Joan Aiken: A Bundle of Nerves:
stories of horror, suspense and fantasy
Cover illustration Peter Goodfellow
Peacock (Penguin) Books 1978 (1976)
Nineteen short stories are collected here, the majority originally appearing in Argosy — a British magazine which appeared between 1926 and 1974 and for which Joan Aiken was Features Editor (from 1955 to 1960). They are indeed ‘stories of horror, suspense and fantasy’, and though rather mild — if occasionally racy — by today’s tastes they were, and still are, perfect for the young teenage readership the collection aims at.
Nineteen stories then, rather too many to summarise other than to say that they can surprise as well as satisfy the reader’s sense of mystery. Quintessentially British — Scottish, Cornish and Welsh colour often tints the otherwise very English settings — these tales bring a bite of the unexpected into everyday life. Many have a publishing house scenario, as may be expected from the author’s background in the London office of the United Nations, as well as feature writing for Argosy and copywriting for an advertising agency. Others have macabre twists where just desserts are doled out — a partially-sighted woman who operates by smell identifies her burglar, a bullied teacher inadvertently but terribly pays his tormentor back, and a man who predatorily profits from a stolen patent is dealt poetic justice. Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold.
A significant number have music running through them as a leitmotiv, from titles like Do You Dig Grieg? and Sonata for Harp and Bicycle to a ghost story ending with the music of William Byrd. In fact every genre you can think of is touched on, not just horror and the supernatural but fantasy and science fiction, black comedy and sweet romance.
Like other collections of her short stories — A Touch of Chill for example, or The Monkey’s Wedding — there is so much to be savoured, then saved up to be read again. Four decades on this may speak of a recently departed past but human emotions nevertheless remain constant. Curiously, I acquired this collection soon after it appeared in paperback but have only just got round to reading it now; I shan’t be leaving it so long again.
A note about Peacock Books: these were instigated by Penguin Books to publish books aimed at the young teenage market, and survived from 1962 to 1979. I still have a handful of other books in this series, including Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset and Alison Uttley’s The Country Child. Such a shame that Penguin had to give up on this niche market because some titles were considered too strong for their intended audience; the potential for offence, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.