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 Musical Inspiration in dark times

Japanese Touch of Chill

    “Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats wrote, “but those unheard are sweeter.” For Joan Aiken this idea provided the inspiration for stories full of  music, in times when it was especially needed, which the reader can hear only in his imagination.

She created some wonderful magical music, like a tune which when whistled or sung brings a cardboard cut-out garden to life in her unforgettable story of The Serial Garden, or a record which quietly turns itself over while sending the listener into a mythical garden of her own, in More than you Bargained For; or a kingdom so dedicated to music that when the people forget to honour their goddess, they are stricken with a burning, freezing curse until she can be summoned back by notes from a harp that comes from deep water, a harp that no man has ever played,  A Harp of Fishbones.  In many of her stories, music is understood to be a powerful and healing force, which is almost better when you have to imagine the tune.

Brought up in a household with only a piano to provide music, where her mother regularly gathered the family to sing, and before anyone had a record player or even a radio, as there was no electricity in their village, Joan Aiken became musically literate enough to make use of ‘heard melodies’ that stirred the imagination of her readers too.

One of her earliest stories, The Mysterious Barricades, is inspired by a piece of  François Couperin  harpsichord music which for years she played on a 78 record. (I vividly remember her small but colourful record collection in an old tin box, which included Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith and Beethoven’s Rage at a Lost Penny, some saucy songs by Jean Sablon, and the Red Flag among its treasures.) The Mysterious Barricades inspired a fantasy she set in a Transylvanian territory that might have come from  Mary Shelley, except that it was also a wry comment on the kind of Government Department where she had worked in the 1940’s, helping to keep the wheels of Britain turning during World War Two.

The gloom of the restrictive red tape and deadening bureaucracy of those times could only be lightened by one of her typical flights of fantastic imagination.  In Joan Aiken’s story of their musical quest to escape from it all armed only with a cup of tea and a biscuit, two civil servants and a canary finally arrive together on a mountain top and play a piece of music ‘of more than mortal beauty’ which causes those Mysterious Barricades to open and let them through.

Mysterious Barricades

Illustrations here and below by Pat Marriott

Music was a great support to her at that time – going to concerts and singing in London churches provided solace in those dark days, but she wasn’t afraid to parody the over seriousness of the musical establishment of the time either. In the 1950’s Joan Aiken worked at the short story magazine Argosy first editing, then writing, or finding,  copy to fill odd corners and producing a monthly ‘log book’ full of imaginary news items.

   It is perhaps not surprising that the first story of hers that was accepted for publication by Argosy in 1955 also had a musical inspiration; called Some Music for The Wicked Countess,  it has as its hero a serious young composer who finds himself in the wilds of Ireland earning his living as a music teacher in a village school, but who is utterly unaware that the surrounding forest is not only ‘stiff with enchantment’ but also contains a magical castle inhabited by a scheming Countess determined to lure him up to her bower for a musical soiree…

He fails to fall for a whole series of her magical entrapments, and in the end the enraged Countess is forced to appear to him in person while he is out in the forest collecting moths. Slightly bewildered he follows her up ‘half-a-hundred stairs’ to her tower,while she sends a couple of leprechauns to fetch his piano, and having unwittingly avoided drinking another magic potion he sits down to perform:

Wicked Countess

Countess   The  cover illustration at the top is from the Japanese edition of another collection of Joan Aiken stories, A Touch of Chill. The story called A Rented Swan was also originally published in Argosy  and tells of a composer who finds an apartment with a grand piano, but discovers too late that it also includes a swan. “It’s in the lease, Sir, didn’t you read it? Furniture, fittings, appurtenances, and one swan; care of aforesaid swan to be undertaken by the hereinaftermentioned Henry Wadsworth Oglethorpe.”

(and of course it isn’t an ordinary swan, but an unfortunate piece of enchantment, and the story was originally, fiendishly, entitled Lease of a Gold Banded Pen…)

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Read here about a collection of these early stories  The Monkey’s Wedding  with an introduction about Joan’s Argosy days

Monkey's Wedding

And find these and more mysterious stories in the new Joan Aiken collection from

Small Beer Press

The People in the Castle

Now out in Paperback

People paperback

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A Story of Hope – Joan Aiken’s Ghost Mouse – coming to a live reading…

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 Watkyn, Comma – A story of hope

 

   What if you bought the house of your dreams – a ruin of course – but discovered, as Joan Aiken did with her own home, that you were sharing it with a ghost? And what better metaphor is there for a ghost than a comma, a moment in time, a pause to allow space for a new idea…maybe in an unexpected form?

   Joan Aiken’s heroine, Miss Sibley, finds the perfect companion in this surprising story – if you were planning to run a bakery, and looking for a companion, who would be most appreciative of your efforts?

One night she finds herself accidentally locked into a secret chamber under the eaves,  a tiny room that has been hidden away for hundreds of years… But someone still lives there, perhaps the person mentioned in the diary she had discovered, written by a fugitive priest called Gabriel, many years ago…

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Originally from  A Fit of Shivers

And now in a newly published collection of Joan Aiken’s strange stories

The People in the Castle

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From Small Beer Press

This story is to be read in May 2018  in the series Selected Shorts at New York’s  Symphony Space

– a program for live readings of short stories that are then later broadcast on National Public Radio –

 

Read more about Watkyn and the collection in Lizza Aiken’s Introduction

The best stories of Joan Aiken – The People in the Castle wins five stars!

People paperback

Now out in paperback, this ‘haunting and wondrous book’ has stories drawn from Joan Aiken’s entire career; from the fantastic to the funny, these stories show her gift for mixing the everyday and the magical, the spooky and the  surreal. If you haven’t discovered Joan Aiken yet, this is the perfect place to begin…

Here are some readers responses:

“To read the stories in this most recent collection is like coming home to my quirky ancestral mansion and spending time exploring the trunks in the attic. There are dark corners and sunbeams shining through the dust motes. Faint fragrances evoke memories and emotions long forgotten.” OverReader: Amazon review

“Renowned fabulist and children’s author Joan Aiken had a long and prolific career, and it’s easy to see why her career endured across decades. Her stories have a timeless feel, whether screwball romantic comedies about ghosts, or tales of confounded faerie royalty. If you’re an Aiken neophyte, this offers an amazing starting point, with stories running the gamut of fantasy, horror, comic fantasy, reimagined fairy tales, and legends. If you’ve experienced Aiken before, this is a selection of her best work. Either way, The People in the Castle is a great example of why her stories still hold up.”
Joel Cunningham Barnes & Noble: 7 Essential New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Story Collections

“For readers unfamiliar with Aiken’s work, its ice-and-stars clarity, naturalism, and unerring dialogue can be described as hypnotic: “Empty and peaceful the old house dreamed, with sunlight shifting from room to room and no sound to break the silence, save in one place, where the voices of children could be heard faintly above the rustling of a tree.” [from “A Room Full of Leaves.”] William Grabowski,  See the Elephant

“Fans of Wolves will recognize the honorable orphans and cruel guardians who populate these tales. Typically the wicked meet with fitting fates and the innocent triumph, though for Aiken, a good death counts as a happy ending. She plays with the contrast between the eldritch and modern culture and technology: ghosts and dead kings out of legend who contact the living by telephone, a doctor who writes prescriptions for fairies, a fairy princess who’s fond of Westerns. Her metaphors and similes surprise and delight: “the August night was as gentle and full as a bucket of new milk”; “He was tall and pale, with a bony righteous face and eyes like faded olives”; across a field, “lambs [followed] their mothers like iron filings drawn to a magnet in regular converging lines.” Sprightly but brooding, with well-defined plots, twists, and punch lines, these stories deserve a place on the shelf with the fantasies of Saki (H.H. Munro), Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Susanna Clarke.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“There’s so much to love about this slender collection… The juxtaposition of mundane and magical…feels effortless and fresh. The language is simply splendid, so evocative, as though the stories were actually very dense poems. And it brilliantly showcases Aiken’s affectionate, humorous, deft portrayals of female characters… Aiken’s prose is extraordinary, impossible to do justice to in this small space. Her skill with the language of folk tales—specifically the oral storytelling native to the British Isles—is unparalleled… These stories both feel very 20th century and somehow timeless.”
— Publishers Weekly Rose Fox, Senior Reviews Editor

*****

Read the title story here, and the introduction by Kelly Link, Pulitzer Prize nominated short story writer and half of the publishing team at Small Beer Press

Read the introduction to Joan Aiken’s Strange stories by daughter Lizza Aiken