While Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series has remained popular since her death in 2004, perhaps becoming even more popular due to its vaguely steampunk and alternate Victorian timeline, Aiken’s short story collections have mostly fallen out of print, becoming ever more scarce as the original books from the 1970s and 1980s slowly disintegrate or disappear. Thus, the publication of The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories by Small Beer Press is doubly welcome, as it not only gathers many of Aiken’s early stories into a single collection, but helps to keep in print the stories of one of the best, but still sadly under appreciated, fantasy writers of the twentieth century.
As I noted in a previous review of another Small Beer Press Joan Aiken collection, The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories (Big Mouth House, 2008), Aiken’s stories combine the magic and the mundane in a way which seems as modern as any of our contemporary writers of slipstream or interstitial fiction.
Perhaps one reason Aiken’s stories have weathered the decades so well is that they are concerned with the lives of ordinary people–they just happen to be ordinary people who live in a world where a mermaid or other such mythical or supernatural being might suddenly appear in order to play mischief with one’s well-maintained schedule. Aiken was never one for writing the sort of high fantasy which requires a child-hero or a chosen one; instead, most of the protagonists in these nineteen short stories must contend with such quotidian concerns as careers, commuting, running errands, annoying relatives, and nagging spouses, when they are not dealing with more difficult issues such as the loss of a loved one. For this reason, Aiken’s fantastic stories are just as satisfying for the adult reader as they are for the young adult reader.
“A Mermaid Too Many,” the first story in this collection, provides an example of Aiken’s style and sense of whimsy. In this story a sailor brings home a mermaid as a gift to his young wife, but his wife is less than pleased with the gift, and the poor sailor is left to wander about attempting to fob off the (in my opinion) rather cheeky mermaid while most of the town’s residents are more preoccupied with the mess and the mermaid’s morals rather than being excited by the fact that mermaids really do exist.
This provides some indication of what could be called the Joan Aiken formula: you take one very modern individual distracted by mundane problems of career or family, throw a magic spanner into the works, and then stand back and observe human beings behaving like…human beings (as opposed to, say, chosen ones, who never seem to have to bother with such tedious things as bank accounts or errands or in-laws).
A number of Aiken’s characters work in the field of advertising which you might think, Lord Peter Wimsey’s brief flirtation with that occupation aside, would be the most unmagical of careers. “Octopi in the Sky” provides a fine contradiction to such an opinion, as it’s protagonist deals with seeing his creations — a series of octopi used to sell a brand of stout — everywhere he goes, resulting in one of my favorite lines:
The receptionist showed Denis out. His octopus was waiting for him on the landing, twining itself affectionately on the banisters.
Yet there is the other sort of Aiken story, the one that will break your heart, just a little, such as “The Sale of Midsummer” and “Water of Youth.” In the former story, a news team attempts to film a human interest piece about a rather quirky isolated village, while in the latter story, a small town fair and a poet’s love life intersect in a way which causes both comic mayhem and perhaps, a reminder to be careful about what you wish for.
Aiken’s prose style can be both elliptical and, at times, ambiguous, counting upon her readers to be clever enough to read between the lines or to come up with their own interpretations of the events of the story. This is particularly the case with Aiken’s creepier stories, such as “Hair,” in which a young man pays his first visit to his mother-in-law. Aiken’s use of images to imply what is never stated outright–that there is something not quite right about this woman who seems to so assiduously care for others–creates a much more spine-tingling effect than if the writer had explicitly shown some evidence of evil intent. Aiken’s horror stories are reminiscent of Robert Aickman’s stories in this respect, relying more upon atmosphere and psychology rather than explicit horror.
Aiken’s short stories are, compared to the lengthier short stories of today, quite short, and one could read a number of them while commuting or enjoying a lunch break. Such brevity does not imply simple or superficial, however, and in my own case I have reread the Joan Aiken collections I have many times. It is wonderful to have another such collection to add to my Joan Aiken shelf.
(Small Beer Press, 2011)