cover image Riddance


Shelley Jackson. Black Balloon (PGW, dist.), $26 (512p) ISBN 978-1-936787-99-9

This clever, cacophonous novel of metaphysical gothic from Jackson (Half Life) teems with voices of the living and the dead. The Sybil Joines Vocational School is a Massachusetts institution in which children with speech impediments are taught “necrophysics,” intended to give them the ability to become “mouthpieces for the dead.” They are chosen because, according to Sybil Joines, the founding headmistress, “stuttering, like writing, is an amateur form of necromancy.” The novel comprises documents about the early history of the academy compiled by a historian: a newspaper account of the murder of a visiting school inspector that serves as the book’s central mystery; the autobiography of star student Jane Grandison, a girl who acts as the headmistress’s stenographer; and the tubercular headmistress’s “final dispatch” (or ghost-channeling session). Also included are observations from a linguistic anthropologist on the school’s quack methods, “calculated... to instill a keen sense of the insignificance of the individual and the flimsiness of his or her claim to existence.” Full of Carrollian logic and whimsical grotesquerie, the tale, which leads up to the campus slaying, is an illuminating allegory of fiction writing, for “the necrocosmos is made of language; we precipitate a world with every word we speak.” Joines is a remarkable creation in a wonderful book—an imperious, otherworldly, and damaged figure who, haunted by her childhood, devises and devotes her life to a haunted philosophy. Agent: PJ Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Oct.)