Riddance; or, The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers and Hearing-Mouth Children
Every once in a while a book comes along that merits special attention. Shelley Jackson’s Riddance; or, The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers and Hearing-Mouth Children is one of those books. It’s masterfully written, wildly entertaining, incredibly clever, and a creepily thrilling good read. The first new novel in twelve years from the critically acclaimed author of Half Life, Riddance is many things: it is a spin on nineteenth century spiritualism gone too far, a critique of the way we treat those who are somehow “different” in our society, a gothic-comic thrill-ride rife with spookiness, downright slapstick hilarious in places, and a subtle allegory on language and the act of writing. That Jackson is a master of her craft should come as no news to anyone familiar with her work but what she has done in this new novel is create a premise as original as any in modern fiction and characters as memorable as any of those referenced in the novel (Jane Eyre and Ishmael among others). The novel’s meditations on life after death or death within life, or life as death, will leave you haunted and questioning the very nature of human existence.
The novel is split into various parts and uses a variety of textual elements creating a sort of “found” narrative that enhances its guise as a gothic novel. The language throughout is richly wrought, often with a use of antiquated phrasing that serves to draw the reader in to the fabulous world Jackson creates. Set both in the world of the living and the world of the dead (and various permutations in between), the novel primarily takes place at the Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers and Hearing-Mouth Children. Unfolding in a sometimes circuitous timeline, the story is told through various voices (living and dead). These include dispatches from the land of the dead by the Headmistress Sybil Joines speaking through a technology she designed and transcribed by her secretary and soon-to-be successor Jane Grandison. Grandison types her own biography in the breaks between transmissions from the Headmistress. There is an “editor” of the collection—a sort of academic who becomes obsessed with the school and whose research provides details positioned as historical including a selection of beautifully wrought archival materials that appear as images throughout the novel. There are selections from “A Visitor’s Observations” written by a linguistic anthropologist who visits the school to find a cure for his own stuttering but instead finds “a thesis” based on the idea that “language had its origins in mourning.” There are also “letters to dead authors” written by the Headmistress at first soliciting for funds for her school and later working to show her descent into what might be called madness if the narrative didn’t force the reader to question all assumptions around definitions of sanity and the very nature of life and death.
The School seems at first to be a sort of sanctuary for children who stutter. Ostracized by the wider world and their families, these children come to the school not to be cured but to become a part of Headmistress Joines’s larger plan. Sybil Joines herself suffered under the ministrations of her cruel father’s attempts to “cure” her stutter. What she discovered instead, she tells us, is that those who stutter actually have the capacity to let the dead speak through them. Her school, its lessons, instruments, exercises, and training all are based around aiding the dead in their desire to communicate. Joines is a pioneer in what the novel calls “necrophysics” (practitioners are “necronauts”) and she is singular in her obsession. When students begin to disappear, the board, the trustees, some parents, and a few bureaucrats begin to pay attention. Every major enemy of the school is male: from the doctor who discovers ectoplasm is a drug rivaling opium by testing it on the children, to the School Inspector whose demise frames the novel. Those who do not understand the important work of Sybil Adjudicate Joines are all men, echoing that first terrible man—her father—whose balance of torture and neglect would have broken a lesser being. Instead, Sybil (quite literally) rises from the flames of her childhood and creates her own science and school focused on allowing the dead to speak through children with speech impediments that rival her own.
The novel opens with an image of a partial newspaper clipping describing a murder at a “school for stammerers” quickly followed by an Editor’s Introduction. The editor is an academic writing in our present who discovers the clipping in a book in a random used bookstore, “I owe my discovery of the Sybil Joines Vocational School to a bookstore and a ghost.” We are warned that the book is “often disjointed and equivocal” but that “true eccentrics may find… something—a map, a manual—that they have long been seeking.” It’s a classic opening for a modern gothic novel and the narrative proceeds apace. While there are distinct similarities between the voices of the varied patchwork of sources, this is all a part of the plan: the Editor is an academic obsessed with the school and its Headmistress, the Secretary is a self-effacing assistant to the Headmistress whose goal is to one day become her, and the Headmistress is a woman whose goal for herself and all of her students is to become mouthpieces for the dead: a cacophony of voices that ultimately are filtered through her own singular vision and philosophy.
Throughout the novel there are subtle (and not so subtle) ruminations on language, the written word, and the acts of reading and writing. Before Sybil Joines discovers her ability to allow the dead to speak and founds her school dedicated to necrophysics, she discovers her father’s library. A neglected and abused child whose stutter is so severe she often cannot speak, she learns to love books—initially as an escape from her terrible childhood and then as a source of sustenance (her father starves her), “I took to eating books…I loved books not spiritually but carnally. And although I did not know it, I was practicing to channel the dead, who have always found in the printed page their most reliable medium.” She also learns to write in a journal giving herself an outlet, “I poured into it all the thoughts I could not frame in speech.” Joines soon uses her writing to assume “a false identity” and the Editor argues about questions “regarding the authorship of this text” (particularly the Headmistress’s Final Dispatch) in an amusingly circuitous manner that is a clear reference to larger questions around authorship and identity. While Joines considers herself a scientist, she begins the practice of writing to dead authors (who are frequently actually characters in novels) because “it seems to me that writers have made greater progress than scientists (myself excepted) on a venture of the highest importance to our world today, tomorrow, and yesterday: communication with the dead.”
For Joines, her school is populated with stutterers because she believes that “stuttering, like writing, is an amateur form of necromancy.” In a letter to Melville, Joines writes, “In the book, the author’s voice has become a place. This place is the land of the dead… I consider writers my fellow necronauts.” In the “Final Dispatch”—ostensibly Joines’s voice as dictated to her Secretary, Jackson plays further with ideas of identity and writing, “I exist, at present, only on this page, since I exist, at present, only in these words… I say I, your right middle finger strikes a key, an inked hammer impresses a letter on the void, and—mirabile dictum—I am.”
Headmistress Sybil Adjudicate Joines is a singularly glorious creation as is her Secretary and successor Jane Grandison, and Riddance is a weighty and wildly creative tome of a novel that will leave you questioning the very nature of writing and reading, of life and death itself.