A passion for ghost stories seems like an unusual taste for a six year old, but at this early age Joan Aiken had discovered and was absolutely relishing them:
“I had already read Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James,
and nearly died of delicious terror at Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You.”
“Searching for more fodder of a similar kind – children
of that age seem to be infinitely tough and infinitely masochistic
– I was immediately attracted by the picture of a corpse dangling
from a gallows on the front cover of Spook Stories by E.F.Benson, and was rather
disappointed to discover that this corpse never actually figured in
By the age of six, she had already begun writing stories herself, using her favourite authors as a model and was producing such titles as ‘Her Husband was a Demon’ or ‘Sir Denis and the Devil in the Starry Teapot,‘ and another remarkably scary tale about a haunted sofa…
Her first published book was a collection of stories for children that included ‘The Ghostly Governess’ pictured above, who terrorised the children of the house – but in this case only by making them do homework all night, as they struggle to recite lessons from invisible text books.
They finally get rid of her by locating the naughty child from over sixty years previously who had never been able to learn his lesson; now he is an ageing retired admiral, but by teaching him the dates of Queen Anne and finally putting her mind at rest, they allow his poor governess to retire happy, and the exhausted children can finally sleep in peace.
Born in a house in Rye that was reputedly haunted by the seventeenth century astrologer and philosopher Samuel Jeake, she often said that she was disappointed never to have seen any ghostly apparition herself, but she certainly relished writing about them, whether in stories for children or adults.
“Horror appeals to children,’ she wrote, ‘the margin between the two genres is very narrow, and children as much as adults enjoy having their fears made explicit. The difference lies in how the story ends…”
Certainly some of her adult ghost stories are very alarming indeed, but mystery is important in the telling as she points out, and then the reader will do quite a bit of the work himself:
‘The worst, the most frightening stories, are those in which the reader is not told precisely what happens, but is left to guess.”
“The way I build a ghost story is to start with what I call the moment – the climax, though it may not be the end. The classic example of this is the person waking in a fright, putting out a hand in the dark, and the hand goes into a mouth, hot and wet, with sharp teeth… Other examples: You ring the bell of a familiar house, but when the door opens, the interior is completely unfamiliar, and the person who opens the door is a stranger. You answer the phone, and the voice of a long-dead person says, “See you later.”
You confidently put your hand in your pocket for keys and encounter – what? Something hideously out of place…”
Joan Aiken went on to produce more than a dozen collections of spooky stories for adults and younger readers, but these days they would possibly not be considered suitable for those as young as she was when she started reading Edgar Allan Poe, or even the fairly scary stories by her own father and step-father, and then in imitation, writing them herself. She must have had a very secure childhood, or been a fairly unusual six year old to have had such ghoulish tastes…
Illustration by Joan’s long time collaborator, Pat Marriott