[Review] A haunting collection of spooky stories and sketches

By John Millen
By John Millen |

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A Foot in the Grave 
By Joan Aiken & Jan Pienkowski
Published by Jonathan Cape
ISBN 978 0 857 55065 1

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in A Foot in the Grave, readers get the best of both worlds.

This spooky collection of eight ghostly tales is a treat for fans of shorts stories that send shivers up the spine, for along with the text of each tale there is the bonus of scary artwork to add to that creepy feeling.

When famous artist and children's book illustrator Jan Pienkowski asked writer Joan Aiken to come up with a set of stories inspired by some of his paintings, the result was bound to be interesting. Usually with illustrated books, the stories come first and the illustrations are based on the words.

Aiken had worked with Pienkowski before so she understood the artist's unique style. The result is an unusual book that fans of both writer and artist will appreciate and enjoy. Imagination is the key word here, and both Aiken and Pienkowski are at the top of their game.

It is great fun flicking through the book first and looking at the handsome and strange paintings. Each one says a little and a lot at the same time. Likewise, Aiken has been very careful not to be too obvious or repetitive with the tales she has written.

All the stories have a twist in the end, and some mix humour into the creepy goings-on. Do all Aiken's stories fit Pienkowski's artwork? Each reader will have their own opinion on that one. That is all part of the enjoyment.

The characters in Aiken's eight stories are an intriguing bunch. There's a grave-robbing teacher who gets a comeuppance that leaves his students' teeth chattering in terror. There's a strong-willed ghost who refuses to return to the land of the dead. Then there's a spooky aunt and uncle who disrupt the lives of a normal family. Just don't expect a happy ending.

Some of the stories are certainly stronger than others. The paintings are powerful but there's a danger that the reader's imagination might interpret the artwork in a different way to Aiken which might distract them.

But these stories are just one writer's response to the art. A hundred writers would produce 100 different responses. Nothing is certain, but then who wants certainty in a ghost story?

And finally, a word of warning. If you've ever been mean to a younger brother or sister, the final tale will send extra shivers up your spine.

John Millen can be contacted on [email protected]