Interesting and Unusual Things, and Not Only on Mondays: Joan Aiken's Short Fiction
Reviewed by Jed Hartman
29 October 2001
Joan Aiken has written about thirty collections of short stories. Some of these books are full of horror stories; some are for very young children; some focus on a particular set of characters; some are just miscellaneous assortments. It can be a little bewildering to keep track of which stories are in which collections, especially since many of the stories are reprinted in multiple collections, both British and American.
My two favorite books by Aiken are both short-story collections; unfortunately, both are long out of print. I spent over ten years poking around in used bookstores and signing up for book search services before I found a used copy of Not What You Expected; it didn't take as long to find Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home, but still, the copy I own is the only copy I've ever seen.
Many of the stories in those two volumes appeared earlier in two British collections: A Harp of Fishbones and A Small Pinch of Weather. Fortunately, Harp and Weather have recently been reprinted in the U.K. You can obtain them from Amazon.co.uk even if you live elsewhere; I ordered them on the Web and received them in California a couple of weeks later.
However, this review is going to focus on Not What You Expected and Armitage so you'll know what you're missing; maybe you too will start frequenting used bookstores looking for these. For precise details on what you're missing, see the table of stories that shows which stories are in which of the four collections.
The stories in Not What You Expected range from fairy tales ("A Harp of Fishbones," "The Boy Who Read Aloud," "The Cost of Night") to charmingly quirky light fantasy pieces ("The Lost Five Minutes," "Don't Pay the Postman") to Armitage-family stories ("Doll's House to Let, Mod. Con.," "Mrs. Nutti's Fireplace" -- see below for more about the Armitages) to a sort of magic realism ("The Dark Streets of Kimball's Green," in which a girl makes telephone calls to the ancient King Cunobel, "A Room Full of Leaves," "Hope").
But I'm applying those categorizations a bit arbitrarily. Really, "charmingly quirky" describes a great many of Aiken's stories. Her character names provide a taste of her style: some of them are perfectly normal, but then there's a "retired enchantress" named Miss Hooting; a woman named Mrs. Mildew; "the Assistant Principal, Madame Legume"; "Sam Inkfellow, editor of the Wormley Observer"; the town genius Marcantonio Smith-to-the-power-Nine; another town genius in a different story, Albert Einstein Shakespeare Smith; and "the village witch, Mrs. Murky."
But it's not just names and odd details that give Aiken's stories their distinctive charm, it's their development. Ever since the first collection of hers that I read, The Last Slice of Rainbow, I've been struck by her ability to write stories that go in unexpected directions: a story might start out with a BBC man visiting a village in the country, as in "The Rose of Puddle Fratrum," and end up with an intelligent computer, a cursed ballet, and a mysterious recluse. You can never quite be sure where an Aiken story will end up; you can only be sure that the journey will be worthwhile. In the Postscript to the current edition of Weather, she describes how she writes short stories: "Stories are like butterflies, which come fluttering out of nowhere, touch down for a brief instant, may be captured -- may not -- and then vanish into nowhere again." That's a pretty accurate description of the experience of reading some of her stories as well.
There are, nonetheless, certain recurring elements in her stories. There are slightly scattered but independent-minded young women who, in certain types of stories, end up marrying slightly scattered but charming young men. Houses often figure prominently (particularly haunted ones), along with various locations (real and imagined) around the U.K. There are a great many ghosts, though more in her horror collections than in the volumes under consideration here, as well as a variety of curses and enchantments. There are other fairy-tale elements as well, though often not arranged in the ways you might expect. And most of her characters have a certain matter-of-fact attitude about magic.
Another recurring aspect in Aiken's stories is a prose style that draws heavily from fairy tales and oral traditions. Sometimes the stories include song lyrics and rhymes; sometimes characters speak in various British dialects, or parodies thereof. (As in "Losh, to be sure, yon mountain's unco wampish.") There are passages that read like transcripts of a storyteller telling a story, as in the opening to "A Long Day Without Water" (in Not What You Expected):
This story is all about tears -- tears locked inside a heart, heart lost in a river, river shut inside a house, house in a village that didn't want it. Better get out your handkerchiefs, then, for it sounds like a whole sky full of cloud coming along, doesn't it? And yet the ending, when we get there, isn't solid sad.
Not all of her stories are written like that; her style varies considerably across the range of her stories. But the stories that read like storytelling have the narrative voice that I think of as most distinctively Aiken's. It makes many of her stories sound like children's stories, even when she's treating somewhat more adult topics.
Her stories are often presented as children's stories, and indeed some of her collections appear to be solidly aimed at children. The Arabel and Mortimer books, for instance, are charming, but read much more like kids' stories than like adults' stories. (Arabel is a pragmatic little girl; Mortimer is her pet raven, who goes about saying "Nevermore!" and eating everything in sight, from pastries to clocks to staircases.) And she's written several collections of stories more or less aimed at rather young children, with illustrations by Polish artist Jan Pienkowski. (One of these, A Necklace of Raindrops, has just been reprinted, without the Pienkowski illustrations; you might as well buy it, since otherwise you'll eventually have to go search used bookstores for it too.) But in general, Aiken doesn't much distinguish between stories for children and stories for grown-ups; in the Weather Postscript, she says, "[T]he truthful answer to the question, 'Do you prefer writing for adults or children?' would be, 'I prefer writing short stories.'"
And it's often hard to decide whether to class a given Aiken story as a kids' story or a grown-ups' story, which is all to the good. Almost all of the best children's books -- from Alice onward -- can be enjoyed by adults as well, and it's always nice to see books for kids that don't talk down to them.
The first Aiken story that I ever encountered, probably in Children's Digest or Child Life sometime in the late '70s, was a case in point: a lovely fairy tale titled "The Third Wish." It appears in Not What You Expected; it wasn't until I saw it in this book a few years ago that I realized that the story (which had stuck in my memory all those years) was by Aiken. It's still one of my favorite stories of any kind, by anyone. It's about a modern man who rescues the King of the Forest and is given three wishes in compensation; his first wish is for "a wife as beautiful as the forest." To find out how he uses his other wishes, you'll have to find a copy of the story; it certainly wasn't what I expected from a three-wishes story. Unfortunately, the story does not appear (as far as I know) in any Aiken collection currently in print; fortunately, it's been widely reprinted elsewhere, including in American elementary-school textbooks, so chances are good that if you haven't read it already, you'll be able to find it somewhere.
And if you haunt used bookstores assiduously, and search the Internet book-search services, and are very very good, you just might find a copy of Not What You Expected.
Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home is a different sort of collection, aimed more clearly at kids (though still an enjoyable read for adults who like kids' books). Aiken's stories about Harriet and Mark Armitage, siblings to whom interesting things are always happening, have appeared scattered about in various of her collections; this volume gathers ten of those stories, and adds a charming "Prelude" that explains why interesting things happen to the Armitages. The jacket flap on the book summarizes the Prelude: "When Mr. and Mrs. Armitage were honeymooning at the beach, Mrs. Armitage found a wishing stone. She wished for two children who would never be bored, but who would have lots of 'interesting and unusual' experiences." Mr. Armitage objects, so Mrs. Armitage qualifies her wish: "[W]e could have a special day for interesting and unusual things to happen -- say, Mondays. But not always Mondays and not only Mondays, or that would get a bit dull too."
There are Armitage stories that don't appear in this collection (such as the two in Not What You Expected), but this collection is the only place I know of where you can find this many of them together. (A Small Pinch of Weather includes five of the stories in Armitage, as well as another Armitage story that doesn't appear in this volume; if you can't find Armitage, then Weather is the next-best compendium of Armitage stories.)
In the stories in Armitage, a variety of interesting and unusual things happen to Harriet and Mark. In "Yes, But Today is Tuesday," for example, they find a unicorn in their garden and decide to keep him as a pet. In "The Frozen Cuckoo," their practical-joker cousin Sarah comes to visit, and the Armitages are evicted from their house by the Board of Incantation, which wants to create a seminary for young magicians. In "Sweet Singeing [sic] in the Choir," Harriet and Mark get their fairy godmother to give them nice singing voices, but only temporarily. And in other stories they encounter a loom for weaving hair, a telephone built into a tree, a ghostly governess, a stolen quince tree, and the Furies. Also, they rescue their parents from being turned into ladybirds by angry fairy ladies.
The Armitage stories are, once again, charming and quirky. Some of them veer into slightly serious territory, but mostly they're Aiken having fun. Harriet and Mark also have fun in these stories, and readers will too.
Near the end of the Postscript to Weather, Aiken writes: "Favourite stories, like unexpected presents, are things that you can keep and cherish all your life, carry with you, in memory, in your mind's ear, and bring out, at any time, when you are feeling lonely, or need cheering up, or, like friends, just because you are fond of them. That is the way I feel about some of the stories in this collection." And that's the way I feel about some of her stories, too.
Copyright © 2001 Jed Hartman
Jed Hartman is the Senior Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons.