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Aiken, Joan

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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(1924-2004) UK author, daughter of Conrad Aiken, stepdaughter of Martin Armstrong [for both men see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], and sister of John Aiken; best known as a highly prolific author of fantasy for children and Young Adult readers. Almost none of her many adult novels contain explicit fantasy content, though some have supernatural implications; of these titles, Castle Barebane (1976) is a streamlined Gothic and The Haunting of Lamb House (coll of linked stories 1991), set in the actual Lamb House in Rye, exposes two of its real-life inhabitants – Henry James (1843-1916) and E F Benson – to the ghost of an eighteenth-century child who has had to endure the breakup of his family.

Aiken was never strongly drawn to the writing of sf, though her most famous sequence – the Wolves Chronicles, also variously referred to as the Willoughby Chase, Alternate England, Dido Twite or James III series, beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) and ending with The Witch of Clatteringshaws (2005) – is set in a genuine (if at times pixillated) Alternate History version of Britain where the Stuart dynasty has survived (James III has acceded in 1832), though Hanoverian plots against the throne abound (directly reversing the historical record). A channel tunnel, which allows wolves into England, has been constructed. As in the works of E Nesbit, parents and other authority figures are often absent or lost, underlying the sometime terrifying arbitrariness of her world. There is little Magic as such in this world, though individual storylines are sufficiently exorbitant – in their use of abrupt "lateral-fantastic" contextual and plot shifts (see Fantastika) – to generate a sense of an immanent, deeply non-mimetic sense of the nature of the world; eccentric Inventions are frequently invoked. Some individual tales follow Dido Twite around the world, notably The Stolen Lake (1981), set in an imaginary South American country near Hy Brasil, where a Lost Race civilization is nearing meltdown due to the insatiable demands of its ruler, Queen Ginevra (ie Guinevere), who has been drinking the blood of virgins to maintain her Immortality; but the coming of King Arthur returns the tale to ethical normalcy [for Arthur and Once and Future King see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Is (1992; vt Is Underground 1993) is set at a time when the north of England has seceded from the south, and a grim gradgrind Dystopia feeds (almost literally) on duped children to fuel its industrial mania. The Steampunk atmosphere of this tale also characterizes a later standalone novel, The Cockatrice Boys (1996), in which England is beset by a plague of Monsters.

Most (but not yet all) of Aiken's hundreds of short stories have been assembled in about forty separate volumes, with some overlap, as US and UK editions sometimes contain different selections. Composed over a period of sixty years – "Aunt Jezebel's House", in The Ghost's Companion (anth 1975 ed Peter Haining), was written around 1941 and may be her earliest manuscript to reach print – they comprise an extremely impressive range of work, a gamut which incorporates delicately exemplary fairytales, nonfantasy and fantasy stories of rural and urban life (sometimes constructed with an effect of easeful Magic Realism), ghost stories and horror. Very few of them edge into sf territory, however, though a full selection is given in the Checklist below. "Joan Aiken" (early version in Supernatural Fiction Writers, anth 2002, edited by Richard Bleiler; much rev in Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm coll 2011) by John Clute contains a fuller checklist.

Throughout her career Aiken generated work of an almost relentless fertility. There is a passionate knowingness in her invention of small details that is clearly a matter of her own satisfaction – few young readers would know, for instance, that the "hobey" played by Dido Twite's father is an oboe, the French hautbois having, in this world, been differently Englished. Her feverishness may derive to some degree from the example of her father, though she maintained strict professional control over even the most exuberant moments; the loving urgency of her depiction of character and landscape and plot seemed an intrinsic gift. [JC]

Joan Delano Aiken

born Rye, Sussex: 4 September 1924

died Petworth, West Sussex: 4 January 2004



Wolves Chronicles

  • The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (London: Jonathan Cape, 1962) [Wolves Chronicles: illus/hb/Pat Marriott]
  • Black Hearts in Battersea (London: Jonathan Cape, 1964) [Wolves Chronicles: illus/hb/Pat Marriott]
  • Night Birds on Nantucket (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966) [Wolves Chronicles: illus/hb/Robin Jacques]
  • The Cuckoo Tree (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971) [Wolves Chronicles: illus/hb/Pat Marriott]
  • The Stolen Lake (London: Jonathan Cape, 1981) [Wolves Chronicles: illus/hb/Pat Marriott]
  • Dido and Pa (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986) [Wolves Chronicles: illus/hb/Pat Marriott]
  • Is (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992) [Wolves Chronicles: illus/hb/Pat Marriott]
    • Is Underground (New York: Delacorte Press, 1993) [vt of the above: Wolves Chronicles: hb/Edward Gorey]
  • Cold Shoulder Road (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995) [Wolves Chronicles: hb/Mark Robertson]
  • Limbo Lodge (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999) [Wolves Chronicles: hb/Mark Robertson]
  • Midwinter Nightingale (New York: Delacorte Press, 2003) [Wolves Chronicles: hb/Merritt Deckle]
  • The Witch of Clatteringshaws (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005) [Wolves Chronicles: hb/Paul Hess]


St Boan

  • In Thunder's Pocket (London: Random House/Red Fox, 2001) [chap: St Boan: illus/pb/Caroline Crossland]
  • The Song of Mat and Ben (London: Random House/Red Fox, 2001) [chap: St Boan: illus/pb/Caroline Crossland]
  • Bone and Dream (London: Random House/Red Fox, 2002) [chap: St Boan: illus/pb/Caroline Crossland]

individual titles (selected)

collections and stories (selected)



about the author


previous versions of this entry

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