The Power of Storytelling – Joan Aiken’s strange stories

People in the Castle

Joan Aiken once described a moment during a talk she was giving at a conference, when to illustrate a point she began to tell a story.  At that moment, she said, the quality of attention in the room subtly changed. The audience, as if hypnotised, seemed to fall under her control:

“Everyone was listening, to hear what was going to happen next.”

From her own experience – whether as an addictive reader from early childhood or as a story teller herself, learning to amuse a younger brother growing up in a remote village – by the time she was writing for a living to support her family, she had learned a great respect for the power of stories.

Like a sorcerer addressing her apprentice, in her heartfelt guide, The Way to Write for Children, she advises careful use of the storyteller’s power:

“From the beginning of the human race stories have been used—by priests, by bards, by medicine men—as magic instruments of healing, of teaching, as a means of helping people come to terms with the fact that they continually have to face insoluble problems and unbearable realities.”

Clearly this informed her desire to bring to her own stories as much richness, as many layers of meaning, and as much of herself, her extensive reading and her own experience of life as she possibly could. Stories, she said, give us a sense of our own inner existence and the archetypal links that connect us to the past…they show us patterns that extend beyond ordinary reality.

Although she repudiated the idea that her writing contained any overt moral, nevertheless many of Joan Aiken’s stories do convey a powerful sense of the fine line between good and evil.  She habitually made use of the traditional conventions of folk tales and myths, in which right is rewarded and any kind of inhumanity gets its just deserts.  Her particular gift though, was to transfer these myths into richly detailed everyday settings that we would recognise, and then add a dash of magic – a doctor holds his surgery in a haunted castle, and so a ghost comes to be healed.

What Aiken brings to her stories is her own voice – and the assurance that these stories are for you.  By reading them, taking part in them, not unlike the beleaguered protagonists she portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers or lonely children – you too can learn to take charge of your 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 unloose your imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy you 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 this collection – and hope, Aiken believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma.  Here she uses the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express a sudden opening up of experience: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and can seize the opportunity to discover something hitherto unimaginable.

In the course of 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.  By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – our ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, our real will to learn to communicate – she leaves us feeling like the characters in the story – “brought forward.”

Aiken draws us into a moment of listening – gives an example of how a story works its magic – and invites us to join in the process of creative sharing, believing,asking:

“Could I do this?” 

…and hearing her answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

Aiken is perfectly capable of showing the dark side of the coin, of sharing our dangerous propensity to give in to nightmares and conjure monsters from the deep, but at her best and most powerful she allows her protagonists to summon their deepest strengths to confront their devils.  In the story of this name, born from one of her own nightmares, even Old Nick is frustrated by a feline familiar called Hope.

This collection of stories, taken from her entire writing career, some of which I have known and been told since I was born, form a magical medicine chest of remedies for all kinds of human trials, and every form of unhappiness.  The remedies are hope, generosity, empathy, humour, imagination, love, memory, dreams… Yes, sometimes she shows that it takes courage to face down the more hair-raising fantasies, and conquer our unworthy instincts, but in the end the reward is in the possibility of transformation.

The Fairy Godmother is within us all.

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~ From The People in the Castle ~

 collected strange stories by Joan Aiken pub. April 2016

Includes this introduction by Lizza Aiken and another by Kelly Link

Read a story from the collection and a review from a newly devoted reader at Tor.com

Find Small Beer Press details here

 

 

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“The Apple of Trouble” an Armitage Family story

Read a taster of an aptly named story from ‘The Serial Garden’

by Joan Aiken at Virago

Apple

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….Mark is persuaded to make an exchange with the little man who makes off at top speed on the brand new bicycle – unfortunately this was a present from Great-Uncle Gavin who has come to look after Mark and his sister Harriet while Mr and Mrs Armitage take a much needed holiday…

Uncle Gavin nearly bursts a blood vessel when he hears… “Did what? Merciful providence – an apple?…Where is it?”

SerialApple3SerialApple4SerialApple5How are Mark and Harriet going to get rid of these Un-Friendly ladies before they avenge themselves on Great-uncle Gavin? Just one of the many adventures that befall Joan Aiken’s Armitage Family, usually on a Monday, but sometimes on other days too.. wonderfully illustrated by Peter Bailey

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Wonder how they do?

This and all the stories about the extraordinary Armitage family are in

The Serial Garden

Now published by Virago Modern Classics

Click to visit the website and see this and the US edition

read a complete story, plus Lizza’s introduction telling how Joan came to write these delightfully crazy  stories

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Joan Aiken’s Haunting Garden…

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Do you remember, as a child, coming home to find that your room has been spring cleaned and much loved if dusty treasures tossed in the bin, only to hear:

    “Oh you didn’t want that did you? I thought you’d finished with it.”

This was clearly  a memory from Joan Aiken’s own childhood, and she turned it into one of the most haunting stories she ever wrote – ‘The Serial Garden’.

In this memorable story, one of the many she wrote about her imaginary Armitage Family,  Mark discovers that a cut out garden from the back of a series of cereal packets comes to life when he whistles or sings a certain tune. He then learns that the garden comes from an old book of pictures belonging to the Princesss of Saxe Hoffen-Poffen und Hamster, and that she herself is imprisoned in the garden – thanks to a bit of parlour magic – still waiting to be rescued by her long lost love,  the Court Kapellmeister and music teacher who her father forbade her to marry.

As the haughty princess explains:

“All princesses were taught a little magic, not so much as to be vulgar, just enough to get out of social difficulties.”

– which was just what she used it for, concealing herself in the book, so that she could run away with her suitor.

Serial PicOriginal illustration by Pat Marriott

But the maid who was supposed to give the book to her beloved Kapellmeister never delivered it.  Only when the pictures were reproduced on the back of a Brekkfast Brikks packet many years later,  could the garden be re-created, and the tune which had unwittingly been passed on to Mark by his own music teacher is the very one to bring it to life – is there finally a chance of happiness for the long estranged lovers?

But while Mark is out, urgently fetching his music teacher, Mr Johansen, his mother, Mrs Armitage has been spring cleaning….

The character of Mrs Armitage was based on Joan’s own mother,  Jessie Armstrong, married after her divorce from poet Conrad Aiken, to Joan’s second writer father, Martin Armstrong.  When Joan was young Armstrong was famous for his own children’s stories about a rather suburban 1940’s family in thrall to their various talking pets, but her  own Armitage stories which began as a tongue in cheek parody of his, became a lifelong passion.

This particular story, originally published in Jessie’s lifetime, in a collection of fantasy stories called A Small Pinch of Weather was even dedicated to her mother, but in later years Joan came to be haunted by the sad ending of the story; perhaps she felt it was  unjust to her mother’s memory, she certainly received many letters from readers protesting against its rather shocking ending.   Joan wanted a chance to make amends, and although she couldn’t undo the dreadful ending of the first story, she could perhaps give Mark and poor Mr Johansen another chance to find the vanished garden and the lost princess.

Just before she  died Joan  was preparing a collection of all the Armitage Family stories she had written over the years, including four new ones  and a sequel to ‘The Serial Garden’ story, giving the chance of a hopeful solution to the estranged lovers.  She planned that the book would be published under the title of The Serial Garden to alert anyone still waiting for their long promised happy ending, that it might finally be on the way.

So if you missed it, and are one of the people still haunted by that unforgivable ending, all is not entirely lost – the book has come out and perhaps hope can spring again…and you can enjoy the entire collection of these witty and wonderful stories!

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Visit the Joan Aiken Website to read  about the writing of  The Serial Garden

Follow the link to the introduction by Lizza Aiken to the American edition telling more about Joan’s childhood in the village that forms the magical background to the Armitage Family stories

Find NEW UK Edition here with cover and delightful illustrations by Peter Bailey

 published by Virago Children’s Classics

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All Best Wishes…

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 Wishes have always been at at the heart of fairy tales and story telling…they can be the seed that creates a whole new world or, more often, the first creak of discontent that brings on a landslide of disaster!

In her own stories Joan Aiken played with all the classic ideas – the dangerous wishes without forethought, the sometimes ludicrous results of gaily tossed off wishes, the indigestible effects of wishes that can’t be stopped, the wishes that come true in ways you would never have expected…

One of her most long lasting wish-gifts – given to Mrs Armitage, mother of Joan Aiken’s imaginary Armitage Family – was  that she and her family, while living out their traditional ‘Happy Ever After’ in her stories would ‘never, never be bored’.

This wish was to be prophetic also for Joan Aiken who was to go on writing their extraordinary stories throughout her life, with obvious enjoyment and relish.  One of her own last wishes was to have all the Armitage family stories collected together from the many different story books where they had appeared over the years, and which was first published in the US, as The Serial Garden This  is the title of one especially memorable story, and also a very Aiken pun describing a garden that grows week by week, which is made from cut-outs found on a packet of breakfast cereal. This last story collection was intended for those readers who had written to her saying that the story was one that would possibly haunt them forever…  The outcome of the original ‘Serial Garden’ story couldn’t be undone, but perhaps because of Joan Aiken’s original promise of a Happy Ever After, there would be a way to change it for the better?

Joan Aiken first started writing about the Armitage Family almost as a joke, a parody of her stepfather Martin Armstrong’s successful Children’s Hour series “Said the Cat to the Dog” which was being broadcast on BBC children’s hour in the 1940’s when she was in her teens.  But to her surprise this imaginary family took her over, and even came to supply a sustaining, alternative world which she returned to over and over again. During one of the bleakest periods of her life when her own future was deeply uncertain, she said that something extraordinary happened to help her through:

“I think my own most creative burst was during a week in April 1954 when I wrote a short story every day, children’s fantasies, some of which I think are among my best work.”

Luckily it was a gift that lasted all her life.

Here is part of the Prelude Joan wrote to go with the Armitage collection, explaining perhaps to herself, or maybe to Mrs Armitage, why the family should be blessed with such good fortune – could it be because, in best Fairy Tale tradition,  they knew when to stop wishing?

Serial Prologue

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Read a Serial Garden story excerpt: The Apple of Trouble

Complete Stories now published in the UK by Virago Children’s Classics

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Best Wishes also to Joan Aiken’s life-long literary agent Charles Schlessiger,

 For a Very Happy 82nd Birthday!

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