Casting a Critical Eye Over the Shirley Jackson Award Shortlist
Written by: Tony Jones
I always look forward to the annual short list for the highly prestigious Shirley Jackson Award. When I scan every new list, as a lifelong horror fan I’m secretly pleased to discover that I’ve already read a couple, are thinking of reading another pair and have never heard of the final double. The Shirley does like to throw curve-balls and it’s certainly does this with the latest short-list which only has what I would call one traditionally straight ‘horror’ novel. Their website states the award covers “psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic” and I’m afraid the bias this year leans far too heavily towards the “psychological suspense” end, of which four of the six novels generally are. This isn’t to say they’re not good reads, just not traditional horror novels. However, my overriding gripe is that they stray way too far into the mainstream fiction resulting in the most commercial short-list they have ever produced.
So I’ve read all the books and am going to give you my tips and thoughts, this is of course open to debate. But I really hope the winner comes from the first three books I’ve reviewed, as all were terrific, with the latter three straying too far away from the traditional horror novel for my taste. What do I know though? Three of my favourite horror novels of recent years were all nominated, but NONE won! They were “Reapers are the Angels” by Alden Bell, “Birdbox” by Josh Malerman and Joshua Gaylord’s “When we were Animals”. Onto this year….
“Mongrels” by Stephen Graham Jones is the most traditional horror novel on the list and I think the whole horror world would be delighted to see this terrific read win the coveted big prize. It seems to have been already short-listed, but ultimately overlooked, for many other big horror awards including the Bram Stoker so it deserves a win. Jones has created a truly original modern riff on the age old werewolf story that completely bucks stereotypes and clichés, developing a coming of age story that is as funny and quirky as it is gruesome. Few previous werewolf stories will have you rooting for the wolves, living an itinerant lifestyle, trying to hold down jobs, bring up families and trying to keep their secrets and live their secretive lives. He beautifully, effectively, and convincingly creates his own werewolf mythology. I think this novel is a really great fit for the Shirley Jackson Award as dark literary fiction does not come any better than this and it really deserves to be better known outside the horror genre market. It will knock you out with its highly observant quirks in a tale beautifully told.
“Lily” by Michael Thomas Ford is another of my favourites. This is just weird enough to win the Shirley Jackson and Ford has a wide ranging and impressive back-catalogue which bobs and weaves into different genres including romance. This dude can REALLY write. “Lily” was a delightfully well crafted dark fantasy which read like a warped fairy-tale. It was on the long list of the YA section of the recent Bram Stoker, but whether it’s a teen book is open to debate…. However, anyone could read it and because of its strangeness is quite difficult to know who it is aimed at and the atmospheric illustrations add to the heady confusion. I loved the overall weirdness of it and so will you. I get the feeling it is also a tale which would be very good to read out loud, although it would probably scare younger children, but anyone aged between 10 and 110 might find much to enjoy in this highly beguiling tale. When Lily turns 13 she develops a strange ability she believes to be a curse. The ability to tell when someone is going to die, just by touching them. Upon realising this, and the imminent death of her father, but unable to prevent it, Lily becomes depressed and feels that her ability, her curse, is an entity living within her battling for supremacy. Along the way Lily attracts the attention of an ancient witch, Baba Yaga, every fairy-tale needs a witch and Baba Yaga is a terrific character as she stalks Lily as she feels her power but is unsure of its meaning. Magic seems to exist in this world, but much remains fuzzy and vague, this is one of the great strengths of the novel, fairy-tales don’t need to provide all the answers and explain themselves. As the reader accompanies Lily on her rather strange odyssey she stumbles upon a travelling evangelical revival tent where the Preacher Reverend Silas Everyman discovers her gift and wants to exploit it. It’s a truly original cross between dark fantasy and horror and if it picks up the Shirley Jackson Award it will be a very worthy winner.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is the debut novel by Iain Reid and is the final of the three I think has a chance of winning and another worthy choice. In some ways this is the most ‘Jacksonesque’ of this short list and this very clever psychological thriller has made a deserved splash in the publishing world and reviews needs to be careful not to give too much away….. A young couple, who have been dating for only six weeks, are on a car journey to visit Jake’s parents. The “girlfriend” is never named, but the story is told from her perspective as she is “thinking of ending things” with Jake. For much of this brief two hundred page novel, which you’ll read in a few hours, it’s very hard to tell where the story is heading, but keep your eyes peeled as clues are dropped here and there. There are also plot interludes which refer to what? Who knows….. You’ll realise pretty early on the “girlfriend” is an unreliable narrator and once the story moves beyond the sequence with his parents it throws some real curveballs and a terrific ending that will have you returning to the first page of the novel. I reckon Shirley Jackson herself would nod approvingly at this little beauty. But does a first novel deserve to win over Stephen Graham Jones or Michael Thomas Ford? Close, but no dice, I don’t think so. But most definitely the best ‘page turner’ on the list though.
I did not think the remaining three books were very good fits for the Shirley Jackson and feel that whoever selects the shortlist have dropped the ball here. But I do not pretend to understand the inner-workings of literary committees….. Sure they are “psychological suspense” and so fit the official criteria, but I could have named fifty novels without breaking sweat of more deserving than these very mainstream novels which don’t exactly push the boundaries for dark fiction. Why these three books that have been widely reviewed in publications such as Elle, Esquire, Glamour Magazine and other ultra-mainstream publications qualify for the Shirley Jackson is a mystery?
Two of the remaining three novels featured cults as their major plot focus. Personally I like a good dose of the supernatural thrown into the mix, so give me the likes of Adam Nevill’s terrifying “Last Days” rather than this pair of slow psychological burners any day. Emma Cline’s debut novel “The Girls” has been heavily praised by the mainstream press and has sold a shedload of units and has appeared on the annual ‘best of’ lists from every publication from Esquire, Elle, Vogue and Glamour Magazine. So you’d be correct in thinking “The Girls” is not a great fit for the Shirley Jackson Award. What you do have is a languid literary novel about a bored and gullible teenage girl (Evie) who joins a cult at the end of the 1960s. It’s obviously based on the Charles Manson cult and killings, however, the book it really about the relationship between the girls. The Manson type character only appears in a few scenes and is portrayed as a slimy paedophile. The pace is slow and personally I think this novel has been well over-hyped and although it does look at issues such as grooming, friendship, obsession and manipulation it is a pretty depressing read. I did like the idea of a minor character (as Evie is in the cult) being written out of ‘cult history’ and the fact that decades later psychologically she is still damaged. So I don’t really think an underwhelming, beach read, coming of age story deserves to win the Shirley Jackson. I hope the judges agree otherwise it’s a major own-goal.
“Foxlowe” is the second cult set novel and the debut of Eleanor Wasserberg and I found this particular cult to be particularly dull. It was a ponderously slow book where very, very little happened and I really struggled to finish it, along the way it reminded by of Rebecca Wait’s “Followers” a UK novel from 2015 which had much more going for it. Based around ancient ways of living, standing stones, summer solstices, tree worshipping, a failed group of hippy types set up their own type of commune in an isolated and dilapidated mansion called Foxlowe which they tell their kids is a utopia of some kind. As cults go I found it to be cliché ridden and really added little to the wide range of fiction already out there on the subject. The group were called ‘The Family’ (how original is that?) those that did runners were called ‘Leavers’, children are the ‘Ungrown’, adults the ‘Grown’ and the evil connected to the outside world was called ‘The Bad’. It’s seen from the point of view from a teenage girl called ‘Green’ who was born into the cult, other characters drift in and out, and not much really happens as there is a power struggle in Foxlowe and others question what they have been led to believe. Because Green knows no other life her perspective of what goes on, drug taking and so on, is warped as she was brought up in this life where children are malnourished or left to fend for themselves for long periods. Whoever nominated this book for the Shirley Jackson really does not read enough horror and dark fiction as if this is amongst the best books they read in 2016 they need to get out more. If this wins the Shirley Jackson I will be truly shocked.
Finally to Emma Donoghue’s “The Wonder” which contributes absolutely nothing to the world of dark and strange fiction. Donoghue is a bestselling author with an impressive range of work and is best known for “Room”. Like the previous two books I shook my head at the inclusion of this well written, but ultimately stodgy historical drama set in Ireland in the 1850s. A nurse is sent to investigate the truth behind an 11-year-old girl who has stopped eating but remains miraculously alive and well. The Catholic Church call this a miracle, but she doesn’t believe it and sets out to discover whether there is a con or not. This novel was inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the 16th century and the 20th and although it was very well written, researched and had a superb time and place just did not have enough going on to keep me entertained. I struggled to finish it. By the end I couldn’t care less whether the girl was real or a fraud, coupled by a very disappointing ending, the book was a major let-down. Sure there are lots of pseudo-intellectual musings on rationality and science versus myths and faith, the power of fundamentalism and so on, but it just did not grip. This novel is another very poor fit for the Shirley Jackson Award, and when I consider what else could have been nominated how this mainstream bestseller made the short-list is simply a question I cannot answer? When you look at all the amazing horror writers who HAVE NOT won the Shirley Jackson Award giving it to a novel like “The Wonder” will have many genuine horror writers shaking their heads in disbelief.
And there you have my review of the Shirley Jackson Award. Hopefully common sense will prevail and either Stephen, Michael or Iain will win it. I have nothing in particular against the other books, but if an award as prestigious as the Shirley Jackson is going to feature titles as mainstream as the other three then we might as well feature Paula Hawkin’s new book “Into the Water” as it is also a dark thriller (albeit a not very good one…..) Each to their own, but I prefer to be surprised by shortlists featuring authors who have given much to the wider horror genre, one-off classics, genre benders, hidden undiscovered gems plucked from obscurity, fan favourites and books than embody the spirit of Jackson herself. Usually we have an eclectic shortlist that does this, but not this year. But hey, that’s just my opinion, disagree if you will! Hopefully there will be a stronger list next year.
Mongrels was robbed at the Stokers. Best book of last year.
Great Article. I couldn’t agree more with your outstanding analysis. Bravo! Have you don’t an article on the best horror of the last 10 years? I want to read it.