Actually, it got to the point, at several stages of the Expedition, where the very prospect of reading more Smollett was enough to fling me into other publications. It was in this way that I had done with the better part of a book of collected essays by William Butler Yeats; several epistles by several apostles; a novel-length narrative poem by James Hogg; and a copy of the Melbourne University student rag, Farrago. In a similar spirit, I suppose, I have just finished Robert Sheckley's The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton, Joan Aiken's A Creepy Company, and am only now starting Cordwainer Smith's The Planet Buyer. It's amazing how easy it is to read things that are not The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, and I just hope everybody tries it some time.
But anyway, before I continue in my impulsive headlong rush into reading books that are not The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, I just want to take you back to that second last author, and that second last title: Joan Aiken, A Creepy Company. What a great writer Aiken is: she gets off on the right foot right away, by not being Tobias Smollett, and not writing books about people called Clinker, and also by delivering this sentence:
If you run hot water over the top of the whistling kettle, it lets out a howl, did you know that?There's hardly a story in the collection that follows that falls flat; many of the stories are fiendishly good. For instance, in My Disability (the third story) Aiken writes an extremely anxiety-inducing tale about malevolent Norse trolls merely by taking the idea of malevolent Norse trolls seriously.
Part of the great charm about all of this collection, of course, is that Aiken was writing in a style that was already at least a decade obsolete - the collection was published in 1993, and deals with the sort of subjects that might come up in BBC serials some 20 years prior to that. The characters do a lot of pensive staring into fireplaces, talking about the war years, going on long boat expeditions, delivering mail by bicycle, and so on. Maybe it's this obsolescence that will help it last: you can tell Aiken's been spending the best part of her life working towards it.
I wouldn't want you to get me wrong, but. Aiken's best books are her novels and short-stories for children, full of poetic and lyrical ideas. This collection of Aiken's is merely fabulous - some of her other writing is even better.