Joan Aiken is one of my favourite authors, best known among children as the writer of the alternative-history series The Wolves Chronicles. She is also a writer for adults, and the same sense of imagination, wit and mystery found in her earlier books are found in this collected anthology of creepy and twisted short stories. Although the title claims that these are stories of “horror, suspense and fantasy,” this is a little misleading. It’s not that these stories aren’t any of these things, it’s just that Aiken does not write typical short stories in this genre — these tales are seldom wrapped up in a neat little bow, and often Aiken is more interested in crafting an unsettling atmosphere than answering questions that her stories raise. As such, many of the stories do not seem particularly creepy , and those who are used to their horror stories being filled with blood, gore and screaming ghosts may feel somewhat bewildered as to how a falling cat, a laughing clock and ceramic puppets are supposed to be scary. But mature readers, who knows that there is something terrifying in ordered life cracking under inexplicable madness (often presented in achingly ordinary objects) will definitely feel the promised touch of chill.
“Lodgers”, a dark and disturbing story about a frazzled working mother who has an elderly couple lodge in her home whilst her children are sick. Trying to juggle her work, her children and the presence of the lodgers, she can’t help but be suspicious at the odd behavior of Mr and Mrs Colegate — their interest in her children, the odd white shapes in their bedroom, the creepy marionettes they collect, and the snatches of bizarre conversation she hears between them.
“Mrs Considine” concerns the friendship between this elderly woman and her young ward Julia. Mrs Considine is an avowed atheist, and Julia has several odd (and, as it turns out, prophetic dreams) about the people in her community. What do her dreams have to say about Mrs Considine? This is a short, strange, but oddly sweet story about a young girl’s perception of the world and its people.
“The Sewanee Glide” is a darkly comedic story about two elderly feuding sisters, a deceased husband whose memory still lingers on in the rapidly falling-apart manor house and a bag of poisoned walnuts. The first of several stories that Aiken devotes to the motivations behind murder and the ease with which the assailant gets away with it.
“Listening”, one of the more obscure stories in the collection, in which several seemingly unrelated events are wrapped up in one man’s day, in a way that is too complex on some thematic level for this particular reader to fathom. In a single day, Professor Middlemass witnesses a lecture on listening to sounds, three mistreated cats and a disturbing collage in an art gallery with his name on it. What does all this mean? I have no idea. Ask someone smarter.
“The Companion” is a ghost story that follows a more familiar pattern; Mrs Clyrard finds an odd sense of happiness in her troublesome cottage, till the day she expects it has become inhabited by a ghost. Calling in an exorcist, she’s relieved to feel the presence leave her home. But who was the ghost? And where is it now?
“The Rented Swan” is the most lighthearted story in the collection, more like a contemporary fairytale than anything else, concerning a young writer who rents an elegant flat — complete with a butler and a swan. Yes, I said a swan.
“The Jugged Hare” is probably my least favourite in the collection, about two people having an affair and a jealous husband who practices archery. You can probably tell where this one is going …unfortunately, Aiken doesn’t actually go there — ending the story with the plotting of murder, and not the murder itself.
“A Game of Black and White” is another obscure and bizarre story that defies my understanding, though it is filled with compelling images, including eclipses, graveyards, dentists, black tulips, and a creepy doppelganger. I can’t make heads or tails of it — but I still like it, certainly a lot more than her other surrealist story, the aforementioned “Listening”.
“Time to Laugh” — out of curiosity, Matt decides to break into an abandoned house to see what’s inside. He’s delighted to find a clock that tells the time by laughing, and horrified to discover that the chair-bound old woman still inhabits the house. Still, he’s not too concerned…till he discovers that he’s securely locked in the house with her. This is one of the creepiest stories here, and goes well with “Power-Cut.”
“He” is definitely my favourite story, concerning a young girl’s sea voyage from Poland to America and her meeting with a witch on board. After old Mrs Polander is severely injured by a careless boy, young Gisela inherits a strange box from her — and decides to use it to take revenge on the boy.
“The Story About Caruso” is the third story about the murder of a family member — this time it’s a woman who has her deceased husband’s uncle come to stay with her. But how long can she stand his ineffectual housekeeping, his nasty attempts at cooking, and the endless retellings of his old-time stories?
“The Helper” is a well crafted story of mysterious death and ongoing bitterness between two families that would switch daughters for the holidays. Seven years after the death of his daughter, Mr Frost returns to the house of Charles-Edouard Aveyrand to help him with a patent for a new invention: a robotic figure that automatically turns lights on and off. With the grim past pressing down on him (portions of which Aiken purposefully leaves obscure), Frost can’t help but procrastinate in the task of helping Aveyrand make money – after all, he holds Aveyrand’s daughter responsible for *his* daughter’s death. But the odd invention isn’t so easily put aside…
“Power-Cut” is the second full-out scary story of the bunch, concerning a warring married couple that returns to their small holiday cottage after the death of their son Simon. Mr Michaels had despised his loutish, spoilt son who was responsible for his blindness, and returning to the cottage only intensifies his bitterness. According to his wife there is a power-cut, and she leaves to fetch candles. But if there is a power-cut, then how come Mr Michaels can hear the messages left on the answering machine, including one from his dead son…
“Who Goes Down this Dark Road?” is another darkly amusing story, about a young girl who believes that she has a tribe of Gauls living in her hair. For a six year old, her knowledge on the subject is remarkable, and she relates the message that a catastrophe is coming…
“A Train Full of War-Lords” features another blind man in a broken family, and what everyone can get up to under the nose of someone who cannot see. This one is completely void of any supernatural tone, but is creepy enough in the range of familial secrets and bitterness that fester within what seems to be a perfectly ordinary home.
Despite the fact that some stories are preferable to others, Aiken writes beautifully, often frightening the reader with what she doesn’t say — the eerie silences and gaps in information help create stories in which the characters teeter on the edge of reality, poised to fall into madness. She has a keen eye for dialogue and the dark side of human nature (at a wedding: “Julia thought she had never known before that an atmosphere could be so bright and glittering with hate”) and there is an appealing sense of “Englishness” throughout all the stories — plenty of cups of tea, British landmarks, names like ‘Luffington’ and ‘Thorneycroft’ and even an aversion to Irishmen. Altogether, this is a compelling and creepy set of stories — though subtle enough that it needs a serious amount of effort on the part of the reader to fully understand and explore the nightmarish tone that permeates (most of) them.