Joan Aiken clothes extraordinary events, ghastly happenings and other-worldy interventions in an immaculate pin-striped suit with a furled umbrella. Her stories are full of tasteful description, graceful prose and unpretentious characters who speak with equal earthy directness to a Martian, a rented swan, or a postman who periodically vanishes into a procelain jar. This collection of short stories is subtitled "Tales of Romance, Fantasy and Suspense" and fulfills its promise in full, leading the reader (curious, afraid, enthralled and a willing victim) from story to story until suddenly all 15 are gone.
A Martian, whose egg lands in the midst of a small English country town, has the uncanny ability to read people's thoughts and therefore to share their suffering, a gift he has in common with the author. There is nothing facile or shallow about Aiken's fantasy world. The events are fantasmagorical but the people are truly human. Science fiction gives way to low-key horror in "The Story of Caruso" when turning off the kitchen tap becomes a subtle means of murder. Romance is poignant in an encounter between a sewing-machine salesman and a ghostly Elizabethan maiden.
This quirky and orginal combination of the outrageous and the the everyday makes these short stories relaxing yet fulfilling reading. (Viking, $7.95)
- Brigitte Weeks