The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories
Joan Aiken is a popular children's author, probably best known for her book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and the extensive series that followed it (of which apparently only Midnight is a Place is currently noded -- seriously, people, get noding!). However, she also wrote a tremendous amount of short stories, of all different sorts. These often tended to be one-offs, meant to stand alone. But one family stuck in her head, and she ended up writing 24 stories about them -- the Armitage family, a normal family to whom extraordinary, magical things happened on an (almost) weekly basis.
These stories were originally scattered across numerous publications, but as it became apparent that they were popular enough to deserve their own collection, they were brought together in Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home in 1968. This book included an introductory story explaining how it came to be that this family was so fortunate (on her honeymoon, the mother made a wish on a magic stone that they would never be bored). However, Joan Aiken kept writing Armitage stories, so this new, and sadly posthumous, collection includes four stories that do not appear in the earlier collection, along with an extensive introduction by Lizza Aiken (Joan's daughter) and a second shorter introduction by Garth Nix.
These stories are all humorous, and all fantasy (with occasional hints of science fiction). As the decades pass the stories start to move from uniformly light to somewhat darker in tone, although never to the point of being completely serious, nor scary. The setting is a bit of a mystery. The Armitage family live in a small village in England sometime around the 1950s, or perhaps a little earlier. Magic happenings are accepted as normal by everyone, whether it be witches' spells, unfortunate transformations, or goblins and unicorns. But the settings of the stories are just mundane enough so that every magic happening is just a bit of a surprise to the reader; this is not a world in which you would necessarily expect griffins, so when one shows up, it is a special treat.
There appears to be a good internal chronology to the stories, but unfortunately they are not presented in order in this collection. I did not take close enough notes to be able to order them myself, but perhaps on a later reading I'll do better, and present my findings here. For now, I present them to you in the same order that they appear in the book:
Prelude: "Once upon a time two people met, fell in love, and were married." This is the story of the honeymoon on which the magic rock was found, and the magic wish was made. It is only five pages long, and one of those pages is taken up by a made-up children's song -- but it is a great prelude.
Yes, But Today Is Tuesday: "Monday was the day on which unusual things were allowed, and even expected to happen at the Armitage house." As it happens, Mrs. Armitage specified in her wish that magical things would usually (but not always) happen on Mondays. This is the story of the Tuesday on which a unicorn appeared, surprising everyone in more ways that one.
Broomsticks and Sardines: "'Oh, bother', said Mrs. Armitage, looking over her coffee-cup at the little heap of sixpences on the sideboard, 'the children have forgotten to take their lunch money to school." Harriet and Mark went off to school without their weeks lunch money, so their father stops by the school on the way to work. Much to his surprise, the school teacher is teaching them potions and spells rather than arithmetic, and he's not sure he likes it. He likes it even less when Mark and Harriet get into a magical battle with the neighbor's kids.
The Frozen Cuckoo: "At eleven o'clock sharp several men who looked like builders' laborers arrived. They rode on rather battered, paint-stained old broomsticks, and carried hammers, saws, and large sheets of beaverboard." In response to a perceived insult on the part of Mr. Armitage, a powerful wizard attempts to have the family evicted from their house. In the hullabaloo, everyone forgets that awful cousin Sarah was coming for a visit. But if the Armitages were unprepared for an awful cousin, the wizards are even less so...
Sweet Singeing in the Choir: "Daddy, have we really got a fairy godmother?" Well, yes, they do. But she's not very good. She can't do most wishes, and was rather hoping that they'd settle for a nice box of chocolates. But in the end she does gift them with beautiful singing voices, at least temporarily. There is also a poltergeist involved. Don't ask, I won't give you any spoilers.
The Ghostly Governess: "Ach, Du lieber Augustin, Weib ist hin, Gold ist hin" The Armitages rent a house by the sea for the holidays, and discover that they have also rented a ghost. And a very strict ghost, at that.
Harriet's Birthday Present: "Buying geefts, yes?" the voice said softly. "Here I haf geefts that will nefer break, nefer wear out, recipients nefer tire of heem, yes no?" Mark is having a hard time finding a birthday present for Harriet. Luckily, a strange little man approaches him in the street and offers him a chance at amazing magical gifts. None are good enough for Harriet, however, so the man sends him a mysterious contact in Kew Gardens, where a truly magical gift, and an evil witch, await.
Dragon Monday: "Mark sat in the train and wished that he could go to sleep." Eventually he does, and he has a dream about reproachful sheep, important cats, and dragons fighting. It's a good dream. Odd, but good.
Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home: "I should leave the whole affair alone if I were you. Buy a grand piano for the Ladies' Social Club or a machine gun for the boy scouts, or something harmless." The Armitages are helping to raise money for the Society for the Aid of Distressed Old Fairy Ladies. Unfortunately, the 'old fairy ladies' do not want any aid, and find the whole thing condescending. So they turn the Armitage parents into ladybirds.
Rocket Full of Pie: "'In heaven's name, what is that?' said Mr. Armitage, coming in and finding his wife with a scarlet muffler apparently intended for an ostrich dangling from her knitting needles." The Armitages are giving charity another try, this time knitting mufflers to bring to the life boat crews. They plan an outing to deliver them, but when a storm comes up suddenly the women of the Woman's Union Christmas Outing are trapped in a barren lighthouse. I won't tell you how they escape, but it involves a rocket full of pies.
Doll's House to Let, Mod. Con.: "The Perrow family were peculiar in that none of them were more than six inches high. There had always been some Perrows in the village, but no one knew exactly why they were so small." This is one of the more well-known Armitage stories, also appearing in the collections Not What You Expected and More Than You Bargained For. It is the tale of the diminutive Perrows being kicked out of their house, coming to live with the Armitages, and getting on their nerves.
Tea at Ravensburgh: "Mr. Peake was the Armitages' lodger, and if he has not been mentioned before, it is because he was so very quiet and unobtrusive that the family hardly noticed his existence. He had lived in the house for three hundred years, ever since his death, in fact, and was thought to be writing his autobiography, though as it was invisible no one had read it." As it turns out, there's this ghost. Anyway, when Mrs. Armitage is suddenly called away to care for a great aunt, Mr. Peake volunteers to meet Harriet for her school holiday. Harriet quickly discovers that a ghost is not the best companion for a day out on the town.
The Land of Trees and Heroes: "Sleep in the laurel but for an hour // You'll sleep in the Silver Lady's power." Harriet and Mark are sent to sent to their grandmother's house to recover from a severe bout of whooping cough. There they learn some folk tales about faerie folk that turn out to be more practical than mythical.
Harriet's Hairloom: "HUMAN HAIR REQUIRED, UNCUT; BEST PRICES PAID" On Harriet's thirteenth birthday she is shown into the secret room, containing a hairloom (no, that's not a typo) that has been passed down through generations of Armitage women. Of course, her mother was not an Armitage until she married Mr. Armitage, and therefor was never properly instructed on exactly what it does...
The Stolen Quince Tree: "They both stared in astonishment and horror. For where, yesterday, the quince tree had grown, beautiful with its rusty leaves and golden fruit, this morning there was nothing but a huge, trampled, earthy hole." Mark and Harriet are visiting their grandmother (the other grandmother, this time), and find that her favorite quince tree has been stolen. There is only incidental magic in this story, which focuses primarily on the mystery of the missing tree rather than on magical beasts and adventures.
The Apple of Trouble: "'Bless my soul, boy' -- nearly all of Great-uncle Gavin's remarks began with this request -- 'Bless my soul, what are you doing now? Reading? Bless my soul, do you want to grow up a muff?'" Great-uncle Gavin has finally been pushed firmly into retirement, and finding himself unemployed and without a home, he comes to stay with the Armitages. Great-uncle Gavin has some very old-fashioned ideas about how young boys should comport themselves, and demands that Mark buy a bike, and ride it. Mark is less than thrilled (he would much rather ride his unicorn, although Great-uncle Gavin does not hold with such namby-pamby balderdash), so he trades his bike for an ancient Greek McGuffin. It quickly emerges that Great-uncle Gavin will not take any back-talk from mythical Greek personifications either. No matter how persistent they may be.
The Serial Garden: "'Any wheat crispies? Puffed corn? Rice nuts?' 'No, dear, Nothing left. Only Brekkfast Brikks"" When you walk into a small store with a limited stock of old and esoteric products, there's always a good chance that you'll walk out with something magical. But usually it is not breakfast cereal. Mark finds himself in possession of a magic cereal box (the cereal itself is decidedly un-magical). This story starts off a story arc, the saga of Mr. Johansen, that spans three separate stories.
Mrs. Nutti's Fireplace: "Would exchange a room in town for room in country." A simple enough ad, but it turns out that the poster meant this quite literally, and Mark's piano teacher suddenly finds that his room-to-let has been replaced by a strange room in a strange city. With a Griffin's egg in it. This is another popular story, and also appears in the collections A harp of fishbones and other stories and Not what you expected. It is also the second Mr. Johansen story, although no actual progress in made in his personal journey.
The Looking-Glass Tree: "It seemed almost certain that Miss Pursey was a witch. The bungalow, although made from precast concrete, was constructed so as to resemble a witch's cottage with a roof made from sections of plastic thatch, fake diamond paning in the windows, and Tudor beams painted on the walls." Does it surprise you to learn that Miss Pursey turns out to be an unpleasant neighbor? She quickly gets into a magical battle with the Armitages' cat, which does not turn out well for either of them. This also leads to the third part of Mr. Johansen's tale, and although I suspect that a fourth installment was planned, it remains the de facto final Mr. Johansen story.
Miss Hooting's Legacy: "'What gruesome objects!' exclaimed Mrs. Armitage. 'For mercy's sake,let's give them in the next jumble-sale; the very sight of them is enough to give me one of my migraines!'" Miss Hooting, a local and agèd witch has not been on good terms with the Armitages. So it comes as quite a surprise when she leaves them a small bequest in her will. Not a particularly nice one, admittedly, and the Armitages are somewhat dubious as to whether they actually want the two ancient lunar-powered helots. But what's the worst that could happen? This is a great story. Probably my favorite of all the Armitage stories.
Kitty Snickersnee: "Not so many demons about nowadays. Perhaps. There might be a tree goddess called Black Annis." When a wizened woman as old as the hills tells you that you probably won't meet a demon at the old oak tree... Well, when she tells you that you probably don't need that protective amulet... And certainly, when you find an ancient silver mask in a ditch and she tells you that no, you probably shouldn't put it on... Well, you might, and you probably do, and you really, really shouldn't.
Goblin Music: "'To make the music is our right. Is our need.' 'Not at this time of night, dammit!'" A coal mine fire on the coast chases a tribe of goblins into the village, and the locals quickly learn something important about goblins: they sing all night long. Loudly. With quite extensive musical accompaniment.
The Chinese Dragon: "You may -- if you wish -- address me as Queen of the Wood! The title, of course, goes with the house." Another annoying neighbor moves in -- the village seems to attract them like flies. At least this one is friendly, and pays well for the children to walk her dogs. But hardly a day has passed before the Chinese police force shows up looking for a kidnapped dragon.
Don't Go Fishing on Witches' Day: "'But when is Witches' Day'? Mark wondered. 'Hallowe'en? St. Wenceslas? St. Swithin's, Midsummer?'" Well, he should have asked someone, shouldn't he? It's not the sort of thing you want to guess at.
Milo's New Word: "'That man has turned Milo into an elephant' 'Oh dear,' said Mr. Armitage. 'I'm afraid your mother won't be very pleased'" Wait, who? Well, apparently a new Armitage has joined the crowd, a younger sibling named Milo. And we are not the only ones surprised by his existence. When Uncle Claud comes back from the island of Eridu he suspects that he is being followed by dangerous magical forces, and calls the Armitage house to leave a desperate message. Milo, at the tender age of two, can answer the phone, but cannot take messages. Then Uncle Claud is turned into a bat. Then the aforementioned dangerous magical forces come after Milo.
All and all, an excellent read. I highly recommend it. If you don't have access to a copy, it is available on Google Books, and a surprising amount is available for free.