Saturday, 2 July 2016

A Touch of Chill

Joan Aiken
Fontana Lions

The homely and the exotic mix in fifteen unique tales. The macabre and witty stories are a melange of horror guaranteed to send chills up the spine of any sleepless reader.

I'm always happy to go for a trip into the estimable Ms. Aiken's imagination but I've been deliberately holding back on this one for when I had a real craving.  It was well worth the wait.

Obviously she's most widely known for her various books for children especially the 'Wolves of Willoughby Chase' novels and the 'Arabel & Mortimer' series but she also accumulated an impressive array of more adult fiction including many shorts of the weird, macabre or ghostly variety.  'A Touch of Chill' is the second anthology of those I've encountered.  The other probably has the edge in my affections but there is much to like here.

The opening story 'Lodgers' is perhaps one of the weakest but strangely is also one of the stories here that is perhaps most characteristically Aiken.  It concerns a creepy husband and wife who take up the empty rooms in the house of an overworked single mother with two poorly children. It's not a bad story, it just feels a little unfinished especially in it's ending.

The book is right back on track with the second story, 'Mrs Considine', a lightning fast tale of witchcraft  and premonitions and with the third, the wonderfully vindictive, 'The Swanee Glide'.

Next up is probably my favourite piece in the book, 'Listening'.  As a fan of experimental music and the tenets of 'deep listening' the story had me from it's second paragraph and whilst this aspect was only one part of what turned out to be a sublimely rolling narrative that begins with a dead cat and ends with a memory of a painting.

'The Companion' is a slight twist on the classic haunted house tale, 'The Rented Swan', in a bizarre love story whilst 'Jugged Hare' feels like an Agatha Christie pastiche.  'A Game of Black and White' sends the book back into the realm of the weird as a young boy celebrating his birthday during an eclipse finds himself trapped in a very unpleasant predicament of a far more surreal kind than the unpleasantness that seems likely to be about inflicted on the hapless teen burglar in 'Time to Laugh'.

'He' is probably the books best contender for 'most likely to appear in an anthology of the macabre' with it's wonderfully archaic tale of magical revenge although its successor 'The Story About Caruso' runs it a close second.  Conversely the more deliberately modern 'the Helper' with its heroin addiction, anorexia and robots is easily the least satisfying thing here although again it's successor, 'Power Cut', runs it a close second.

The book ends with two stories that I can only describe as Aiken-esque and are all the better for it.  'Who Goes Down This dark Road' is a frankly bizarre and funny tale of a young girl's hair and the teacher tasked with uncovering it's secret whilst 'A Train Full of Warlords' tells of a family in the aftermath of a tragedy and the ways in which each is dealing with it.

As I said earlier I didn't find this collection to be as wholly satisfying as 'A Bundle of Nerves' but it still offers a very satisfying selection of stories.  her stories transcend genre boundaries mixing the fantastical withe the macabre and the fun with the supernatural.  There are elements in her stories of the classic authors of the weird and the supernatural but also you can see echoes of her contemporaries such as Roald Dahl and I for one think it's about time she was regarded with the same level of esteem.

1 comment:

  1. 'Listening' and others from earlier supernatural collections can now be found in 'The People in the Castle' newly out fro Small Beer Press hard to choose from so many - but some real golden oldies here!