Joan Aiken A Touch of Chill:
Stories of Horror, Suspense and Fantasy
Fontana Lions 1981 (1979)
These fifteen short stories, six published for the first time in this collection, are full of mystery and surprises, not least because UK and US editions feature — apart from a core of eight — different selections. I first read these tales in the early eighties, but apart from the odd déjà-vu moment I regret I didn’t remember any of them in this reread — my failing, not Joan Aiken’s, because these are wonderfully dark narratives.
I don’t know who made the final choice for the order of the UK edition but it was curious that pairs of succeeding stories are often linked — witches both black and white, Irish or Welsh characters, youngsters climbing through windows, murder intentional or otherwise, sinister automatons, and finally tales which somehow become true. But despite commonalities each story is very different, very distinct.
What I like about this collection is how Aiken is deft at changing tone and, occasionally, voice. The stories I particularly enjoyed were ones that felt like true accounts with a slight twist in the tail. Listening involves a New York college professor at first reluctantly observing a teacher tutoring her class to play close attention to sounds — a practice close to my heart ever since as a student teacher I was introduced to Murray Schafer’s Ear Cleaning. The narrative describes the professor’s day, where seemingly random events and near synchronous experiences upset his personal world order: a delightful piece of writing. The singularly titled “He” also indirectly involves New York during the United States’ great period of European immigration around the beginning of the 20th century: a “little black wooden box” made from an ancient tree in the Holy Land, and passed on to a young Polish girl by an aged dying compatriot, has the power to grant wishes — or does it? Is the outcome the one time it is used thus a coincidence or a consequence? This reported first person narrative is possibly my favourite, set in the claustrophobic confines of steerage on a transatlantic passenger ship but with an additional whiff of Eastern European peasant lore.
I also have time for Mrs Considine wherein Julia, a young square peg in a round hole, has curiously vivid dreams which appear to have a bearing on the near future; an achingly sad little tale, yet also close to seeming as though it’s based on truth. And there’s also A Train full of War-lords, another instance of stories within a story: two boys who have lost their mother, with a father who is slowly losing both will and wits, tell each other adventure fantasies — the way boys do; hanging over this little slice of suburban lives is a model train set which seems, literally, to be going nowhere, along with the threat of an explosion which may or may not happen.
‘Stories of Horror, Suspense and Fantasy’ this collection is subtitled, and each piece has an admixture of two and occasionally all three elements. Black humour underlies the horror in The Sewanee Glide (two sisters don’t see eye to eye), The Story About Caruso (uncle and niece don’t see eye to eye either) and even the rather bittersweet The Rented Swan, with its fairytale shape-shifting theme; but rather grimmer are Lodgers (what is their interest in the adjacent graveyard? and what do they keep in their room?), The Companion (is anyone or anything lurking outside the front door?), Time to Laugh (what is the significance of the clock with an evil chuckle?) and Power Cut. The latter features a cat (as did Listening) and other animals put in an occasional appearance — as well as the aforementioned swan there is a wild creature in Jugged Hare — though we mustn’t assume they’re included for sentimental reasons. And, set in a dismal Paris, The Helper describes an automaton powered by planetary forces — or is it a living creature?
Spine tingles are almost unavoidable, and I haven’t even mentioned the final two stories in the UK edition. A Game of Black and White, ostensibly about chess, is a nightmare within a dream, suffered by a child for whom the coincidence of a birthday and a celestial phenomenon doesn’t spell the happiness wished for by the cards that come in the post. And finally, if your spine isn’t tingling then perhaps your scalp will itch by the time you have finished Who Goes Down this Dark Road? Joan Aiken’s imagination is given full rein in these little masterpieces of madness, a genre in which she excels; I can’t imagine I’ll ever now, as I evidently did once, forget these tales.
I rarely mention cover illustrations, but that by Stuart Hughes for the UK edition (and for all I know maybe the US edition too) cunningly features elements from at least two of the stories: the bird from The Rented Swan and the chuckling clock (here with a snake emerging from its ornamentation) from Time to Laugh. Whatever the reasons for including these two, prime amongst them must be the capacity for the conjunction of dissimilar images to disconcert and intrigue; it certainly worked for me.