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 spell –
“Everyone was listening, to hear what was going to happen next.”
From her own experience, whether as a compulsive reader from early childhood, or as a story teller herself – learning to amuse her 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 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 called Watkyn, Comma. Here she uses the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story, a brief interlude in your life – to express a sudden opening up of experience: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and so 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 – she is able 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.
~ 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