In the Manor of Shirley Jackson

by Emily Z.

A few weeks ago, I suddenly felt the urge to look up the release date for the film adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The short answer is, it is unclear. However, the very next day, the nominees for the Shirley Jackson Award were announced. It was all a little spooky and made me glance over guiltily at the stack of books curled next to my bed. Some were nominees for said award, some not. All were creepy, Gothic, thrilling, and dark books I’d been putting off simply because it’s nearly summer and, really, shouldn’t I be reading something light and carefree? A beach read? Something fun?

Well. Anything can be a beach read if you go to the right beach and creepy is my fun so, here we are.

Jackson’s books do not fit into one genre, which is part of their appeal. They are about problematic characters with hidden, shadowy depths and settings that are much the same. As you read you may wonder, “Who am I supposed to root for in this story?” or “Which character is the ‘good’ one?” or even “Which of these characters is at least sane?” There is a cobwebby coating of the sinister and sometimes overtly supernatural in her works. There are unreliable narrators and outright liars. There might be ghosts or it might all be in someone’s head. You never quite know what the rules of the game are until you’ve run all the way through the hedge maze. These tales exist on an ever-shifting spectrum that includes everything from psychological-leaning domestic fiction (themes of familial conflict and solidarity often appeared in Jackson’s books) to suspense to horror to the darkly fabulist. Because of this, the titles nominated for her award are also admirably diverse.

There is a whole host of titles up for the award each year–too many to cover here–and so I am selecting a few standout favorites and adding some selections of my own, many of them too recently published to be nominees quite yet. Think of this as a sample platter, celebrating Jackson’s influence.

Some Nominees:

The Changeling by Victor Lavalle

A gritty but stunning tale of a young African American couple trying to build a life and family just a little bit faster than the world around them can tear it down. This is a book best dived into without much background knowledge or too many assumptions. It is safe to say there is a suitably Jackson-like focus on familial relationships. It starts with a leisurely pace, but only to lure you into a false sense of security. Ultimately, this book is for those of you who enjoy some uncertainty about the kind of story you have in your hands—is this realistic fiction with hints of madness? Or it is actually urban fantasy? You may believe you know who to trust  or turn to or fear here, but you will be wrong at least twice. “The Changeling” has a subtle thread running all throughout its seemingly disparate parts; just keep an eye on it and you’ll make it out of the woods alive.

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

This collection of short stories has the air of a slightly neglected antique shop and will naturally appeal to those of us who very much enjoy rummaging through slightly neglected antique shops. Each story is a peculiar but extremely well-crafted artifact of obscure purpose that must be pondered over. Trapped women are transformed into powerful new creatures. Rogue goths leave graffiti in the form of gargoyles and stained glass. The stories are beautiful and they are grotesque, like a David Lynch film produced by Edward Gorey.

Some Additional Suggestions:

The Atrocities by Jeremy C. Shipp

This book starts with a familiar premise: a woman travels alone to an isolated mansion to care for an eccentric family’s troubled and alarmingly pale child. In this story though, little Isabella is quite a bit more than pale. Her new tutor must decide if she’s going to stay at the profoundly eerie estate, which also happens to be festooned with horrific works of art that would make H.R. Giger nod approvingly. On top of this, her nights in the house are plagued with nightmares so vivid they sometimes bleed into her waking life.

The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette

A young man arrives at a bleak, isolated, boys-only boarding school. We’re not sure where he came from or why, but he is now our only guide to this unkind institution. The school’s headmaster is mercurial and difficult, the staff apathetic, and the boys themselves inexplicably hostile. There are strict guidelines for all the students, but as we learn through the travails of our young envoy, there are countless unspoken rules, rituals, and shifting alliances to stumble through as well. Like a quieter, more pensive cousin to “Lord of the Flies,” this book is one of great unease and layered meanings. After the first body is discovered on the grounds, one might also grow curious about the protagonist’s culpability. Is he simply the long-suffering, helpless pawn he implies? Isn’t he a bit too clever for that?

 

 

If you have any favorites of your own that you think would fit in here, I’d love to hear about them.

Check out this list for more titles to explore.

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