“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 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

Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Joan Aiken may have imagined that many years after she wrote them, these books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today. She put all her knowledge of history, human nature, and her hope for the future into this series of twelve books, written until the last days of her life, and possibly hoped to leave us a message, or indeed a warning…

Our lives may have been turned upside down recently, but she was ahead of us in her imagination, particularly in her best  known series The Wolves Chronicles whose predictions seem destined to become part of the fabric of our own history.  If you haven’t come across them already, this may be the ideal time to discover them, for as she said, it is better to imagine things before they actually happen, then you are prepared.

Joan Aiken was a writer for all generations and entire families, who left a last gift – a final book  for fans who had followed this series set in her own alternate world, for over fifty years, those who had grown up with the books and who could not be left without a farewell.  Sadly this last book was posthumously published, like Terry Pratchett’s final book,  The Shepherd’s Crown  and Amanda Craig in her review suggested that an author’s last work: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”

It is certainly a strange coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – the second heroine along with the much loved Dido Twite – of this short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles – is also, many years before Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, a down-to-earth social worker witch,  who visits her flock on a flying golf club, and is charged with the task of saving her kingdom. Were these fictional alter egos bringing a last message from their creators, offering their own hopes and dreams for the future?

The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and literary jokes for the well-read follower – they are both also sharing their real world view, however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books they are moved to speak more explicitly, perhaps free at last to unleash their prophecies and to prepare us for what may be coming.

Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, acknowledging and apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’  This was a story written in old age, but one she was determined to complete.

Aiken always had an extraordinary prescience, an ability to imagine changes in the world before they happened. This time she saw the world going backwards – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted from the mock Victorian century begun in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to parallel Saxon times in the last two books of the series – almost to the pre-historic age with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – the mysterious Hobyahs, and the flying Tatzelwurm.  The Hobyahs, completely unseen but violently destructive of all in their path, might just as well be a kind of virus, but in her world Joan Aiken offers a cure – the power of song, from a united, happy, singing marching army:

  “A tempest of sound swept across the valley. And the hordes of Hobyahs who had come out after sunset, eager to surge up the hill and demolish the happy, careless warriors, began to dwindle and shrink and crumple. Their faulty little prehistoric nerve systems could not stand up to the strong regular beat of the music; they whimpered and shivered and began to dissolve like butter melting on a griddle.”

Joan Aiken’s disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions, the north and the west connected only by railways with border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit perhaps, and then by a devastating pandemic?  Aiken’s invading armies are more like the waves of lost immigrants we see today; her hopeless army of Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, after cheerfully fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, decide that this would be an ideal country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making  inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose Scandinavian culture then becomes part of ‘Our Island’s Story’. It turns out that we can do better together than in conflict.

The solutions to dangerous situations in the ‘Wolves Chronicles’ stories always involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the shared thought-transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS.

In a previous book, Dido and Pa, we had met the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who nevertheless created their own circle of trust with their Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. But in the following story of  IS these orphans are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – incredibly, since the book was first written, homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood; now since they have experienced isolation from school friends, being kept at home by a virus, most have come to value even depend on online communication, but have also learned its dangers. In Joan Aiken’s world, lost and abandoned children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts, to communicate through the airwaves in a way they call feeling ‘the Touch’, so they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find freedom together.

This in itself was extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; then Facebook was unheard of, and in fact only started a month after Joan Aiken’s death in 2004 when the last of this series was published, but she had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, or as recently, by a wave of devastating illness, could find a way that they would be able to communicate through the ether.

But she saw every kind of joining together as important. At the end of Cold Shoulder Road it is the women and children who form an unshakeable ring of song around the villains and demonstrate that communication is stronger than conspiracy – united they sing:

Aikencircle poem 3

Although some reviewers have questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books of the Wolves Chronicles, her stated philosophy – that there should always in her children’s writing be a ray of hope at the end – carried her through to offer in the final book a last crazy Shakespearean Jig of a tale to sustain her readers, despite the dramas and dangers that have passed before.  Her alter-ego, Dido Twite, ever practical and philosophical, always willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends the last book on her own note of joyful forgiveness, celebrating everything she has gained from her endless journeys and adventures, and even from her murderous Pa, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.

Dark this kingdom of her creation may have been, but it is no darker than the real England of today; what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy; they were able to show through their storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it can illustrate the patterns of history in stories aimed at both adults and children – stories for anyone who has ears to hear.

As she said:

  “Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “

People need stories, and once read they may never be forgotten, as it seems readers of Joan Aiken are discovering, for as she put it herself,

‘Stories don’t have a tell by date…’

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Witch page

Read about the last Joan Aiken here and all of the ‘Wolves’ series

Start at the end why not? A marvellous introduction to the world of Joan Aiken…!

Tributes to Joan Aiken in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times

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Song illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

This year Puffin Books will celebrate the 60th Birthday of the first of these fantastic Books

with a special New Edition of

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Joan Aiken on Waiting for Inspiration…

“Being a writer is not unlike being a medium; sometimes the message comes through loud and clear, sometimes it doesn’t,”   Joan Aiken said in a talk on writing ghost stories.  Perhaps this is particularly apt for those with a gift for sensing odd atmospheres or noticing the unusual in the everyday, as she certainly did.       Her love of writing short stories, above all other forms of fiction, came from being aware of this gift –  although it often seemed that some ideas for stories arrived almost fully formed, being able to harness them was a skill she had to nurture.   As she said, it took years to learn to listen for that voice, to pay attention to her dreams, and then look out for, and make a note of the odd occurrence that would add the final spark or structure to complete a story.

Monkey Intro

But what when the voice doesn’t come?  When a dream remains just that,  an inconclusive mystery, a puzzle that doesn’t seem to have an answer.   Wait and see, she says, the universe, or something out of the blue may provide an answer, and unconsciously you are looking for it..

Writer's Block W2WYour block has unblocked and you are off again!

Joan Aiken used to object to being called ‘a born story teller’ – she knew writing was hard work, a craft you had to learn like any other, but in the case of her stories she did admit to the possibility of there being some kind of added ingredient beyond her control – a magical gift that she learned to listen out for, and which if she could catch and shape it, would become a story that would haunt her readers for ever.

voice in ear

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Joan Aiken wrote nearly thirty collections of stories for adults and younger readers, many fantastic and spooky, and many unforgettable.

Find some of them here.