Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles

Did Joan Aiken imagine that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today? Our lives may have been turned upside down, but she was ahead of us in her stories, particularly her best  known series The Wolves Chronicles, whose predictions seemed 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, who left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published, for fans who had followed her series set in her own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell.  Amanda Craig in her review of Terry Pratchett’s final book,  The Shepherd’s Crown 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’s a strange coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – who we meet in this short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles – was 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?

The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – they are both sharing their real world view, however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books they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 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 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 form a mock Victorian century to Saxon times, 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 virus, but here there is 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, and now by a devastating pandemic?  Aiken’s invading armies are more like waves of lost immigrants; the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, after 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 all  the ‘Wolves’ 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 the previous book, Dido and Pa, we had seen the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who nevertheless created a circle of trust with their own 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 they are isolated at home by a virus.  It is only when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts, to communicate through the airwaves in a way they call feeling ‘the Touch’, that 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; Facebook was unheard of, and only started a month after Joan Aiken’s death, but she had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, or as now, by a wave of devastating illness, could communicate through the ether.

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 reviewers 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 what she has gained from her endless 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

Post originally published pre-Brexit, and pandemic in 2015 –

last updated in 2021- where next?

The Aiken Family – living with Ghosts…

Writing has been the Aiken family trade for several generations, and provides a lasting framework for all our stories, real or fictional. So much of our history and family memories have been stored for posterity in books – in stories, novels, letters, lectures, poems, plays and papers of every kind, which happily means that it is always there to revisit…

Another kind of memory lingers on as well, the dreams,  which were always a family fascination and were often shared at the breakfast table; these became a  treasured souvenir that one always hoped would come again,  dream visitors returning in the night for a secret meeting, or in the case of long lost  family members, a re-meeting.

Ghosts have their story to tell too, and some of these are just as welcome; in one very special case I have in my home a lasting echo of a long lost furry friend who used to jump in through my bedroom window at night, and on this occasion picked his way through the wet white paint on the windowsill and so left his mark forever.

Cats have always been important members of our family, and yet another channel of communication. Joan wrote about visiting her father Conrad, aged about ten, after a gap of some years when her parents had divorced:

CA & JA & Cats

This piece and two others by Joan’s older brother John, and sister Jane, both published novelists, can be found in a little book they produced called Conrad Aiken Remembered  – published in 1989 to mark the centenary of his birth. The siblings met in Rye, in the house where Joan had been born in 1924, Jeake’s House on Mermaid Street,  to unveil a blue plaque which now commemorates the former Aiken family home, and that of Squidge, January and other unforgettable cats…

CA Remembered

Find the book and more about the life of Joan Aiken, and some of her special cats at Joan Aiken.com

The cover picture of the book is taken from a painting by another Rye resident and friend, Ed Burra.

The current whereabouts of the painting itself is unknown.

Jeake's House

Hope, Joan Aiken’s greatest gift to us?

Mouse 3

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 – 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 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.”

Watkyn2

We are magically drawn in – given an example of how a story works its charm – an invitation to join in the process of creative sharing, making us ask with the heroine:

“Could I do this?”

And hearing the answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

>  >  >  > * <  <  <  <

This story can be found in The People in The Castle

out now from Small Beer Press

People paperback

It also includes an introduction with more from Joan Aiken

on the magical power of storytelling 

You can read some excerpts  here

Where do stories come from? Joan Aiken explains…

Argosy webpage

Joan Aiken studied her craft while working for the short story magazine Argosy in the 1950’s, and always said it was the best training she could have had. As well as reading hundreds of submissions, interviewing and gleaning advice from the top authors of the day, such as Paul Gallico or H.E.Bates, and submitting her own stories to fierce editorial scrutiny, she was tasked with filling odd corners of pages, searching out entertaining news items, and writing a humorous Log Book to introduce the magazine each month.

While many of Joan Aiken’s Argosy stories were later included in her own supernatural or fantasy collections, she was so prolific that many had fallen out of print until fellow fantasy enthusiasts, Gavin Grant and writer partner Kelly Link of independent American publishers Small Beer Press offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, and they are certainly some of her wildest and most memorable stories.

Also in the collection is a short introduction Joan Aiken wrote for the title story, full of her own generous and hard earned writing wisdom, useful advice for other writers just starting out perhaps?

Here it is:

“Writing short stories has always been my favourite occupation ever since I was small, when I used to tell stories to my younger brother on walks we took through the Sussex woods and fields. At first I told him stories out of books we had in the house and then, running low on these, I began to invent, using the standard ingredients, witches, dragons, castles.

  Then doors began to open in my mind, I realised that the stories could be enriched and improved by mixing in everyday situations, people catching trains, mending punctures in bicycle tyres, winning raffles, getting medicine from the doctor. Then I began mixing in dreams. I have always had wonderful dreams – not as good as those of my father Conrad Aiken, who was the best dreamer I ever met, but very striking and full of mystery and excitement.

   The first story I ever finished, written at age 6 or 7 was taken straight from a dream. It was called Her Husband was a Demon. And one of my full-length books, Midnight is a Place was triggered off by a formidable dream about a carpet factory. Most of my short stories have some connection with a dream. When I wake I jot down the important element of the dream in a small notebook. Then weeks, months, even years may go by before I use it, but in the end a connection will be made with something that is happening now, and that sets off a story. It is rather like mixing flour and yeast and warm water. All three ingredients, on their own, will stay unchanged, but put them together and fermentation begins.

    A short story is not planned, in the way that a full-length novel is planned, episode by episode, with the end in sight; a short story is given, straight out of nowhere: suddenly two elements combine and the whole pattern is there, in the same way as, I imagine, painters get a vision of their pictures, before work starts. A short story, to me, always has a mysterious component, something that appears inexplicably from nowhere. Inexplicably, but inevitably; for if you check back through the pattern of the story you can see that the groundwork has already been laid for it. 

   The story of The Monkey’s Wedding for example, was set in motion by a dream about an acerbic old lady hunting about her house for lost things and buried memories, combined with a news story about a valuable painting found abandoned in a barn; only after I had begun the story did I realise that the last ingredient was going to be a grandson she didn’t even know she had lost.”

As a taster you can read one of the stories in a post from Tor.com here – this one is called Reading in Bed and is perhaps a warning to choose your late night reading matter carefully for fear of falling prey to nightmares – or alternatively, to help provide useful story material as Joan Aiken also said when she recommended eating cheese before bed in order to encourage fertile and fantastic dreams…

Monkey's Wedding 3

Find the collection at Small Beer Press