there for uranium, known locally as Yellow Cake. His music formed part of a protest performance on Orkney called The Yellow Cake Revue, which helped put paid to the horrific project. His hypnotic piano piece, only five minutes long has become a poignant part of many people’s lives,  bringing peace, comfort and hope.

But it is not an entirely soothing composition, more of a dangerous journey;  the way has to be followed round crags, up mountains, over high bridges, through mists and fog – we are in danger – until at last the light appears through the mist, first dimly then welcoming and then blazing, and finally home is seen again. The opening rhythm returns, this time more like the rocking of a boat, and quietens, takes us in its arms into the rocking of a lullabye. Finally it softens, and fades, gently into history.  The danger has been surmounted, but the experience remains.

Inspired by this powerful musical expression of struggle and resolution,  Joan Aiken wrote her haunting story called The Scream,  which also references the famous Munch painting of that name, of a terrified figure seeing an appalling vision on a bridge. In Joan Aiken’s story the inhabitants are forced from their homes on a Scottish island because it is due to be poisoned for a scientific experiment. Brought up on their own myths, these people had always believed local dangers would be wrought by Kelpies – water demons, very hostile to humans – not by alarming technological developments…

“Before the time of electricity, radio, motors, long-range missiles, aircraft,

 people thought seriously about such things.”

But while the exiled islanders have to adapt their way of life to the ugly new towns and tower blocks where they now live, they have brought with them a powerful magic which is stirring, endangering their new lives and calling them to return, and which finally it breaks out in a great Scream, with the force of a tidal wave, and with the unleashing of this ancient power the island is reclaimed.

As the daughter of Joan Aiken, I was brought up on stories which although haunting, also saw me through dangers and rocked me to sleep. We shared music too, and this piece which recalled the Scottish folk tunes her mother used to sing, spoke to us both of our roots, and a love of islands, many of which we had visited together. The last one we visited before she died was the Channel Island of Herm, her house was called The Hermitage, and we joked about the journey being our Herm from Herm. Sitting on a shore of sea shells, she told me how she had always longed to be on Desert Island Discs, and had often thought about her music choices while waiting to fall asleep at night. One of her choices would have been Farewell to Stromness, and so we had it played at her funeral, to see her safely home.

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Hear Farewell to Stromness played by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

The haunting Y.A. novel The Scream has just come out as an EBook 

Find it here

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The illustration at the top is by Arvis Stuart from the cover of a children’s play by Joan Aiken called Winterthing – another mythical island which disappears each winter

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/plays_01.html

Joan Aiken’s Haunted Houses

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.

Visit the SFGateway site to read about all the Joan Aiken reissues this autumn

Creating Alternate Worlds…why we need stories

Sun God's castle

Why do we need stories? In one of her most quoted remarks Joan Aiken explains:

Locus Interview Alternative worlds

Jan Pienkowski, who died this year explained that his pictures helped him transform images of horror in his mind into stories he could control. He lived through invasion and terror as a child in the 1940’s in his native Poland, but re-created and conquered the fearful situations in his storytelling and illustrations, making the uncontrollable situations manageable for a child – the hideous Baba Yaga becomes Meg the silly witch, or in the version taken by Joan Aiken from his native folktales, in The Kingdom Under The Sea, she is seen as a selfish fool, easily outwitted by her own child. The idea of the witch might be scary, but it becomes manageable when viewed through a story, or a picture in a book read in the safety of home.

Baba Yaga Jan

    Another of the great creators of alternate worlds was Ursula Le Guin, whose recent death brought not only a celebration of her writing, but a recognition of the importance of fantasy, and speculative fiction as it has come to be known. Both Le Guin and Joan Aiken resisted the label ‘Science Fiction’ for their fantasy writing – in an interview for The Paris Review LeGuin talks about the importance of ‘trying on’ other ideas::

“I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.”

Joan Aiken acknowledged that “writing a full length fantasy novel made out of pure invention is the very hardest kind of children’s book to write successfully…Ursula Le Guin has done it in her Earthsea books…it can be done, but it is a considerable challenge.”

Through reading and writing about other worlds we can confront and deal with the faults in our own. Joan Aiken only attempted a full scale dystopian novel once, in her novel The Cockatrice Boys, addressing the ‘sleep of reason’ which has threatened our own world with climate change and devastation – through stories, Aiken wrote, you can help children deal with the unanswerable question ‘Why?’

Cockatrice The Sleep of Reason

You can read more about what she and others called The Sleep of Reason,

or the failure of the imagination, here.

Generally she preferred to base her kind of fantasy on folk tales, an age old form of storytelling which could be adapted, often humorously, to comment on our own world. The illustrations by Jan Pienkowski above come from their collection of stories based on traditional European tales which he knew as a child – re-told for him by Joan Aiken –  The Kingdom Under the Sea.

In this story three boys set out to make their fortunes, but despite the good advice of the Sun God, about caring for those who have loved and cared for them, they  become distracted by the voices of darkness and become so lost to the world around them that they have to be rescued by their wiser grandfather:

Somebody sat on the steps of the castle weeping, with his face hidden in his hands.The old man called, across the white cloud and the pink cloud.
“What is the trouble, my child?”
The weeper lifted his head, and they saw that it was Yanek.
“The sun-god won’t let me into his palace,Grandfather,” he answered, “because I did wrong to leave you.”
Tears ran down the old man’s cheeks when he heard that. He turned to Martin and Mihal and said to them, “Go back to the forest, my children, live rightly, and never let the sacred fire go out. I am going to help Yanek.”

Sun God ending

     We must teach our children that we depend utterly on our imaginations, we need to cross over into fantasy, into the unknown, and make the attempt to imagine what if…?

We ignore this opportunity at our own risk. What we fail to imagine has a dangerous habit of coming true.

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Coming soon to the SciFi Gateway site at Orion

Some of Joan Aiken’s Ghostliest Stories, including The Cockatrice Boys

Click here to visit

Find more about the Joan Aiken Jan Pienkowski stories here

Read another fascinating Blog on Joan Aiken and some more Alternate Worlds here

And find the incredibly useful Internet Speculative Fiction Database here