Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Aiken, Joan

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(1924-2004) UK writer, daughter of Conrad Aiken, sister of John Aiken and stepdaughter of Martin Armstrong. Most of her many adult novels have no explicit fantasy content, though some have supernatural implications. Of these titles, Castle Barebane (1976 US) is a streamlined Gothic and The Haunting of Lamb House (coll of linked stories 1991), set in the actual Lamb House in Rye, expose two of its real-life inhabitants – Henry James and E F Benson – to the Ghost of an 18th-century child who has had to endure the breakup of his family.

She has also written many Children's Fantasies for younger readers, characterized by the unusual combination of surreal invention and elegance of plotting; but of greatest genre interest are her books for older children, the most famous being the sequence – variously referred to as the Willoughby Chase, Alternate England, Dido Twite or James III series – set mostly in an Alternate-World version of England, with a Stuart dynasty (James III has acceded in 1832) and Hanoverian plotters. The series' internal chronology, with one exception matching the sequence of publication, begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) – filmed (rather flatly) as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1988) – and Black Hearts in Battersea (1964 US): the youthful protagonists escape from an evil governess; in escaping they meet young Simon (a Hidden Monarch) and the remarkable Dido Twite, whose pragmatic but fantastical personality is perhaps JA's most sustained creation. In Night Birds on Nantucket (1966), The Stolen Lake (1981) and The Cuckoo Tree (1971) the focus shifts to Dido and her elaborate adventures at sea, in a Lost Land in South America (where the Once and Future King is encountered, along with Queen Ginevra, a figure of distorted Belatedness, for she has been awaiting her husband's return for a millennium; see Arthur), and returning to England on a mission vital to the monarchy, in opposition to her own father's Hanoverian plotting. After Dido and Pa (1986), the sequence darkens in Is (1992; vt Is Underground 1992 US), set in a muted Steampunk industrial hell – though at book's end Simon is due to become king. Cold Shoulder Road (1995) focuses in a lighter vein on other members of the Twite family.

Similarly located, the Felix series of adventures – Go Saddle the Sea (1977 US), Bridle the Wind (1983) and The Teeth of the Gale (1988) – follows the travels of its young protagonists through magically heightened Landscapes; it is an oddity of the sequence that Felix fails to realize that his companion Juan is in fact a girl (see Duos; Gender Disguise). Singletons of interest include The Kingdom and the Cave (1960), The Whispering Mountain (1968), Midnight Is a Place (1974) and The Shadow Guests (1980), an extremely effective Rite-of-Passage tale whose protagonist must come to terms with the messages conveyed by several family Ghosts. One play of exceptional interest – Winterthing: A Child's Play (1972 chap US), assembled with The Mooncusser's Daughter (1973 chap US) as Winterthing, and The Mooncusser's Daughter (omni 1973) – compactly and gravely encompasses much of JA's strengths in its story of four unrelated children who have been stolen by the kleptomaniac "Auntie" and taken to Winter Island (see Islands), which disappears every seventh winter (see Time in Faerie). There they undergo intense rites of passage, are succoured by a sea-goddess, learn wisdom in the magic winter and prepare to re-enter the world the following spring (see Seasons).

JA's short stories have been assembled in several volumes – confusingly, US and UK editions often vary remarkably in the tales included – and comprise an extremely impressive range of work, a gamut which incorporates delicately exemplary Fairytales, nonfantasy and fantasy stories of rural and urban life (sometimes constructed with an effect of easeful Magic Realism), Ghost Stories and Horror. Titles include A Necklace of Raindrops (coll 1968), A Small Pinch of Weather (coll 1969), The Windscreen Weepers and Other Tales of Horror and Suspense (coll 1969; vt with differing contents The Green Flash and Other Tales of Horror, Suspense, and Fantasy 1971 US), Smoke from Cromwell's Time (coll 1970 US), The Kingdom Under the Sea (coll 1971), A Harp of Fishbones (coll 1972), All But a Few (coll 1974), Not What You Expected (coll 1974 US), A Bundle of Nerves (coll 1976; vt with differing contents The Far Forests: Tales of Romance, Fantasy and Suspense 1977 US), The Faithless Lollybird (coll 1977; with differing contents 1978 US), Tale of a One-Way Street (coll 1978), A Whisper in the Night (coll 1982; with differing contents 1984 US), Fog Hounds, Wind Cats, Sea Mice (coll 1984), Up the Chimney Down (coll 1984), The Last Slice of Rainbow (coll 1985), Past Eight O'Clock (coll 1986), A Goose on Your Grave (coll 1987), Give Yourself a Fright (coll 1989 US), A Foot in the Grave (coll 1989), A Fit of Shivers (coll 1990) and A Creepy Company (coll 1993; rev 1995 US).

Throughout her career JA has generated work of an almost relentless fertility. There is a passionate knowingness in her invention of small details that is clearly a matter of her own satisfaction – few young readers would know, for instance, that the "hobey" played by Dido Twite's father is an oboe, the French hautbois having, in this world, been differently Englished. Her feverishness may derive to some degree from the example of her father; the loving urgency of her depiction of character and landscape and plot seems an intrinsic gift. [JC]

other works:

Adult novels (many associational): The Silence of Herondale (1964 US); The Fortune Hunters (1965 US); Trouble With Product X (1966; vt Beware of the Bouquet 1966 US); Hate Begins at Home (1967; vt Dark Interval 1967 US); The Ribs of Death (1967; vt The Crystal Cow 1968 US) and its sequel Foul Matter (1983); Night Fall (1969); The Embroidered Sunset (1970); Died on a Rainy Sunday (1972); The Butterfly Picnic (1972; vt A Cluster of Separate Sparks 1972 US); Voices in an Empty House (1975); Last Movement (1977); The Five-Minute Marriage (1977); The Smile of the Stranger (1978) and its sequel The Weeping Ash (1980 US; vt The Lightning Tree 1980 UK); The Young Lady from Paris (1982; vt The Girl from Paris 1982 US); Mansfield Revisited (1984); Deception (1987; vt If I Were You 1987 US); Blackground (1989); Jane Fairfax (1990); Morningquest (1992); Eliza's Daughter (1994); The Winter Sleepwalker (1994).

For younger children: All You've Ever Wanted (coll 1953) and More Than You Bargained For (coll 1955), both assembled as All and More (omni 1971; cut vt All But a Few 1974); Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home (coll 1968 US); Mice and Mendelson (1978 chap); the Arabel and Mortimer sequence about a young girl and her raven, comprising Arabel's Raven (1972 chap), The Escaped Black Mamba (1973 chap; vt Arabel and the Escaped Black Mamba 1984 chap) and The Bread Bin (1974 chap) – all three assembled as Tales of Arabel's Raven (omni 1974) – Mortimer's Tie (1976 chap), The Spiral Stair (1979 chap) and Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur (1979 chap) – all three assembled as Arabel and Mortimer (omni 1980) – Mortimer's Portrait on Glass (1981 chap) and The Mystery of Mr Jones's Disappearing Taxi (1982 chap) – both assembled with "Mortimer's Cross" as Mortimer's Cross (omni 1983) – The Kitchen Warriors (1983 chap) and Mortimer Says Nothing, and Other Stories (coll 1985); The Shoemaker's Boy (1991 chap US); The Midnight Moropus (1993 chap US); Hatching Trouble (1993 chap).

For older children: The Skin Spinners (coll 1976 US), poetry; The Moon's Revenge (1987 US); The Erl King's Daughter (1988); Voices (1988; vt Return to Harken House 1990 US).

Nonfiction: The Way to Write for Children (1982); Conrad Aiken, Our Father (1989) with Jane Aiken Hodge (1917-2009) and John Aiken.

Joan Delano Aiken


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.