It’s always the children’s book writers that you have to watch out for. Joan Aiken was known primarily for her picture books, her children’s poetry and her alternate history books for young adults called the Wolves Chronicles. It was her writing for children that made her famous.
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But she also had a habit of writing for adults, sneaky and sinister stories with fantastical elements and a dark edge. They are written with a whimsical, lighthearted style suitable for someone who spends their time in the company of kids, but once you draw close, that’s when she sticks the blade in.
Her stories are like a more magical Shirley Jackson, or perhaps a less grumpy M.R. James. And while her books about scrappy teenagers solving mysteries and the series about a young girl and her pet raven are still widely read and highly regarded, it’s her writing for adults that has grown neglected.
Enter Small Beer Press, a small press specializing in the weird and wicked, run by Gavin Grant and Kelly Link. They have already reprinted one collection of Aiken’s short stories, The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories, and a collection of her Amitage Family Stories for younger readers, The Serial Garden. Link, a highly regarded short story writer herself, relayed to me in an exchange about Aiken that she considers her work influential.
“There's such a variety of approach, of genre,” Link writes. “She's a generous writer—her stories are always spilling over with other stories, bits of liveliness and mess—and she's also bloody minded. That's a great model.”
Aiken might be hard to categorize—not exactly fantasy, not exactly Gothic, not exactly literary. Which makes her a good fit for Small Beer, as they are forever publishing books that do not fit into tidy categories. “I put her in the same camp as Saki and John Collier,” Link continues. “She does ruthless things in a light-hearted way. Terrible things may happen to the characters in her stories, but there are also moments of marvelous invention, pockets of delight.”
As might be expected, it was her Aiken’s children’s books that she first read. “I came across her short stories in anthologies and in Cricket magazine. ‘A Harp Made of Fishbones’ might have been the first. When I was 9 or 10, I decided to go through all of the books in the children's collection alphabetically, so as not to miss anything good, and also because I had a habit of reading books and forgetting who wrote them, which was an issue when I wanted to reread them again. I was hunting for old favorites. I came across her collections Not What You Expected and The Faithless Lollybird fairly quickly, and then The Cat, The Kingdom, and the Cave, a novel she wrote when she was 18. After that I read all of her books that I could find.”
And there are a lot. Aiken was almost absurdly prolific, writing for nearly every age category. And while there are dozens of her books in print, there are still more out of print. I asked Link to justify bringing even more Aiken books into the world and reprinting a story in the most recent issue of their zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. “We'd like to reprint more: I'm a Joan Aiken evangelist. I love her sometimes bleak, often absurdist gothic novels, like Beware the Bouquet (also called The Trouble with Product X) in which paper-eating slugs feature prominently in the denouement.”
Aiken passed away in 2004 at the age of 79, and now it is her daughter Lizza who is spreading the word about her mother’s work. She has constructed a lively website at joanaiken.com and writes the introduction to The Monkey’s Wedding. Lizza may be one of the few non-writers in the Aiken family, going off to study theater and mime in Paris instead. Joan was raised in an extremely literary family.
“Her father was Conrad Aiken, and her stepfather was the writer Martin Armstrong,” Link says. “She grew up in a house in Rye that was reported to be haunted: the novel The Haunting of Lamb House is at least partly based on that experience. Her brother and sister were also novelists. She worked for a time at an advertising agency, as many of my favorite writers seem to have done, and she also worked for a time at the magazine Argosy. She was prolific enough to produce work under a couple of pen names.”
She continues, “I went to a convention on the Isle of Dogs, in large part because both she and Diana Wynne Jones were going to be there, and again, to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts because she was a guest of honor. She was quiet-spoken and short enough that they brought out a phone book for her to stand on, so that she could see and be seen over the podium. Her talk was about dreams, and especially about a city (a walled city, I think) that she visited over and over again in dreams.”
The problem with writers of great profligacy is, of course, where to start. I asked Link for a recommendation. “The linked short stories in The Serial Garden are a kind of tonic, if you want cheering up. They're a great introduction for younger children, or even adult readers. The stories in The Monkey's Wedding are, for the most part, much darker and odder. It's a great collection for this time of year. Wolves of Willoughby Chase was first published in 1962—the 50th anniversary is coming up. There's a whole sequence of novels that follows, so if you prefer longer work, start there.”
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.