From The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories
“Joan Aiken was born in a haunted house on Mermaid street in Rye, England.” So writes Kelly Link in the introduction to The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Tales. The confluence of ghosts and mermaids seems foreordained for a girl who would grow up to write stories with mythical and magical themes and subjects. Her fiction incorporated mermaids (“A Mermaid Too Many,” which appears in the 2011 retrospective collection A Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories, features a sailor who gifts his wife a mermaid in a bottle) and ghosts (“The Cold Flame,” included in the 2016 Small Beer Press collection currently under consideration, is about a deceased poet whose ghost returns to try to get his poems published).
Aiken’s stories broadly fall within the subgenre known as weird fiction, and she numbered among her fans Shirley Jackson. But she is perhaps best known for her children’s series The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. “The ‘Wolves’ sequence is bursting to the seams with exiled royalty, sinister governesses, spies, a goose boy, and plucky orphans – and, of course, the eponymous wolves,” writes Link, who also notes that when Aiken delivered the first volume to her publisher, she was asked if she had another story collection instead. “Well: the world is a different place now,” Link notes with sardonic understatement.
The stories in The People in the Castle contain fantastical elements alongside influences ranging from mythology, fairy tales, and horror stories, though any grotesqueness is handled in a mild way. A number of these stories were originally published in books for children, and their crossover potential is still evident; Aiken did not write anything resembling splatterpunk.
Wolves provided the author with her most enduring success, so it may be no accident that she returned to them, at least tangentially, in her story “Furry Night” (first published in the 1976 collection A Bundle of Nerves). But the story owes as much to fairy tales and ancient lore as it does to her own novel cycle. “Furry Night” is a “what if” story, and in this case, the “what if” is a doozy: what if the world’s greatest Shakespearean actor were also a werewolf?
The actor in question is Sir Murdoch Meredith, founder of the National Museum of Dramatic Art and one of the finest interpreters of the Bard ever to walk the boards. “He made the comedies too macabre,” an elderly man named Lord Hawick informs the younger Australian Ian Peachtree, “but in the tragedies there was no one to touch him. … As Shylock and Caesar and Timon he was unrivalled. Othello and Antony he never touched, but his Iago was a masterpiece of villainy.” This brief summary of the thespian’s CV illustrates both his talent – he is capable of assaying some of Shakespeare’s most demanding male roles and acquitting himself admirably – and his good sense – he refrains from Othello and Antony, roles that he recognizes as outside the bounds of his capabilities.
Sir Malcolm also suffers from lycanthropy, a condition that afflicts him especially when he gets angry: “This afternoon … he pounced on the Bishop for innocently remarking that Garrick’s Hamlet was the world’s greatest piece of acting.” (The association between rage and the actor’s affliction also calls to mind Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)
Onstage, Sir Malcolm’s transformations – the result of fury at such relatively minor mishaps as a “clumsy stagehand” or a “missed cue” – are taken in stride by audiences who “easily accepted a grey-furred Iago padding across the stage with the handkerchief in his mouth.“ (The observation makes the earlier comment about Sir Malcolm’s performance amounting to “a masterpiece of villainy” mordantly funny in retrospect.) One thing the performer evidently lacks is humility, and Aiken presents us with a satire of a particular type of temperamental artist – of a wolfish disposition and prone to rage at other performers and stagehands over the most minor perceived slight. Offstage, the actor’s increasingly unpredictable temper is beginning to cause problems; “Equity objected,” Lord Hawick tells Ian.
Accordingly, the thespian has been forced into early retirement and sent to the small village of Polgrue under the care of the resident physician, Dr. Defoe, with Ian accompanying him as a minder. Once ensconced in their “hideous Victorian-Gothic barrack,” Ian encounters Clarissa Defoe, the physician’s daughter, who administers the annual Furry Race, a challenge between the youths of Polgrue and the neighbouring Lostimd. A variation on capture the flag, the Furry Race involves a lad from Polgrue slipping into Lostmid and stealing their fabled Furry Ball. The object is to get the ball across the parish line and lay it in a designated niche before being caught. The trouble is, the most direct route from Lostimd to Polgrue cuts straight across Sir Malcolm’s property, raising the actor’s ire and threatening an unwanted metamorphosis.
Aiken milks her outlandish scenario for all it’s worth, including references to The Merchant of Venice (“Thy desires / Are wolvish, bloody, starv’d and ravenous!’) and Macbeth (“Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf, / Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace, / With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design / Moves like a ghost”) that function as sly comments on Sir Malcolm’s own dilemma. On the night of the race, when Sir Malcolm changes into a werewolf and traps Clarissa in a telephone booth, Ian tries to pull him off with orders of “Down sir! Heel!” before successfully restraining the attack by quoting Pericles: “Avaunt thou damnéd door-keeper!” (There is a laugh-out-loud moment in this scene when Ian, approaching the glass booth where Sir Malcolm has Clarissa trapped, blandly observes, “It is not easy to address your employer in such circumstances.”)
The key figure in the story, as it turns out, is Clarissa Defoe, a tomboyish young woman who proves to be resourceful, cool under pressure (unlike the flighty and hotheaded Ian), and vivacious. Of course the story will end with Sir Malcolm and Dr. Defoe blessing the marriage between Ian and Clarissa, though Aiken has one final twist waiting in the story’s very last lines. It is here that the idyll of domestic bliss is given a fantastical torque, rendering what would otherwise have formally been a comedy into something more fabulous and uncanny. In case we were under the misapprehension that “Furry Night” was nothing but a mild children’s fable, Aiken reminds us that her narrative of lycanthropy has teeth, and they can bite.