The Power of Words: Joan Aiken’s The People in the Castle

“Night, now.”

So begins the first of twenty tales of enchantment and lonely fools in a new collection of Joan Aiken’s old stories, The People in the Castle. And what a fitting opening for this haunting and wondrous book—beckoning the reader into its pages with an allure that’s both simple and immediately unsettling. Despite her continued, almost cult following amongst fantasy and children’s literature enthusiasts, I had never picked up an Aiken story before Small Beer Press’ newest compilation. From those first words, though, I became as devoted as the readers that have grown up with her, as immersed in her easy language and glancing strangeness as a little girl enraptured by a fairy tale.

Aiken is perhaps best known for her series of children’s novels beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but she wrote extensively during her lifetime, including her first novel at the age of 16. Her interest in uncanny truths and somber moral lessons might make her works too dark for many of our 21st century standards of children’s lit, but she fits well among contemporaries like Shirley Jackson and harkens back, unsurprisingly, to a still more historic tradition. According to the Telegraph (as quoted in Kelly Link’s introduction to the collection), Aiken’s “prose style drew heavily on fairy tales and oral traditions in which plots are fast-moving and horror is matter-of-fact but never grotesque.” Still more fairy-tale-like than her prose, though, is her absolute reverence for words and language. Aiken wrote stories where words had real power, and her characters sought them like magicians hoping to harness a fairy’s magic.

In stories like “The Dark Streets of Kimball’s Green”—about a little orphan girl whose druid fantasies become reality—and “Hope”—about a strict spinstress harp teacher getting lost in a city whose dark corners contain mysterious music—Aiken brings the arts to the forefront of every human motivation. Whether a character is seeking the solace of a poem or avoiding the emotional weight of a song, each one learns in some way the power that words and art have over (and even beyond) life. This power sometimes feels familiar to us, such as when a character in “The Cold Flame” returns as a ghost to make sure his poems get published, and sometimes takes a more uncanny turn, more magic and danger than your everyday reverence for a novel or a painting. But in every case, this supernatural treatment of the arts gives the stories a strangely pre-modern tone, a mode of writing that became increasingly unpopular in literature in the post-war days Aiken wrote in. And yet it is this sincere belief in the signs and symbols humans create for ourselves that make Aiken’s stories feel timeless and moving, that allow them to come to life in our current historical moment.

Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken, looking as spooky and beautiful as her prose.

Easily my favorite story, both along this thematic line and in the collection at large, is “A Portable Elephant.” It is the tale of Miles Pots, a hapless ex-schoolteacher who does everything he can to obtain a passport and enter the forest. It’s an exclusive place, this forest, and everyone that wants to enter it needs both written permission and an animal companion to do so. Only a few pages into the story do we discover that the forest is full of words—like leaves, they whisper among the trees, sweep along the ground, and create a music all their own. Some people enter the forest to write novels or, like Miles, to prepare a speech; some “just want one or two words, something they’ve forgotten or to fill a hole.” While trying to find an animal companion, Miles mistakenly obtains a full-size elephant named Noel and a human friend to boot, and they band together to find the right words and use them in just the right way. “Portable Elephant” is every bit as whimsical as you’d expect, and rife with silly, delightful wordplay that its protagonist might well deem useless or frivolous. Unsurprisingly, in the debate of whether all art should be serious or serve a purpose, Aiken comes down on the side of fun. Fun, after all, nourishes the spirit like a walk in nature.

This sense of wonder and discovery of new places pervades the stories of People in the Castle, a fitting through line considering the diversity of settings and scenarios it contains. From cursed office buildings to ghost puppies, the collection illustrates the amazing breadth of Aiken’s oeuvre without losing sight of her ongoing exploration of a few key themes. In addition to the adoration of the humanities I’ve discussed here, Aiken favored stories of death and haunting, of escape and of fear, and not one of these themes was treated as mutually exclusive. The editors at Small Beer Press have done an expert job at stitching together these strange, disparate tales, and I believe that old fans will enjoy them every bit as much as new ones like myself.

The People in the Castle is available now from Small Beer Press.
Read Aiken’s “The Cold Flame” here on Tor.com

Emily Nordling is a librarian and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.

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