Readers of the Free For All will know that I am rather an enormous fan of dark fantasy, horror, and all the odd things that boggle and beguile the imagination. So it was, naturally, with great interest that I read of this years nominations for the Shirley Jackson awards, which were established in 2007 specifically to celebrate specifically those creepy, unsettling, imaginative, and somehow wondrous books that keep us up and night…for a number of reasons.
Though her work was popular during her lifetime, Shirley Jackson’s novels only really began to get the attention and appreciation they deserve after her death in 1965. Part of the reason for this may be because Jackson’s stories are so ambiguous that readers were desperate to get a simple explanation of what they meant, rather than appreciating their full effect, and the skill it took to produce such an unsettling effect on readers. When her short story “The Lottery” was published in the New Yorker in 1948, it produced, quite literally, a flood of letters, that Jackson herself described as full of “bewilderment, speculation, and old-fashioned abuse”.
Another part of the reason for the late recognition of Jackson’s genius was that she refused to talk about her work–or talk at all to the many requests for interviews or sound bites that poured in. As her husband, acclaimed editor Stanley Edgar Hyman explained after her death, “she consistently refused to be interviewed, to explain or promote her work in any fashion, or to take public stands and be the pundit of the Sunday supplements. She believed that her books would speak for her clearly enough over the years.” As a result, any number of odd stories popped up to fill Jackson’s personal silence…that the darkness in her stories were the result of her own personal neurosis…that she was a recluse…that she herself was mad….
The truth of the matter was that Jackson was a lovely lady, and, by all accounts, she and her husband were loving parents and very friendly hosts, and dedicated readers (their personal library was estimated at over 100,000 volumes). But Jackson was also a perspicacious individual who was deeply conscious of what was going on in the world around her. One of her first literary successes was the novel Hangsaman, published in 1951 (and a short story called “The Missing Girl“, which wasn’t published until well after her death), a book that was deeply influenced by the (still unsolved) disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore named Paula Jean Weldon, which Jackson developed, adding her own experiences of her years at Bennington College, and her knowledge of the area where Weldon was said to have vanished (her family owned a house very nearby). Later, she used news about the Cold War, America’s growing and pernicious xenophobia, and worldwide fears of nuclear and atomic energy to create stories as inspiration for her works. She was actually delighted that “The Lottery” was banned in the United States because, she said, it meant that the government had finally realized what the story was really about.
It was her uncanny ability to turn her readers’ fears against them, and to manipulate their own very real feelings of insecurity as the basis for her work that made Jackson such a noteworthy–and unsettling–storyteller. Anyone who has read The Haunting of Hill House, and felt that ghostly hand creep into their own will know precisely of what I speak. And, since 2007, when her estate established an award in her name, it is precisely these kinds of works that are honored with recognition from the Shirley Jackson Award.
The Shirley Jackson Award celebrates “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic”–and the nominees very frequently address the very real fears that permeate our own society, just as Jackson did in her own work. This year is no different. It’s remarkable to see how a diverse selection of authors grapple with issues of homosexuality and identity, racism, feminism, ageism, abuse, love, hatred, in ways that are beautifully human, terrifyingly real, and chillingly imaginative. What’s even more interesting is how many small, independent, and diverse publishers are recognized in these years nominees. More than most literary awards, which, as we’ve noted, tend to stick to the tried and true, the Shirley Jackson Awards are on the cutting edge of publishing, writing, and social issues, and, for that–not to mention the fact that these stories are all cracking good reads–they are definitely worth some attention.
Here is a list of the nominees…we are working to get some more on the shelves of the Library, but if there are titles below without a link, feel free to give us a call or stop by and we’ll find them for you in the meantime!
The nominees for the 2015 Shirley Jackson Awards are:
Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press)
Experimental Film, Gemma Files (ChiZine Publications)
The Glittering World, Robert Levy (Gallery)
Lord Byron’s Prophecy, Sean Eads (Lethe Press)
When We Were Animals, Joshua Gaylord (Mulholland Books)
The Box Jumper, Lisa Mannetti (Smart Rhino)
In the Lovecraft Museum, Steve Tem (PS Publishing)
Unusual Concentrations, S.J. Spurrier (Simon Spurrier)
The Visible Filth, Nathan Ballingrud (This Is Horror)
Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing-UK/Open Road Media-US)
“The Briskwater Mare,” Deborah Kalin (Cherry Crow Children, Twelfth Planet Press)
“The Deepwater Bride,” Tamsyn Muir (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July-August 2015)
“Even Clean Hands Can Do Damage,” Steve Duffy (Supernatural Tales #30, Autumn)
“Fabulous Beasts,” Priya Sharma (Tor.com, July 2015)
“The Thyme Fiend,” Jeffrey Ford (Tor.com, March 2015)
“A Beautiful Memory,” Shannon Peavey (Apex Magazine)
“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” Alyssa Wong (Nightmare)
“Seven Minutes in Heaven,” Nadia Bulkin (Aickman’s Heirs)
“The Dying Season,” Lynda E. Rucker (Aickman’s Heirs)
“Wilderness,” Letitia Trent (Exigencies)
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King (Scribner)
The End of the End of Everything, Dale Bailey (Arche Press)
Get in Trouble, Kelly Link (Random House)
Gutshot, Amelia Gray (FSG Originals)
The Nameless Dark – A Collection, T.E. Grau (Lethe Press)
You Have Never Been Here, Mary Rickert (Small Beer Press)
Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas (Undertow Publications)
Black Wings IV, edited by S.T. Joshi (PS Publishing)
The Doll Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow (Tor)
Exigencies, edited by Richard Thomas (Dark House Press)
Seize the Night, edited by Christopher Golden (Gallery)