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 and Jane Austen – in good company.

In a piece written for the Jane Austen Society called Grim Evenings with Jane Austen, Joan Aiken writes:
“There is a widespread misapprehension among many people that Jane Austen’s novels are a genteel feast of sweet ladylikeness and innocent merriment. But of course it wasn’t like that at all. Not at the time.”

She continues:

“Jane Austen knows and describes as few other writers have done with such intensity, the suffocating dullness, the deadly monotony, the sense of entrapment that comes from living in a small country place with no means of escape. From an early age she had referred to this predicament, sometimes jokingly – ‘Our neighbourhood was small, for it consisted solely of your Mother.’ she wrote in an early pastiche Love and Freindship at the age of about fifteen, but in fact for well bred ladies of the period this was no joke.”

When Austen first began her story, the fragment known as The Watsons, the subject matter may have been too close to Jane Austen’s own situation for her to continue it with any possibility of lightening the mood – sisters about to lose their father, and their home, with no possibility of improving their future circumstances, even in Jane’s case, by inventing imaginary happy endings.

Even in her six novels, Joan Aiken wrote, gloom, solitude and monotony are the daily diet of Austen’s heroines, which is why they so easily fall prey to cosmopolitan interlopers like Henry Crawford, Wickham, Willoughby and Mr. Elliot.

So in sisterly fashion, Joan Aiken decides to rescue Austen’s heroine, in this case Emma Watson, and by using her own powers of writerly imagination, to create a more engaging outcome which may or may not accord with the expectations of Janeites…

Aiken speculated:

“A common mistake made by readers about writers is to imagine that each of their works reflects their emotional progress…but Austen’s work, at first done for fun, and to entertain her family, became, later, something very different, the main function of her life and, perhaps an assuagement for a feeling of emptiness.”

So if Joan Aiken takes a few liberties with her ‘Jane Austen Entertainments’ such as her completion of The Watsons it seems only proper to see it as an exercise in the spirit of sisterly sympathy – to allow a more cheerful outcome for Jane and her heroine.

For as she reminds us:

“For Jane Austen herself it ended very badly; she lost her lover, she died, after a lot of pain, away from her beloved village home, and bitterly disappointed that her mother had not been better provided for.”

So for those who would like to give one Jane Austen heroine a very happy ending (no spoilers here, and you will never guess!) despite all dreadful expectations to the contrary – welcome to Joan Aiken’s completion of Emma Watson…!

Out today in a brand new paperback:

Copyright of ‘Unseen Jane Austen Portrait’ Dr.Paula Byrne

Girls Running from Houses…

3.The Fortune Hunters2

What is behind all those fabulously lurid 1960’s romance novel covers which invariably show a beautiful young woman fleeing a dark, sinister house in the middle of nowhere? Not what you might expect…!

Although the cover art of these 1960’s and 1970’s paperbacks has now become increasingly popular on internet sites, the origins of this particular genre of novel, together with its typically romantic cover images, are swathed in as much mystery as the gloomy fog-enshrouded castles from which these girls are so desperate to escape. Why did this particular image become such a powerful symbol?

Joan Aiken would never have expected her 1960’s suspense novels to be seen as part of the genre but the rather astonishing artistic conventions of the time dictated otherwise. She was often amazed to see her heroines flamboyantly pictured on American paperback covers, caught up in fantastic scenes which hardly ever took place between their pages. What were the literary roots of these ‘Gothic Romances’, and what caused  their popularity in the middle of the twentieth century?

Women of the period were torn between a post-Second World War retreat to the ‘haven’ of marriage and domesticity, and the stirrings of consciousness brought about by war work and the newly developing feminist movement, which began to offer an alternative prospect of independence and fulfilment in the wider world.

2.Trouble with product X

The American TV series Madmen portrayed this period vividly for a whole new generation of women, who have been amazed not just by the fashions, but by the unexpectedly oppressive conventions of the time. Whether as a bored and trapped housewife, or sexually vulnerable office girl, these women did not necessarily have the freedom to enjoy the changes that the rest of society was going through. Gothic Romances offered an escape; the chance to experience, if only vicariously, some of life’s alternatives. They seemed to be an adult version of fairy tales, or girls’ adventure stories, where independence of mind and feistiness of spirit were rewarded, not squashed, and girls had the freedom to discover their own true selves and abilities. The women might start out single and unsupported, but they used their talents as nurses or governesses to win the hearts of wealthy heroes – not unlike the Cinderella plot of the film Pretty Woman, only in Gothics, prostitution wouldn’t have been a career option – the heroine was expected to defend her virtue until she got a wedding ring! 4. Austen Gothic

These novels, aimed primarily at women, had first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century at another time of change and revolution, and the genre was later parodied by Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey, which made fun of young ladies who read too many sensational novels about sinister goings-on in dark castles, and were thus blinded to the rather more present perils of single women in real life. The option, even half a century later, of becoming a governess like Jane Eyre, led more often to a life of drudgery than to romance and marriage. In Victorian times, although marriage was still the safest option, women may yet have dreamed of escaping their idealised but restrictive role as ‘Angel of the House’ and yearned to go off into the world like Mary Kingsley or Florence Nightingale.

Meanwhile, popular novelists like  Dickens and Wilkie Collins were having their vulnerable heroines incarcerated in mental asylums, or dying of wasting diseases, and so kept firmly in their place. It wasn’t until after the First World War that women novelists really began to make their ideas heard, and to produce more realistic writing for the many single women who found themselves with no alternative but to make an independent life, when, following the vast losses of men, married domesticity was not an option. At the same time, the growth of local lending libraries, distributing novels by and for women, sustained and tantalised their married sisters, who, like the heroine of Brief Encounter, had given in to a safer solution, but with it given up all hope of adventure or personal fulfilment. At the very end of this inter-war period, one of the great romantic literary models appeared – Daphne du Maurier, who, with her novels such as Frenchman’s Creek and more especially Rebecca, set a trend for later romantic novelists to follow.

5.Mistress of Mellyn You have probably never heard of Eleanor Hibbert, but under the names of Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, she sold more than 100 million copies of her own romance novels. Her first title was Mistress of Mellyn – in plot terms, the ultimate Gothic Romance, modelled on Rebecca – in which a governess goes to a lonely Cornish mansion haunted by presence of the hero’s mysteriously deceased previous wife. The novel is credited with establishing the form, and is now widely regarded as the model for the last flowering of the Romantic Gothic novel of the 1960s. It also bore the cover that would set the trend for the many that followed – the picture of the haunted heroine, torn between past and future, traditional relationship or escape?  The girl running away from the house.

Until then, especially in the USA, pulp fiction magazines (so called because they were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, unlike the more expensive ‘glossies’) were providing most of the escapist fiction available, whether horror or romance, with gaudy, sensational artwork on their covers. The new paperback companies, like Ace or Dell, who took pre-published novels from the hardback houses and produced them in inexpensive ‘pocketbook’ editions, began to take over the market, but they continued the tradition of illustrated magazine covers and used them to signal particular ‘genres’, such as what came to be known as the Gothic Romance.

7.Jane Eyre

6.Argosy Weekly

Suddenly these paperbacks were available everywhere, in drugstores, supermarkets, train stations and, of course, airports – leading to the term ‘airport reading’ – and they had to be eye-catching and easily identifiable, or ‘cover coded’, with what was now a brand image of the girl and the house.

Authors like Joan Aiken, who might be perfectly aware of the conventions of the genre, and who were more likely to be writing parodies of the style, in the manner of Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey, could nevertheless find that paperback copies of their novels featured startling images on their covers that bore no relation to the content. Even if your heroine was a jeans-wearing, car-driving, educated working girl, she could still find herself depicted at a complete loss, running away from a haunted house in her nightdress, if the publisher thought this would sell more copies.

Apparently women readers identified with the fantasy of a heroine of spirit, intelligence and heart, battling alone against tremendous odds of a rather colourful kind!

But it is worth looking, as feminist critics of the genre have since done, at what is beneath this lonely quest. Is the choice really between submission to marriage and its hoped-for security, or being swept into the evil embrace of a dark stranger – or is the escape depicted on these dramatic covers actually from something still more sinister? There is a reason why no actual villain appears on these covers, because it is the House that they are escaping from, and all that it represents – the life that their mothers led, and the repressive conventions, sexual and social, that would otherwise keep them trapped in the roles expected of them – those hitherto portrayed by male novelists.

Of course they want to escape – even if they have to do it barefoot over the rocks at midnight. And if it had to be shown in these strangely subversive images, then at least it was a format that was recognisable, and that to readers signalled a form of liberation if only in fiction, that they could achieve.

Joan Aiken, Daphne du Maurier and many others before them, including Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, have had their work and their heroines apparently belittled by this sensational packaging. But at the same time, a powerful subliminal message was being conveyed: you too could free yourself from the conventions of society!  There was nothing to be ashamed of in using your imagination, and by reading the works of other women – escaping from the domestic chores with a novel for an hour or so.

Years later Joan Aiken was delighted to discover a copy of one of her own early novels on a New York book stand, with its dramatic Gothic cover showing a girl hot-footing it away from an imprisoning past, the book now hygienically shrink-wrapped and labelled:

Used, sanitised, yours for One Dollar!

Reader, she bought it….

Herondale Edit cover

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Find all Joan Aiken novels on her website

Six Early Aiken Gothics now available from Orion Murder Room 

Ribs of Death & Fortune Hunters

Also available from Bello Macmillan

Period Romances and Austen Sequels

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

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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