A welcome anthology of fantasy stories by a 20th-century master.
The author of the beloved classic gothic for children The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Aiken (1924-2004) also wrote hundreds of works of popular fiction that spanned the genres, from fantasy to horror to historical fiction, including several Jane Austen sequels. Naturally the tone of her books and short stories varies with their content, but its main notes include sophisticated, spritely satire and the darker moods of literary fairy tales. 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.