“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.
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..
Your 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.
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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.
Joan Aiken’s haunted mill – setting for The Shadow Guests
Joan Aiken always carried a sketchbook, and made a note of locations for a story or novel, and this sinister old watermill surrounded by dark trees gives the flavour of a particularly spooky novel she wrote for younger readers. The Shadow Guests ends in a setting just like this, by moonlight of course, with a hair-raising fight to the death over its rotting floorboards with a member of the notorious ‘Hell Fire Club’ – although he is now a ghost of course..!
But it begins with a different kind of horror – that of starting a new school, something that many readers’ children will be facing this autumn; but although this one may seem strangely old fashioned now, and fairly eccentric, the school experience Joan Aiken describes here in all its painful detail was in fact based on the boarding school she went to herself in 1936.
Although she makes use of her own unhappy memories of being ‘hazed’ or bullied as a new girl, and even sent to Coventry by her class for being too cheeky, Joan did later make some lifelong friends at the school, and was able to practice her storytelling skills on them when they all had to go down and shelter in the basement during the air-raids of World War II.
And spooky stories were obviously the best for distracting them…
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The new Puffin edition of The Shadow Guests is out now –
Just in time for Hallowe’en…!
Cover art by Joe Wilson – who hadn’t seen Joan’s picture – spooky or what?
See more about Joan’s art and school days here:
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