Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #13: A Goose on Your Grave by Joan Aiken
I have grown increasingly appreciative of the layers, tensions and humour of Joan Aiken’s YA and children’s books through the 25-odd years that I have been reading them. The couple of adult books of hers I’ve read have by contrast seemed pretty standard psychological thrillers – as if the landscapes of childhood and adolescence offered more scope for her wild, dark and lilting imagination. Her most famous series are probably the “Arabel and Mortimer” books for young readers (Mortimer is a raven who only says “nevermore” and Arabel is a spritely six-year-old) and the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (also referred to as the “Dido” books), starring the intrepid urchin Dido Twite in an alternative-history-somewhat-steampunk Regency-ish era. Dido’s adventures span the globe as she outwits various sinister governesses and kidnappers and Hanoverian plotters (in this world England is ruled by good Stuart kings) and deserve whole reviews of their awesomeness, but here I will review my rereading of A Goose on Your Grave: Stories of Horror, Suspense and Fantasy.
The collection as a whole feels cohesive; there are recurring themes such as time travel, the capabilities of the human mind to create and accept the extraordinary, a love of animals, particularly cats, and odd things in science and nature. Motifs from Aiken’s entire YA and children’s oeuvre are touched upon, such as the problems and inadequacies of well-meaning bureaucrats when it comes to children’s welfare and different ways of escaping from and revenge on oppressive guardians (of all ages) and systems (from schools to societies). Within Goose on Your Grave, an image from one story occasionally resurfaces in another; in “The Old Poet” our suspicions as to why the rowan tree was significant for the one-eyed stranger in “Snow Horse” are confirmed. (“The Old Poet,” by the way, about a young college student encountering an unexpected element of his great-grandfather’s legacy, satirises the literary establishment with sardonic glee and contains one of the most surprising pieces of poetry criticism I’ve come across: “I did read the lyrics, on the plane going to Heathrow. They were very lyrical but quite dry–half Coke, half lemon. (71)) Mythology and modernity mingle with the Gothic and the traditionally ghostly to occasionally surreal effect. Few of the stories end happily; some end on a note of ambiguity and some downright sadly. Aiken has a bleak vision and an icy pen at times; she skewers the pretensions of the type of boys who casually torment their fellows, leaving no visible marks, in the name of good clean boyish hi-jinks in “The Blades,” for example, and excessive psychological jargon without actual insight in “Aunt Susan” (a startlingly grownup tale in the vein of Roald Dahl’s cruellest). “Potter’s Grey” subverts the idea of “rose-coloured glasses” in an extreme way, and “The Last Specimen” is delightfully English and gently sorrowful – but I can’t say why without spoilers.
I would perhaps have to say that Bundle of Nerves (which I would recommend to any fans of Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors) is my favourite from her “supernatural” story collections, but Goose on Your Grave is still very good. While the sequence shows occasional flashes of the homeliness and comfort that pervade her work for slightly younger readers (although even into these the eerie and tragic are occasionally allowed to enter), the overall sense of Goose on Your Grave is decidedly and deliciously unheimlich.
“But I hadn’t enough money to pay for the return ride, so I thanked the boatman, hoisted my pack, and set off through trees to the dimly glimpsed mansion.
As I drew near I could hear the sound of the chain saw: a malevolent, high-pitched shriek. The sound was ominous in those terribly silent woods. The trees were enormous. Under them grew a little grass, thin and moss-infested, like the sparse dandruffy hairs on an old man’s head. There was a kind of path, and then a smallish open space. Beyond it I could see a side of the house, with a terrace and a row of windows; opposite the house lay the shore of the loch, which curved round here in a small bay. On the rocky shoreline grew a huge tree: it spread out like a hand, not a single trunk but about six of them, grey and smooth fingers reaching upwards. ” (“The Old Poet,” 73).
Joan Aiken. A Goose on Your Grave. London: Lions Teen Tracks, 1987.
Note: Aiken was very prolific, and wrote for all ages. The website for her books gives some idea of which series are suitable for which age group.