This month, Small Beer Press releases The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories from the legendary Joan Aiken. We’re delighted to bring you this double dose of strange magic: the title story from the collection, and Kelly Link’s introduction to Aiken.
In 1924, Joan Aiken was born in a haunted house on Mermaid Street in Rye, England. Her father was the poet Conrad Aiken, perhaps most famous now for his short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and her mother was Jessie MacDonald, who homeschooled Joan and filled her earliest years with Pinocchio, the Brontës, and the stories of Walter de la Mare, and much more. (Her stepfather Martin Armstrong was, as well, a poet; Joan Aiken’s sister and brother, Jane Aiken Hodge and John Aiken, like Joan, became writers.) Aiken wrote her first novel at the age of sixteen (more about that later) and sold her first story to the BBC around the same time. In the fifties and sixties, she worked on the short story magazine Argosy and from 1964 on, she wrote two books a year or more, roughly one hundred in all. She wrote gothics, mysteries, children’s novels, Jane Austen pastiches, and an excellent book for would-be authors, The Way to Write for Children. Her first book was the collection All You’ve Ever Wanted, followed by a second book of short stories More Than You Bargained For—stories from these collections were published in a kind of omnibus in the U.S., Not What You Expected, which was the first book by Aiken that I ever read. Her series of alternate history novels for children, a Dickensian sequence that starts with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has stayed in print, I believe, almost continuously since she began writing it, although I still remember being told by her agent, Charles Schlessiger, that when he delivered The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to her publisher, her editor asked if Aiken would consider sending them another collection instead. (Well: the world is a different place now.) The “Wolves” sequence is bursting to the seams with wolves, exiled royalty, sinister governesses, spies, a goose boy, and plucky orphans—and, of course, the eponymous wolves. The Telegraph said of Aiken that “her 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.”
Many many years ago, I had a part-time job at a children’s bookstore, which mostly—and happily—entailed reading the stock that we carried so we could make recommendations to adults who came in looking to buy books for their children. (Our customers were almost never children.) I reread the still ongoing “Wolves” novels and then began to track down the Aiken collections that I had checked out of the Coral Gables library to read as a child—collections whose titles still enticed: The Far Forests, The Faithless Lollybird, A Harp of Fishbones. When, eventually, I moved to Boston, I got a job at another bookstore, this one a secondhand shop on Newbury Street—in part so that I had a firsthand shot at hunting down out-of-print books for myself. I can still remember the moment at which, standing at the top of a platform ladder on wheels to reach the uppermost shelf to find something for a customer, I found Joan Aiken’s first novel The Kingdom and the Cave as if it had only just appeared there (which it probably had. The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop’s owner, Vincent McCaffrey, bought dozens of books each day).
And now, of course, it’s quite possible to find almost any book that you might want online. (The world is a different place now.)
I recently spent a long weekend in Key West at a literary festival where the organizing theme was short stories. How delightful for me! There was much discussion on panels of the challenges that short stories present to their readers. The general feeling was that short stories could be difficult because their subject matter was so often grim; tragic. A novel you had time to settle into—novels wanted you to like them, it was agreed, whereas short stories were like Tuesday’s child, full of woe, and required a certain kind of moral fortitude to properly digest. And yet it has always seemed to me that short stories have a kind of wild delight to them even when their subject is grim. They come at you in a rush and spin you about in an unsettling way and then go rushing off again. There is a kind of joy in the speed and compression necessary to make something very large happen in a small space. In contemporary short fiction, sometimes it’s the language of the story that transmits the live-wire shock. Sometimes the structure of the story itself—the container—the way it unfolds—is the thing that startles or energizes or joyfully dislodges the reader. But: it does sometimes seem to me that for maybe the last quarter of the previous century, the subject matter of literary short fiction was somewhat sedate: marriage, affairs, the loss of love, personal tragedies, moments of self-realization. The weird and the gothic and the fanciful mostly existed in pockets of genre (science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, children’s literature) as if literature were a series of walled gardens and not all the same forest. We had almost nothing in the vein of Joan Aiken’s short stories, which practically spill over with mythological creatures and strange incident and mordant humor. And yet at the time when she began to write them, in the 1950s, when Aiken was an editor at Argosy as well as a featured author, there were any number of popular fiction magazines publishing writers like John Collier, O’Henry, Elizabeth Bowen, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl. Magazines have smaller circulations now; there are fewer magazines with circulations quite so broad; and yet there are, once again, many established and critically acclaimed—as well as new and startlingly brilliant—writers working in the fantastic mode. The jolt that this kind of writing gives its reader is the pleasure of the unreal in the real; the joyful, collaborative effort that imagining an impossible thing requires of such a story’s reader as well as its writer. It seems the right moment to introduce the stories of Joan Aiken to a new audience.
♦ ♦ ♦
The particular joys of a Joan Aiken story have always been her capacity for this kind of brisk invention; her ear for dialect; her characters and their idiosyncrasies. Among the stories collected in this omnibus, are some of the very first Joan Aiken stories that I ever fell in love with, starting with the title story “The People in the Castle,” which is a variation on the classic tales of fairy wives. “The Cold Flame” is a ghost story as is, I suppose, “Humblepuppy,” but one involves a volcano, a poet, and a magic-wielding, rather Freudian mother—while the other is likely to make some readers cry. In order to put together this omnibus, we went through every single one of Aiken’s collections, talked over our choices with her daughter Lizza, reworked the table of contents, and then I sat down and over the course of six months, typed out every single one. I’m sorry that we couldn’t include more—for example, two childhood favorites, “More Than You Bargained For” and “A Harp of Fishbones,” but there was a great pleasure in reading and then rereading and then transcribing stories like “Hope” in which a harp teacher goes down the wrong alley and encounters the devil. And “A Leg Full of Rubies” may be, in its wealth of invention, the quintessential Joan Aiken short story: a man named Theseus O’Brien comes into a small town with an owl on his shoulder, and unwillingly inherits a veterinary practice, a collection of caged birds including a malignant phoenix, and a prosthetic leg full of rubies which is being used to hold up the corner of a table. Joan Aiken is the heir of writers like Saki, Guy de Maupassant and all the masters of the ghost story—M. R. James, E. F. Benson, Marjorie Bowen—I can’t help but imagine that some readers will encounter these stories and come away with the desire to write stories as wild and astonishing and fertile as these.
In 2002, the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts invited Joan Aiken to be its guest. I went in order to hear her speak. She was so small that when it was time for her to give her lecture, she could not be seen over the podium—and so finally someone went and found a phone book and she stood on that. She talked about how her stepfather, Martin Armstrong, had been impatient in the morning at the breakfast table when the children wanted to tell their dreams. Other people’s dreams are, he said, boring. And then Joan Aiken proceeded, in her lecture, to tell the audience about a city that she visited in a series of recurring dreams. She said that it was not a city that existed in the real world, but that after walking its streets for so many years in dreams, she knew it as well as she knew London or New York. In this city, she said, was everyone she had ever loved, both the living and the dead. We all listened, riveted. Did she talk about anything else? I don’t remember. All I recall is her dream and the telephone book. –Kelly Link
The People in the Castle
The castle stood on a steep hill above the town. Round the bottom of the hill ran the outer castle wall with a massive gateway, and inside this gate was the doctor’s house. People could approach the castle only by going in through his surgery door, out through his garden door, and up a hundred steps; but nobody bothered to do this, because the castle was supposed to be haunted, and in any case who wants to go and see an empty old place falling into ruins? Let the doctor prowl around it himself if he wanted to.
The doctor was thought to be rather odd by the townspeople. He was very young to be so well established, he was always at work writing something, and he was often quite rude to his patients if they took too long about describing their symptoms, and would abruptly tell them to get on and not beat about the bush.
He had arranged his surgery hours in a very businesslike way. The patients sat in rows in the large waiting room amusing themselves with the illustrated papers or with the view of the castle, which filled up the whole of one window in a quite oppressive manner. Each patient picked up a little numbered card from a box as he arrived and then waited until the doctor rang the bell and flashed his number on the indicator. Then the patient hurried to the office, breathlessly recited his symptoms before the doctor grew impatient, received his medicine, dropped his card into another little box, paid for his treatment (or not, after the National Health Service arrived), and hurried out by another door which led straight back to the main castle gateway.
By this means the incoming and outgoing patients were not allowed to become entangled in halls and passageways, creating confusion and holding up proceedings. The doctor was not very fond of people, and the sooner he could clear them all out of his house and get back to his writing, the better he was pleased.
One evening there were fewer patients than usual. It was late in October. The wind had been blowing in from the sea all day, but it dropped before sunset, and what leaves remained on the trees were hanging motionless in the clear dusk.
“Is there anyone after you?” the doctor asked old Mrs. Daggs, as he gave her some sardine ointment.
“Just one young lady, a stranger I reckon. Never seen her in the town.”
“All right—good night,” said the doctor quickly, and opened the door for the old woman, at the same time pressing the buzzer for the next number. Then he thought of a phrase for the paper he was writing on speech impediments and twiddled around in his revolving chair to put it down in the notebook on his desk. He was automatically listening for the sound of the waiting-room door, but as he heard nothing he impatiently pressed the buzzer again, and turning around, shouted:
“Come along there.”
Then he stopped short, for his last patient had already arrived and was sitting in the upright chair with her hands composedly folded in her lap.
“Oh—sorry,” he said. “You must have come in very quietly. I didn’t know you were in here.”
She inclined her head a little, as if acknowledging his apology. She was very white-faced, with the palest gold hair he had ever seen, hanging in a mass to her shoulders. Even in that dusky room it seemed to shine. Her dress was white, and over it she wore a gray plaid-like cloak, flung round her and fastening on her shoulder.
“What’s your trouble?” asked the doctor, reaching for his prescription block.
She was silent.
“Come along, for goodness’ sake—speak up,” he said testily. “We haven’t got all night.” Then he saw, with surprise and some embarrassment, that she was holding out a slate to him. On it was written:
“I am dumb.”
He gazed at her, momentarily as speechless as she, and she gently took the slate back again and wrote on it:
“Please cure me.”
It seemed impolite to answer her in speech, almost like taking an unfair advantage. He felt inclined to write his message on the slate too, but he cleared his throat and said:
“I don’t know if I can cure you, but come over to the light and I’ll examine you.” He switched on a cluster of bright lights by his desk, and she obediently opened her mouth and stood trustfully while he peered and probed with his instruments.
He gave an exclamation of astonishment, for at the back of her mouth he could see something white sticking up. He cautiously pulled it further forward with his forceps and discovered that it was the end of a long piece of cotton wool. He pulled again, and about a foot of it came out of her mouth, but that seemed to be nowhere near the end. He glanced at the girl in astonishment, but as she appeared quite calm he went on pulling, and the stuff kept reeling out of her throat until there was a tangle of it all over the floor.
At last the end came out.
“Can you speak now?” he asked, rather anxiously.
She seemed to be clearing her throat, and presently said with some difficulty:
“A little. My throat is sore.”
“Here’s something to suck. I’ll give you a prescription for that condition—it’s a result of pulling out the wool, I’m afraid. This will soon put it right. Get it made up as soon as you can.”
He scribbled on a form and handed it to her. She looked at it in a puzzled manner.
“I do not understand.”
“It’s a prescription,” he said impatiently.
“What is that?”
“Good heavens—where do you come from?”
She turned and pointed through the window to the castle, outlined on its hill against the green sky.
“From there? Who are you?”
“My name is Helen,” she said, still speaking in the same husky, hesitant manner. “My father is King up there on the hill.” For the first time the doctor noticed that round her pale, shining hair she wore a circlet of gold, hardly brighter than the hair beneath. She was then a princess?
“I had a curse laid on me at birth—I expect you know the sort of thing?” He nodded.
“A good fairy who was there said that I would be cured of my dumbness on my eighteenth birthday by a human doctor.”
“Is it your birthday today?”
“Yes. Of course we all knew about you, so I thought I would come to you first.” She coughed, and he jumped up and gave her a drink of a soothing syrup, which she took gratefully.
“Don’t try to talk too much at first. There’s plenty of time. Most people talk too much anyway. I’ll have the prescription made up”—“and bring it round,” he was going to say, but hesitated. Could one go and call at the castle with a bottle of medicine as if it was Mrs. Daggs?
“Will you bring it?” she said, solving his problem. “My father will be glad to see you.”
“Of course, I’ll bring it tomorrow evening.”
Again she gravely inclined her head, and turning, was gone, though whether by the door or window he could not be sure.
He crossed to the window and stood for some time staring up at the black bulk of the castle on the thorn-covered hill, before returning to his desk and the unfinished sentence. He left the curtains open.
Next morning, if it had not been for the prescription lying on his desk, he would have thought that the incident had been a dream. Even as he took the slip along to the pharmacist to have the medicine made up, he wondered if the white-coated woman there would suddenly tell him that he was mad.
That evening dusk was falling as the last of his patients departed. He went down and locked the large gates and then, with a beating heart, started the long climb up the steps to the castle. It was lighter up on the side of the knoll. The thorns and brambles grew so high that he could see nothing but the narrow stairway in front of him. When he reached the top he looked down and saw his own house below, and the town with its crooked roofs running to the foot of the hill, and the river wriggling away to the sea. Then he turned and walked under the arch into the great hall of the castle.
The first thing he noticed was the scent of lime. There was a big lime tree which, in the daytime, grew in the middle of the grass carpeting the great hall. He could not see the tree, but why was a lime tree blossoming in October?
It was dark inside, and he stood hesitating, afraid to step forward into the gloom, when he felt a hand slipped into his. It was a thin hand, very cool; it gave him a gentle tug and he moved forward, straining his eyes to try to make out who was leading him. Then, as if the pattern in a kaleidoscope had cleared, his eyes flickered and he began to see.
There were lights grouped around the walls in pale clusters, and below them, down the length of the hall, sat a large and shadowy assembly; he could see the glint of light here and there on armor, or on a gold buckle or the jewel in a headdress as somebody moved.
At the top of the hall, on a dais, sat a royal figure, cloaked and stately, but the shadows lay so thick in between that he could see no more. But his guide plucked him forward; he now saw that it was Helen, in her white dress with a gold belt and bracelets. She smiled at him gravely and indicated that he was to go up and salute the King.
With some vague recollection of taking his degree he made his way up to the dais and bowed.
“I have brought the Princess’s cordial, Sire,” he said, stammering a little.
“We are pleased to receive you and to welcome you to our court. Henceforth come and go freely in this castle whenever you wish.”
The doctor reflected that he always had come and gone very freely in the castle; however, it hardly seemed the same place tonight, for the drifting smoke from the candles made the hall look far larger.
He lifted up his eyes and took a good look at the King, who had a long white beard and a pair of piercing eyes. Helen had seated herself on a stool at his feet.
“I see you are a seeker after knowledge,” said the King suddenly. “You will find a rich treasure-house to explore here—only beware that your knowledge does not bring you grief.”
The doctor jumped slightly. He had indeed been thinking that the King looked like some Eastern sage and might have information which the doctor could use in his study on occult medicine.
“I suppose all doctors are seekers after knowledge,” he said cautiously, and handed Helen her bottle of medicine. “Take a teaspoon after meals—or—or three times a day.” He was not sure if the people in the castle had meals in the ordinary way, though some kind of feast seemed to be in progress at the moment.
From that time on the doctor often made his way up to the castle after evening had fallen, and sat talking to the King, or to some of the wise and reverend knights who formed his court, or to Helen. During the daytime the castle brooded, solitary and crumbling as always, save for some occasional archaeologist taking pictures for a learned monthly.
On Christmas Eve the doctor climbed up with a box of throat tablets for Helen, who still had to be careful of her voice, and a jar of ointment for the King who had unfortunately developed chilblains as a result of sitting in the chill and draughty hall.
“You really should get him away from here, though I’d miss him,” he told Helen. “I don’t know how old he is—”
“A thousand—”she interjected.
“—Oh,” he said, momentarily taken aback. “Well in any case it really is too damp and cold for him here. And you should take care of your throat too; it’s important not to strain it these first months. The castle really is no place for either of you.”
She obediently flung a fold of her gray cloak around her neck.
“But we are going away tomorrow,” she said. “Didn’t you know? From Christmas to Midsummer Day my father holds his court at Avignon.”
The doctor felt as if the ground had been cut from under his feet.
“You’re going away? You mean you’ll none of you be here?”
“No,” she answered, looking at him gravely.
“Helen! Marry me and stay with me here. My house is very warm—I’ll take care of you, I swear it—” He caught hold of her thin, cold hand.
“Of course I’ll marry you,” she said at once. “You earned the right to my hand and heart when you cured me—didn’t you know that either?”
She led him to her father and he formally asked for her hand in marriage.
“She’s yours,” said the King, “I can’t prevent it though I don’t say I approve of these mixed marriages. But mind you cherish her—the first unkind word, and she’ll vanish like a puff of smoke. That’s one thing we don’t have to put up with from mortal man.”
As soon as Helen married the doctor and settled in his house she became a changed creature. The people in the town were surprised and charmed to find what a cheerful, pretty wife their hermit-like doctor had found himself. She left off her magic robes and put on checked aprons; she learned to cook and flitted around dusting and tidying; moreover as her newly won voice gathered strength she chattered like a bird and hummed the whole day long over her work.
She abolished the buzzer in the office because she said it frightened people. She used to look through the door herself and say:
“The doctor will see you now, Mrs. Jones, and will you try not to keep him waiting please—though I know it’s hard for you with your leg. It is any better, do you think? And how’s your husband’s chest?”
“She’s like a ray of sunshine, bless her,” people said.
The doctor was not sure about all this. What he had chiefly loved in her was the sense of magic and mystery; she had been so silent and moved with such stately grace. Still it was very pleasant to have this happy creature in his house attending to his comfort—only she did talk so. In the daytime it was not so bad, but in the evenings when he wanted to get on with his writing it was trying.
By and by he suggested that she might like to go to the cinema, and took her to a Disney. She was enchanted, and after that he was ensured peace and quiet on at least two evenings a week, for she was quite happy to go off by herself and leave him, only begging him not to work too hard.
One night he had nearly finished the chapter on Magic and Its Relation to Homeopathic Medicine, and was wishing that he could go up and discuss it with the King. He heard her come in and go to the kitchen to heat the soup for their late supper.
Soon she appeared with a tray.
“It was a Western,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “The hero comes riding into this little town, you see, and he pretends he’s a horse-dealer but really he’s the D.A. in disguise. So he finds that the rustling is being run by the saloon keeper—”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, must you talk all the time,” snapped the doctor. Then he stopped short and looked at her aghast.
A dreadful change had come over her. The gay print apron and hair ribbon dropped off her and instead he saw her clad in her white and gray robes and wreathed about with all her magic. Even as she held out her hands to him despairingly she seemed to be drawn away and vanished through the thick curtains.
“Helen!” he cried. There was no answer. He flung open the door and ran frantically up the steps to the castle. It was vacant and dark. The grass in the great hall was stiff with frost and the night sky showed pale above him in the roofless tower.
“Helen, Helen,” he called, until the empty walls re-echoed, but no one replied. He made his way slowly down the steps again and back to his warm study where the steam was still rising from the two bowls of soup.
From that day the townspeople noticed a change in their doctor. He had been hermit-like before; now he was morose. He kept the castle gates locked except for the office hours and disconnected his telephone. No longer was there a pretty wife to tell them that the doctor would see them now; instead they were confronted by a closed door with a little grille, through which they were expected to recite their symptoms. When they had done so, they were told to go around by an outside path to another door, and by the time they reached it they found the necessary pill or powder and written instructions lying outside on the step. So clever was the doctor that even with this unsatisfactory system he still cured all his patients, and indeed it seemed as if he could tell more about a sick person through a closed door than other doctors could face to face; so that although people thought his treatment strange, they went on coming to him.
There were many queer tales about him, and everyone agreed that night after night he was heard wandering in the ruined castle calling “Helen! Helen!” but that no one ever answered him.
Twenty years went by. The doctor became famous for his books, which had earned him honorary degrees in all the universities of the world. But he steadfastly refused to leave his house, and spoke to no one, communicating with the tradespeople by means of notes.
One day as he sat writing he heard a knock on the outer gate, and something prompted him to go down and open it. Outside stood a curious looking little woman in black academic robes and hood, who nodded to him.
“I am Dr. Margaret Spruchsprecher, Rector of the University of Freiherrburg,” she said, walking composedly up the path before him and in at his front door. “I have come to give you the degree of Master of Philosophy at our University, as you would not come to us or answer our letters.”
He bowed awkwardly and took the illuminated parchment she offered him.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” he said, finding his voice with difficulty. “I am most honored that you should come all this way to call on me.”
“Perhaps now that I have come so far I can help you,” she said. “You are seeking something, are you not? Something besides knowledge? Something that you think is in the castle, up there on the hill?”
He nodded, without removing his gaze from her. The keen, piercing look in her old eyes reminded him vividly of the King.
“Well! Supposing that all this time what you seek is not inside, but has gone outside; supposing that you have been sitting at the mouth of an empty mousehole; what then?” There was something brisk, but not unkindly, in her laugh as she turned and made off down the path again, clutching the voluminous black robes around herself as the wind blew them about. The gate slammed behind her.
“Wait—” the doctor called and ran after her, but it was too late. She was lost in the crowded High Street.
He went out into the town and wandered distractedly about the streets staring into face after face, in search of he hardly knew what.
“Why, it’s the doctor, isn’t it?” a woman asked. “My Teddy’s been a different boy since that medicine you gave him, Doctor.”
Someone else came up and told him how thankful they were for his advice on boils.
“My husband’s never forgotten how you cured his earache when he thought he’d have to throw himself out of the window, the pain was so bad.”
“I’ve always wanted to thank you, Doctor, for what you did when I was so ill with the jaundice—”
“You saved my Jennifer that time when she swallowed the poison—”
The doctor felt quite ashamed and bewildered at the chorus of thanks and greeting which seemed to rise on every side. He finally dived into a large doorway which seemed to beckon him, and sank relieved into a dark and sound-proof interior—the cinema.
For a long time he took no notice of the film which was in progress on the screen, but when he finally looked up his attention was attracted by the sight of galloping horses; it was a Western. All of a sudden the memory of Helen came so suddenly and bitterly into his mind that he nearly cried aloud.
“Excuse me, sir, that’s the one and nine’s you’re sitting in. You should be in the two and three’s.”
He had no recollection of having bought any ticket, but obediently rose and followed his guide with her darting torch. His eyes were full of tears and he stumbled; she waited until he had caught up with her and then gave him a hand.
It was a thin hand, very cool; it gave him a gentle tug. He stood still, put his other hand over it and muttered:
“Hush, you’ll disturb people.”
“Is it you?”
“Yes. Come up to the back and we can talk.”
The cinema was pitch dark and full of people. As he followed her up to the rampart at the back he could feel them all about him.
“Have you been here all these years?”
“All these years?” she whispered, mocking him. “It was only yesterday.”
“But I’m an old man, Helen. What are you? I can’t see you. Your hand feels as young as ever.”
“Don’t worry,” she said soothingly. “We must wait until this film ends—this is the last reel—and then we’ll go up to the castle. My father will be glad to see you again. He likes your books very much.”
He was too ashamed to ask her to come back to him, but she went on:
“And you had better come up and live with us in the castle now.”
A feeling of inexpressible happiness came over him as he stood patiently watching the galloping horses and feeling her small, cool hand in his.
Next day the castle gates were found standing ajar, and the wind blew through the open doors and windows of the doctor’s house. He was never seen again.
Joan Aiken (1924–2004) wrote over a hundred books and was perhaps best known for the dozen novels in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. She received the Guardian and Edgar Allan Poe awards for fiction and in 1999 she was awarded an MBE.
Kelly Link is the author of the collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, Pretty Monsters, and Get in Trouble. Her short stories have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Best American Short Stories, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards.