To savour, and to save

The Human Eye (credit: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-clip-art-eye-diagram/)

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.

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28 thoughts on “To savour, and to save

  1. earthbalm

    I’m sure that I read (and enjoyed) this as a youth. With Uttley and Sutcliff keeping Aiken company, Peacock Books must have been a worthy subset of Penguin. Will have to seek this out, a story that ends with the music of William Byrd sounds too delicious to miss. I find myself regressing back to my youth (perhaps as most people do at my time of life) and seeking out my favourite authors. Yesterday, for example, I bought an unopened anthology of Conan short stories for just £2.50 at a Cardiff market stall. But I was actually looking for Aldiss, Clarke, Sturgeon et al. I devoured science fiction as a child and adolescent, perhaps I’ve not really grown so much. 🙂 Thanks for another great post!

    1. I think there are only two categories of fiction, Dale, well-written and less well-written. To hell with genres! If Conan or any other kind of pulp fiction draws the reader along and creates a world they can inhabit and characters they can believe in then those books trump any manner of worthy literary fiction that has pretensions to quality but leaves readers cold. That’s my take, anyway!

      Yes, Peacocks — a leader in the field at the time. But most book publishers now are part of conglomerates, are they not, and whoever owns Penguin probably has any number of subsidiaries which specialise in the YA market to make resurrecting Peacocks pointless. A pity, though, as I think they represented some kind of benchmark for quality and innovation.

      1. earthbalm

        I’ve read the first two stories in the Conan collection. I’ll be stopping there. Back to the writing of UKLG I think!

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  3. Great post, Chris. A shame, as you say, that Penguin closed down Peacock because the titles were deemed unsuitable for some – if you read some of the material out their now for young people, I’m sure Peacock’s was no stronger.
    Lovely to read another Aiken post. She really was a treasure, wasn’t she?

    1. Thanks, Lynn! Maybe the world was so much simpler then that one publisher could make the running. As I mention to Dale above, the market is much more complex now, so much so that I’ve given up trying to unravel it.

      Aiken a treasure? I should coco! (Cocoa?) And there’s still a lot more Aiken for me to read for the first time, let alone rereads!

      1. It is a truly twisty world, that of publishing. How anyone makes sense of it, I don’t know.
        I’ll look forward to more of your Aiken reviews then – first time reads or otherwise 🙂

  4. Ah! The mention of Rosemary Sutcliffe. I loved her books. As a teen I read them over and over. Wow. The memory this has evoked. I can recall standing in the fiction part of the school library and looking at the book spines. It is such a sharp memory! Thanks 🙂

    1. And it’s thanks from me for the memory, Greg, I too have fond memories, less of my school library than of the children’s and juvenile sections my local library, especially when I went through a phase of historical fiction where Sutcliff rubbed shoulders with Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece. (‘Juvenile’: why that descriptor was dropped I’ll never know — perhaps it went hand in hand with ‘delinquent’ in people’s minds?)

      By the way, I also assumed for a long time that Rosemary’s surname was Sutcliffe with an ‘e’ until the mistake was pointed out to me. Funny how the eye sees what it wants to see!

      1. Ah! Henry Treece. I remember his books well. Can’t remember Geoffrey Trease. Another favourite of mine was Mary Renault. Oh, and Nigel Trantor. As for Rosemary, given that we both thought the name had an “e”, I propose that we were always correct but have somehow been transported into an alternative universe where there is no “e” in her name. What dastardly aliens did this to us???

        1. Never got on to Trantor — or perhaps I did in that alternative universe?! Anyway, Mary Renault seems to be back in favour all of a sudden, if other book blogs are any indication; must seek her out again.

  5. earthbalm

    I devoured Rosemary Sutcliff’s books in my pre-teen years. Her re-telling of the story of Cú Chulainn (a section of the Ulster Cycle) is still my all time favourite book and had a profound effect on me growing up. Then, I discovered science fiction and it was all down hill.

    1. That reminds me, I must have another bash at The Tain, a translation of the cattle raid of Cooley/Culaing which I think I only got halfway through before a house move interrupted.

      SF? Downhill? Were you hurtling down a wormhole then?

      😀

      1. earthbalm

        I’ve read a few versions of The Tain but I still prefer the somewhat sanitised and shortened Sutcliff narrative. 🙂

    1. Yes, I suspect that readers still with them in their collections want to keep them — for nostalgia’s sake — as I rarely see them for sale in secondhand or charity bookshops here in the UK. I’d send you mine but, as I said, I’m really hoping to read it again!

  6. One of my favourite Aiken ‘musical’ quotes from Sonata for Harp & Bicycle:

    Jason took a bunch of roses from Berenice, opened the door a little way, and gently deposited them, with a bottle, inside the door. As he closed it again Berenice said breathlessly, “Did you see anyone?”

    “No,” he said. “The room was too full of music.”

  7. I’m reading The People in the Castle right now, and it’s so wonderful as well! However, I wish there could be a more comprehensive omnibus of stories rather than these zillions of overlapping collections…but I know it would run to too many volumes. An embarrassment of riches!

    1. I second that, Lory! I had a look at the recent The Gift of Giving and recognised a fair few of the stories in collections I already had. However, if they serve to introduce new readers to the joys of Aiken that’s all to the good! Must have a look out for The People in the Castle, which has already impinged itself on the edge of my consciousness…

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