The People in the Castle

Joan Aiken et al.

New: Read the introduction and title story on Tin House.

Here is the whisper in the night, the creak upstairs, that half-remembered ghost story that won’t let you sleep, the sound that raises gooseflesh, the wish you’d checked the lock on the door before it got really, really dark. Here are tales of suspense and the supernatural that will chill, amuse, and exhilarate.

“The particular joys of a Joan Aiken story have always been her capacity for this kind of brisk invention; her ear for dialect; her characters and their idiosyncrasies. Among the stories collected in this omnibus, are some of the very first Joan Aiken stories that I ever fell in love with, starting with the title story “The People in the Castle,” which is a variation on the classic tales of fairy wives.”
— Kelly Link, from her Introduction


“A welcome anthology of fantasy stories by a 20th-century master. The author of the beloved classic gothic for children The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Aiken (1924-2004) also wrote hundreds of works of popular fiction that spanned the genres, from fantasy to horror to historical fiction, including several Jane Austen sequels. Naturally the tone of her books and short stories varies with their content, but its main notes include sophisticated, spritely satire and the darker moods of literary fairy tales. Fans of Wolves will recognize the honorable orphans and cruel guardians who populate these tales. Typically the wicked meet with fitting fates and the innocent triumph, though for Aiken, a good death counts as a happy ending. She plays with the contrast between the eldritch and modern culture and technology: ghosts and dead kings out of legend who contact the living by telephone, a doctor who writes prescriptions for fairies, a fairy princess who’s fond of Westerns. Her metaphors and similes surprise and delight: “the August night was as gentle and full as a bucket of new milk”; “He was tall and pale, with a bony righteous face and eyes like faded olives”; across a field, “lambs [followed] their mothers like iron filings drawn to a magnet in regular converging lines.” Sprightly but brooding, with well-defined plots, twists, and punch lines, these stories deserve a place on the shelf with the fantasies of Saki (H.H. Munro), Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Susanna Clarke.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“There’s so much to love about this slender collection… The juxtaposition of mundane and magical…feels effortless and fresh. The language is simply splendid, so evocative, as though the stories were actually very dense poems. And it brilliantly showcases Aiken’s affectionate, humorous, deft portrayals of female characters… Aiken’s prose is extraordinary, impossible to do justice to in this small space. Her skill with the language of folk tales—specifically the oral storytelling native to the British Isles—is unparalleled… These stories both feel very 20th century and somehow timeless.”
— Publishers Weekly, Boxed, signed review by Rose Fox, Senior Reviews Editor

Table of Contents

Introduction by Kelly Link
“The Power of Storytelling: Joan Aiken’s Strange Stories” by Lizza Aiken
Cold Flame
The Dark Streets of Kimball’s Green
Furry Night
The Lame King
The Last Specimen
A Leg Full of Rubies
Lob’s Girl
The Man Who Had Seen the Rope Trick
The Mysterious Barricades
Old Fillikin
The People in the Castle
A Portable Elephant
A Room Full of Leaves
She Was Afraid of Upstairs
Some Music for the Wicked Countess
Sonata for Harp and Bicycle
Watkyn, Comma

Joan Aiken (1924–2004) was born in Rye, Sussex, England, into a literary family: her father was the poet and writer Conrad Aiken and her siblings, the novelists Jane Aiken Hodge and John Aiken. After her parents’ divorce her mother married the popular English writer Martin Armstrong.
Aiken began writing at the age of five and her first collection of stories, All You’ve Ever Wanted was published in 1953. After her first husband’s death, Aiken supported her family by copyediting at Argosy and working at an advertising agency before turning to writing fiction full time. She went on to write for Vogue, Good Housekeeping, Vanity Fair, Women’s Own, and many other magazines.
She wrote over a hundred books and was perhaps best known for the dozen novels in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. She received the Guardian and Edgar Allan Poe awards for fiction and in 1999 she was awarded an MBE.

Cover art “The Castle in the Air” by Joan Aikman, 1939. © Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis

Praise for Joan Aiken’s stories:

“Wildly inventive, darkly lyrical, and always surprising, this collection-like the mermaid in a bottle-is a literary treasure that should be cherished by fantastical fiction fans of all ages.” — Publisher’s Weekly

“Darkly whimsical stories…Aiken writes with surpassing spirit and alertness, her elegant restraint and dry wit never fail to leave their mark.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Each story has a surprise or twist. Many are ironic, go-figure pieces. They are just like real life, only more so. VERDICT: This book will appeal to readers of short stories and literary fiction. Highly recommended.” — Library Journal

“Aiken’s pastoral meadows and circus chaos, gothic grotesques and quirky romances… have a dream-like quality executed with a brevity and wit that is a testament to her skill as a story-teller.” — California Literary Review

“From a bottled mermaid brought home from a sailor’s adventures at sea to a vicar reincarnated as a malevolent cat, fantasy is combined with magic, myth and adventure to form weird, wonderful and immersive tales.” — For Book’s Sake

Best known for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken (1924-2004) wrote over a hundred books and won the Guardian and Edgar Allan Poe awards. After her first husband’s death, she supported her family by copyediting at Argosy magazine and an advertising agency before turning to fiction. She went on to write for Vogue, Good Housekeeping, Vanity Fair, Argosy, Women’s Own, and many others. Visit her online at:

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