These horror stories are so good that they’ve been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. Read all about them, then try to find them for yourself and figure out which one will be the winner before the awards are handed out at Readercon, July 12-15, 2012.
The Shirley Jackson Awards are awarded “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.” They are one of my favorite awards each year, along with the World Fantasy Awards. The Shirley Jackson Awards single out the Weird fiction that I enjoy most: the fiction that straddles boundaries, that makes you feel strange, that slips and slides among the genres, that lingers in your mind long after you’ve finished reading it.
This year, six short stories have been nominated for the short story award, from five different sources. Interestingly, only one of the stories was originally published in an SF magazine; four of the others were published in original anthologies, and one in a single-author collection. If there’s anything that speaks to the robust health of the anthology, this is certainly it.
On the other hand, I did not find any of these stories to be particularly outstanding, though all are well worth the read. But nothing gave me that frisson I get when something spectacular passes before my eyes.
M. Rickert’s story from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is “The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece,” about a man who literally paints corpses. He doesn’t simply apply makeup, the way a funeral director might, but makes them an artistic statement on their lives. He lives in isolation, as one might expect given his profession. The sheriff who brings him the bodies on which he is to work, though, has a peculiar and uneasy respect for the man, even if he would not allow the painter to work on his own child — at least, not immediately upon that child’s death. The sheriff’s strange decision, and the corpse painter’s work, make for a story that is both sad and spooky.
“Absolute Zero” by Nadia Bulkin comes from the original anthology Creatures, edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay. In this story, Max Beecham tries to come to terms with the fact — at least, it’s a fact according to his mother — that his father is a creature with the body of a human man and the head of a dark, decayed stag. Max would rather his mother had never told him, and he never tells anyone himself. Years later, Tom Lowell, another resident of Cripple Creek, Max’s hometown, captures a creature he calls The Creeker, which appears to be Max’s father, and begins charging admission for those who want a glimpse. But The Creeker wasn’t made to be a prisoner, and Max wasn’t made to be only an observer, and the world gets much weirder when the two of them find each other.
We lost Joan Aiken not quite a decade ago, but 2011 saw the publication of a new collection of her short fiction, The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories. The story “Hair” has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. It is a very odd tale indeed, of a young man who marries and loses his wife in a very short period of time. He is left only with her hair, which she had never cut until just before her marriage. She had asked him to return it to her mother if she were to die first, and he dutifully does so. The environment he finds is sufficiently weird to make one wonder how his bride turned out to be so normal.
Genevieve Valentine’s “Things to Know About Being Dead,” from the Ellen Datlow anthology Teeth, is a very clever young adult story about suddenly finding oneself a vampire. Suyin is able to fake being a normal teen pretty well with the help of her grandmother, but when her grandmother dies, things start to get dicey. Will she ever really be able to go to college?
“Sunbleached” by Nathan Ballingrud, also from Teeth, is about Joshua, a boy in the Deep South who has a vampire trapped under his house. Joshua refuses to let the vampire go or invite him into the house until he finishes turning Joshua into one of the undead. But Joshua’s plans are foiled by his younger brother, who reaches an entirely incorrect conclusion about who that is under the house.
The story that would get the award if I were handing them out is “Max” by Jason Ockert, originally published in Issue 41 of The Iowa Review. It’s the story of Auburn, a town that seems to be somewhere in the East or Midwest, definitely a town where the seasons turn, a town that is infested with crows in mid-November every year. People hate the crows, and the five-day hunting season for the birds is a popular pastime. Torrance’s mother especially hates the crows, because she believes that they are responsible for the death of her other son, Max. Torrance doesn’t know how to deal with his brother’s death or his mother’s mania about the crows; his father tries to help, but he doesn’t seem to really understand what’s going on with Torrance, either. There is nothing identifiably supernatural about this story, but it is definitely an odd tale of strange occurrences, and calls Shirley Jackson’s work to mind more vividly than any of the other nominated stories.