Once upon a time, and sometimes still today, good bookstores would “hand-sell” favorite works of fiction and nonfiction. “Here,” the kindly — or crusty — manager might say, “this is something you should take a look at.” Suddenly, you’d be holding John Collier’s “Fancies and Goodnights” or Edward Dahlberg’s “Because I Was Flesh” or Janet Flanner’s “Paris Was Yesterday.” Wise customers always bought such books — and were seldom disappointed.
Let me, then, if only figuratively, thrust into your hands these three collections of “strange” stories. In them you will read of ghosts and magical transformations and curious customs. You will smile sometimes and shiver more often, but invariably find yourself firmly in thrall to the voice of the storyteller.
This is especially true for Joan Aiken. As Kelly Link writes in her introduction to “The People in the Castle” (Small Beer, $24) Aiken published “gothics, mysteries, children’s novels, Jane Austen pastiches, and an excellent book for would-be authors, ‘The Way to Write for Children.’ ” Today, she is best known for her historico-fantasy classic “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” and its many companion volumes featuring the irrepressible Dido Twite, starting with “Black Hearts in Battersea.” I suspect that both J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman studied these books attentively.
Aiken also produced dozens of cozily eerie short stories, often playing with elements of folk tale and fairy tale. This best-of collection, chosen by Link with the help of the author’s daughter Lizza Aiken, opens with full-blown Irish magic:
“Night, now. And a young man, Theseus O’Brien, coming down the main street of Killinch with an owl seated upon his shoulder — perhaps the strangest sight that small town ever witnessed. The high moors brooded around the town, all up the wide street came the sighing of the river, and the August night was as gentle and full as a bucket of new milk.”
See what I mean about the voice of the storyteller? Before this story ends, Theseus will fall in love with a girl named Maggie, whose father owns a caged phoenix, a wooden leg full of rubies and a huge hourglass that foretells the moment of his death.
Other stories are just as good. In “Hope,” an elderly harp teacher confronts the Devil in the back alleys of a run-down tenement. In “The Man Who Had Seen the Rope Trick,” an ailing India hand brings escape to lives blighted by a mean-spirited, dry-hearted landlady. And, best of all, in “The People in the Castle,” Aiken tells a ghost story that is also a love story, and both are perfect.
Frank Baker, as R.B. Russell writes in his introduction to “Stories of the Strange and Sinister” (Valancourt; paperback, $16.99) is probably best known for two novels. In 1936 he published “The Birds” (also available from Valancourt) long before Daphne du Maurier produced her classic tale with the same title and on the same theme — an avian uprising against humankind. Even better, however, is Baker’s masterpiece, “Miss Hargreaves,” in which an imaginary character comes to life, with comic and horrific consequences.
Baker’s style might be described as elegant and understated. In “My Lady Sweet, Arise,” a music-loving spinster suddenly begins to sing like a bird all day long. In “Art Thou Languid?” two men haunt each other, before and after death. One almost, but not quite, breaks the unhealthy psychic bond by falling in love with a young woman: “Later, he knew that these were the happiest weeks of his life.” Finally, in “Quintin Claribel,” Baker tells of a boy, eventually a man of letters, who is literally forced to eat his words. Through this outrageous premise, he explores the icy heart of the literary sensibility.
While generally categorized as a science fiction writer, R.A. Lafferty was — to use the old phrase — sui generis. His gonzo stories, with their surrealist plots and jacked-up diction, revel in excess, bizarreness of every sort and parenthetical winks to the reader. You don’t so much read these absurdist tall tales as let them wash over you.
In the title story of “The Man Underneath” (Centipede, $45), we meet the Great Zambezi, who possessed “the magnetism of a faith healer, the spirit and appearance of a rooster, and a deadly seriousness.” During a performance of his famous box illusion, the magician somehow summons a strange clown, one with seemingly miraculous powers. That night, Zambezi, his lovely assistant Veronica and the three Lemon sisters, Dolly, Molly and Polly, start drinking whiskey conjured by the party-loving clown. As Lafferty coyly writes, “And if you don’t think you can have fun with a reanimated bottle of whisky and Veronica and the three Lemon sisters you must have a different and more staid definition of fun.”
Centipede Press is gradually bringing out Lafferty’s complete stories, probably in 12 volumes. In his introduction to this one, the late Bud Webster points to “Boomer Flats” as his own favorite: In it a trio of eminent scientists travel to a Texas backwater in search of the missing link. There they meet a race of near immortals, a gorgeous woman named Crayola Catfish, some hairy giants and a space traveler known as Comet. In another Lafferty classic, “Nine Hundred Grandmothers,” a Special Aspects agent discovers that the natives of the planet Proavitus never die: “It is a foolish alien custom which we see no reason to imitate.” Alas, because of his name, Ceran Swicegood never quite learns the secret of life, the universe and everything.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”