Hope, Joan Aiken’s greatest gift to us?

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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 in fiction – 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 how to live, 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.”

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

“Could I do this?”

And hearing the answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

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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

Joan Aiken’s Imaginary Friends…The Shadow Guests

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 Joan Aiken…making up friends?

When Joan Aiken was sent away to school at the age of twelve, she found her new world an alarming and unfriendly place. A 1930’s progressive boarding school in Oxford, full of the chatter of school slang and constantly clanging bells was a noisy nightmare for the small girl who had hardly ever left her village; at home her double-graduate mother Jessie had also been her teacher, and her smaller brother was her only companion in the fantasy world of books they all read, shared and inhabited.

Joan’s distressing introduction to the uncongenial institution of school was the world she re-created for Cosmo, lonely hero of her children’s novel The Shadow Guests.  Having also lost a mother and a brother, he is sent away to an unknown country and new school where, excluded by classmates, he becomes haunted by unwelcome visitations, the friends, or enemies, of his imagination…

Joan was a fearless child, completely secure at home she adored scary stories – poems and tales of haunting by ghosts and possession by demons.  Imaginary friends were her daily companions, and in her fantasies she enacted  glorious battles against evil and undertook countless heroic journeys. She also said she had always wished she was a boy, and when young spent a good deal of time constructing tree houses, making bows and arrows and having the kind of wild outdoor adventures she  gives to her hero Cosmo at the haunted Mill House where he stays at weekends with his enigmatic cousin Eunice. Known as Dracula’s Aunt to his school companions, she is as forthright in her conversations with him as Joan’s mother might have been – Jessie cheerfully explained Coleridge’s opium habit when her six year old daughter asked about the wailing woman and the demon lover in Kubla Khan…

Another side to Joan Aiken’s inspiration for  The Shadow Guests, the ghostly visitors conjured up by an unhappy boy, was the experience of a neighbour’s child whose imaginary friend had started to become harsh and tyrannical. Lonely and unhappy children, like the writers who have created stories about them, tend to have rather fickle fantasy companions. J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan is contrary enough as a fantasy friend, but he himself is pursued by the utterly terrifying Captain Hook; Robert Louis Stevenson’s benign unseen playmates from his idyllic children’s verses lead on to more haunting tales about the alter ego – the purely evil element of Mr Hyde.

So if Cosmo can’t control the behaviour of his bullying classmates, he finds he can learn to be in charge of his imagination. His early experience from reading, and from his previous life with his mother and brother provide him with the means to manage and understand his ghostly visitors in very practical ways:

  He thought about Con, and about Sim. Had he dreamed them, or made them up?  Were they products of his own mind? How could he ever tell? They had seemed perfectly real. There, moored by the bank, was the boat in which Sim had been lying, reading his book; there, across the lawn, was the walnut tree, the look-out platform defended by the poles that Con had helped hammer into place. Surely they were real people? If I had made them up, if I had invented them, he thought, I’d have liked them more from the start; I would have made them into ideal friends. But I didn’t like them, not at first. And then, later, I found out things about them that I hadn’t expected – so they must have been real, mustn’t they?

With all the technological gadgetry and virtual realities available to children these days, they have the constant possibility of escape into other worlds, not just those offered by books or their own imaginations. But they still have to deal with the real world, the sometimes scary walk to school, the taunting  or worse, of unfriendly companions when they get there.

This story of Joan Aiken’s is based on her own memories – the shock of going to a new school – a subject particularly poignant to many at this time of year, but is at its heart a celebration of friends – how, when you keep your wits about you, you can get to know people and learn to trust them.  From the moment he lands at the airport Cosmo is unsure of himself, expects nothing from strangers, least of all that he will be liked. Sure enough when no one is there to meet him, and he tries to imagine a voice over the tannoy, it is a taunting one:

 ‘Will the friends meeting Cosmo Curtoys–?’
Friends sounded wrong– he had no friends over here, it seemed like presuming on people’s good-nature to call them his friends in advance.

The prospect of school is even more unnerving:

‘I wish I didn’t have to go to school,’ Cosmo said. ‘I’m sure school was invented just because parents can’t be bothered to look after their children.’

Cousin Eunice considered this.

‘Very possibly. But there are some advantages to it. After all, specially nowadays, you do have to learn a lot of things, just to keep alive; look how useless babies are, they don’t even know how to prise the lids off treacle tins. They wouldn’t last a day without help. What schools ought to be – I don’t say they are – is places where you can pick up all that kind of know-how very quickly and compactly. And, of course, make friends, learn how to get on with other people.’

Cosmo felt he could have done without that part.

But by the end of the story he has – as Joan herself presently did at her own school – made three close friends and said goodbye to the ghostly visitors.

Joan Aiken used to say that when she was a child, books were her friends, and that this was the pleasure she wanted to share with others through her own writing; this story,  although it may seem alarming at first sight, could be one that will stay with you for life.

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Although Joan Aiken lived in various supposedly haunted houses, she was disappointed never to see their ghostly inhabitants. The picture above was taken by a visiting friend…

The new edition of The Shadow Guests  now out from Puffin Books

with added extras about Joan’s own school days and more!

NewShadow Guests Puffin

 

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