The weird fiction being discussed over at Library’s Thing’s The Weird Tradition group a couple of weeks ago.
Review: “Reading in Bed”, Joan Aiken, 2011.
A genial story that’s kind of a tall tale and almost a deal-with-the-devil story. Our protagonist is Francis Nastrowski, a young Polish officer. And the story right up front tells us that being fond of wine and reading in bed may be “Harmless pursuits, one might say, but they nearly led to his downfall.”
He was once rich but now stationed in former hotel by the sea in a small fishing village. One night, after drinking burgundy with friends and becoming “if not drunk, at least very, very friendly”, Francis retires to do some reading.
He hears a noise outside the balcony and gets up with a “torch” (the only approximation of a time period for setting). He sees, in its beam and on the nearby pier, the Devil – whom he recognizes because of the “impeccable cut of his evening suit and his horns”. The Devil invites him across the water.
Francis dresses, dives in the water, and swims to the pier. The Devil, smoking a cigarette and smelling of brimstone (which Francis isn’t particular about), offers Francis a hand up. The Devil puts a black fur coat on Francis which fits quite well and is warm. The Devil asks Francis if he would like to meet his niece. Francis says he would be honored to meet a relation of the Devil’s.
They go to a waiting boat, the Devil carrying his tail negligently under an arm. Francis rows them across the water and compliments the Devil on his “very ingenious idea”. Disembarking at an unfamiliar part of town, they walk through “dark cobbled streets” and Francis sees an old man very weirdly swallowing poker after poker.
They go inside a well-lit shop that sells wooden calendars, matts, and pottery. There is a “charming young woman” dressed, oddly, in orange coveralls with embroidered hollyhocks, dancing with herself. It’s Ola, the Devil’s niece.
Francis says he’s delighted to meet her, and she pats him on the cheek. She asks him to dance and they go spinning up into the air and over the sea. Francis says he’s starting to feel giddy and then, suddenly, he’s back in the shop.
The Devil says he’s admired Francis for a long time and has an offer for him. He wants Francis to marry Ola and take half the profits from the shop. (Aiken doesn’t give any hint the shop offers any magical services or items for sale.) Francis says he would be delighted, and he suddenly finds himself wearing an enormous pair of red boots complete with spurs – it’s implied at the story’s beginning he may no longer have the nice boots he once did.
The Devil offers a toast to Francis’ “future career”. The Devil gets out a bottle and three glasses each inscribed with “A Present from Hell”. Francis doesn’t much like the “look of the Devil’s tipple”. It’s black, and he wonders if he has something more “palatable” on him. Rummaging in his pockets, he finds a garlic sausage. Maybe the Devil’s drink won’t taste so bad with a bite of the sausage first. While the Devil is pouring drinks, Francis cuts off three slices to politely offer the others.
When he does so, the following happens making the magic at work quite explicit:
He did not know that garlic is a very ancient and unfailing specific against wicked spirits. The Devil frowned until his eyebrows came down and met over his nose. Little Ola hissed angrily and came creeping towards him. It was evident that he had offended them. Her black pigtail curled round his throat, but with the end of his strength he threw bits of sausage at them both.
Francis is found floating in the harbor the next day, a black cat grasped in his hands. The last line says Francis took several days to recover, but the cat never did.
I liked Francis odd relationship with the Devil. He’s comfortable around him but is naïve about magic and seems surprised Ola and the Devil (Ola being a familiar) attacked him. Francis doesn’t seem a bad sort despite his choice of friends.