Archive for shirley jackson

Short Story: DIANE’S WAY OUT, Part 2

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Part two of two. For the beginning, CLICK HERE.

DIANE’S WAY OUT (2)

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Her tears were falling now, and she sobbed without sound. The presence moved closer, so that its weight was on top of her, and though it was comforting, she shook with a chill beyond words – an extraterrestrial chill. Absurdly, she found herself wondering, why aren’t my tears turning to ice?

The chill then focused on the underside of her chin, and her head was lifted upward by a phantom hand. Her eyes found no others to look into, but the voice went on, “Would you like me to help you?”

The voice took its time, and in the pause, the sounds of the house overwhelmed Diane. She could hear the soft sleep breath of her children, the rumble of her husband’s snore, whispering in unison around her. Then the voice giggled and said, “You must leave that to me. Our methods are complex, and your mind would not comprehend them, not without damaging itself. But these methods are – how would you say? Foolproof. We do not know failure.”

In spite of the cold, Diane smiled, and then laughed aloud. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, foolproof. What do I do? What do you want me to do?”

“Go back to sleep,” the voice said, caressing. “You were, in fact, never awake at all – but go to sleep. When morning comes, you will find your wish granted. Do you understand?”

“Yes, perfectly, yes. But… how will I repay you for being so kind?”

“Oh, Diane…” The cold moved over her shoulders, and she felt a touch of air against her ear. “That should not worry you. Your freedom is so close. Don’t you want it, no matter what?”

The dread that had been creeping inside her writhed briefly and she pulled away from the cold weight. The breath of her children was undeniable in her ears, prodding, invading. Again she saw the impression of an alien face staring down, with the faintest trace of impatience. What have I done? she thought, shivering.

Through the noise and the fear, the burst of a human voice came to her – John, waking, grunting her name. “Diane, where’re you?” And the bile in her stomach boiled, rising into her throat and mouth; her brain filled with a thick black tar, spewing loathsome anguish. She looked back to the face that was not there and said, “Yes, I do.”

The laughter that answered her was not kind – the very walls shuddered with it. “Very good, Diane. Now go to sleep, darling – you will wake up and see.”

Her ears swelled with a terrible sucking sound, and then the hallway was empty, warm and rid of the presence. Diane held herself against the terror that was worming through her limbs. She thought again, and not for the last time, what have I done?

After she had followed the voice’s orders and fallen into a deep sleep, Diane dreamt. In the dream she floated through a dark blue void, full of movement and rumbling speech. All around her, though she could not see them, she sensed beings of immense size and power; bodies of amorphous matter, faces of stale air, slipping into and out of each other like slime. And she knew, if she so much as twitched, she would alert them to her presence. All night she held her breath and watched them, waiting, trying not to scream.

—-

Diane knew that something was different when she opened her eyes and saw that the sun was too high. When John usually woke her to make breakfast each morning, the sun was still slipping through the window in weak strands; now it had grown full and bright. She sat up in a panic. John would have her head on a stick if she were late. It was not until she felt the dampness, already congealing, that she remembered what she had dreamed.

With a quiet gurgle in her throat, Diane stared at the dark stain on her skin, the sheets, and the pillow. The bed had become a thick lake of maroon. Her eyes wanted to follow the trail, onto the floor and up against the curtains where a crumpled mound lay still. She shut them to avoid this image, but it had already seared itself into her eyelids. There was no scream, for her lungs were filled with liquid terror, and for a moment she thought that she, too, was going to die.

In jagged fragments, the voice’s prophecy returned to her, and she started to understand. Though her feet were unsteady, she rushed into the hall, to the children’s room at the end of the house. They might still be asleep, after all, without her to wake them up. She tried to open the door at a regular speed, not too slowly, and winced as the handle crashed into the opposite wall. The room was dark, curtains drawn, still littered with the bedroom war of the previous night. Caroline’s arm hung out of the bed, still unmoving, and Ty’s little shape lay buried beneath his rocket ship comforter. They’re just asleep, of course, just sleeping, she told herself, placing a hand to her pounding chest. But the smell came to her in the end, and she knew; the voice had fulfilled its promise after all.

“Free,” Diane said to the dead air, going back into the hall, smiling painfully. “Free at last.” Time became strange for her, and it was not until noon that she called the police.

“And what time did you wake up? When did you find them?” the man said. He, like the others, arrived moments following Diane’s call; all day they had been sniffing like dogs. The three stretchers with the three bags on top had already been wheeled out, and once the investigators were gone, she would be alone in the house. That word dominated her, even through the questions. Alone.

Thus, the man’s last question almost escaped her. “Only a moment ago,” she said. “I mean, a moment before I called. I was so confused, I didn’t know what to do. There was so much… so much…”

She watched the man, but his expression did not change. “Only a moment ago,” he said. He looked at her, and she had the urge to slap him, for staring so intently. “That’s late to wake up, on a weekday. Isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is late, it is strange. John… he always wakes me. I slept so late, because he…”

“Sure, sure,” the man said. “But one thing gets at me, here. If you called us so soon after you woke up, how did you have time to get all dressed and cleaned?”

Diane gazed at him. The hours slipped away, you see, the void came back and I don’t remember! she started to say, but the voice, the strength, were not there. She knew the silence would not help her, and the choked noises were telling them another story. Did I put on makeup? Did I do my hair? She tried to laugh, but the man only looked more intently, and waved his hand to someone behind her.

“Miss,” he said, “I’m afraid we will have to hold you for further questioning.”

Once the second man took hold of her and led her to the car, surrounded by the flashing red-blue, Diane fell back into the void from whence the voice had come. It was colder now, and the voice distant, its non-face vague. As the flashing lights dimmed, she said to the darkness, “Why don’t you help me? This isn’t freedom. This is not what you promised.”

For some time the voice did not reply. Diane thought she could hear it, humming a song from far away. Her mind wandered in its absence, and the ghosts of a hundred news stories floated to her – the domestic violence, the acts of vengeance; and how did all of those stories end? How many of those sorry people went to trial and were told of their irreversible fate? She was not sure of the number, but she knew enough, and she felt the tears come down, spurred on by the truth of her destiny. And, summoned by her tears, the voice returned to her.

“Why do you despair, my child?” it cooed, so softly, around her. “I did help you. And now, here you are – your wish granted.”

“But I will be locked away,” Diane cried. “And they’ll sentence me… don’t you know they’ll choose that punishment? You said you would make me free, and let me be happy. Please…”

The voice laughed, and it was not cruel; her tears were stopped. “My child,” it said, “you musn’t be ungrateful, now, after all we have done. We have fulfilled our promise. You are free. They are gone from you now. They can’t hurt you any longer. Whatever else comes to you, they are gone, and thus you are free.”

 The voice left her then, and she saw that the driver was staring at her, but she did not mind him. Her thoughts were lost in the void, surrounded by the massive moving darkness, brushing past things that were dead, that she would soon join; and in the void, she understood that the voice was right. She smiled, and laughed. “Goodbye, John; goodbye, Caroline; Ty, my child, my children, goodbye. I will not see you where I am going.”

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Short Story: DIANE’S WAY OUT, Part 1

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2016 by smuckyproductions

The first section to a horror story I wrote about a year ago. An homage to Shirley Jackson, with a bit of cosmic dread thrown in for good measure. 

DIANE’S WAY OUT

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The chicken, pink and raw, squelched when Diane pressed her nail into its surface. Too soft, she thought, and no blood. She retracted her nail and, shivering, wondered where that thought had come from. She dropped the mauled chicken onto the pan and listened to it burn.

Upstairs she heard one of her children scream. Her spine shuddered and she clenched her teeth against it. The scream must have come from Ty – still youthful and piggish, not yet fully human. Caroline was taunting him again, she was sure, pinching him or spitting at him. “Caroline, stop it!” Diane yelled, and the sound jarred her head into a dull throb. One day, I swear, one day… She pressed down on the chicken with a spatula until the juice sputtered in boiling snaps. They would complain about the chicken, and maybe the mashed potatoes, too. John would want something heartier – more exotic, he would say. She didn’t know what he meant by exotic. But the chicken was already in the freezer, and she did not have time to go to the store, not with the children tearing at each other in the back seat the whole ride. Let them complain.

“DADDY!” The scream rooted in Diane’s brain and she thought her head might rupture. John was home. A thin coil of dread unwound inside her.

The laughter, too, made her intestines cringe. It reminded her distantly of witches cackling before the sacrifice. She stared into the pan and tried to fill her ears with the juice’s sizzling. The stabs of their voices still came through – Caroline was telling her father about some contest she had won at school, as Ty squawked over her to be picked up. Bit by bit, their words blended together until all she could hear was a merciful drone; and then John said, “Where’s your mother?”

They betrayed her without a thought. “In the kitchen! In the kitchen!” She held the spatula like a knife as his careless footsteps crunched toward her. His frame, rectangular and silhouetted, appeared in the doorway.

“Dinner’s not ready yet?”

“No, I had a lot to do today. It won’t be much longer.”

His shape remained for a moment, glowering, then turned to the stairs and crunched away. She shot daggers through her eyes and wondered, too late, what would have happened if she had thrown the pan at him. The chicken, bubbling in the grease, had started to look like hardened skin.

It wasn’t so long before the meat was cooked through and the potatoes were mashed. In the pasty kitchen light, the potatoes looked like opaque sludge, the chicken like petrified flesh. She smiled at this notion, though she knew they would complain all the more, and today, she didn’t know if she could hold back. There was a dark sphere surrounding her when she took the platters into the dining room, where John and the children were already waiting. They glared at her from their places and she widened her smile until her sight blurred.

John waited only an instant before grumbling, “Chicken again?”

“There was nothing else. I didn’t have time to go to the store.”

“Didn’t have time,” John said to himself. “Didn’t have time. What was it that you did all day?”

Diane’s throat closed. She fumbled in her thoughts for the proper response, but it would not come. “It doesn’t matter, John, I’ll go tomorrow. We can enjoy this, can’t we?”

“I hate chicken,” Caroline said, and the words were needles in Diane’s ears.

“You will eat your chicken, you must. Now, let’s all sit down and have a nice dinner, all right?”

“But I don’t like it!” Caroline shouted.

Diane took her seat forcefully and served the chicken over Caroline’s yelling. Ty was inspired by his sister to laugh, a toad-like sound that could have been a strangled man’s last cries. Diane could not rid herself of that image. She wondered if there were any bones in this chicken, bones that could get stuck and scratch away, until the laughter turned to silent gasps.

“Overdone,” John muttered through his food.

She looked at him and saw that his plate was nearly empty. Hers remained untouched. It looked worse than before, dry and wrinkled, rotting.

—-

“Diane. I will let you out.”

The voice was in a dream, but when she woke, she found that the presence was real. It had filled the room while she slept – an alien heaviness across the ceiling. John slept on, breath rattling in his nose, without acknowledging the voice. She waited for another word, all the while wondering why she was not afraid.

From the air she heard, “Follow me.” Then the presence shook away from her, and as the door opened, it blew into the murk of the hallway. The air became light again, but it was now cold, and Diane new she had little choice but to, indeed, follow.

The hallway was still, except for the murmur of the children’s breaths drifting from their room. They had been resistant to the idea of sleep, as they were most nights, and Diane had barely been able to stop the screams without beating them into silence. Even when she had lain down, next to John’s sweat-stinking body, the screaming had threatened her with the possibility of its return. Her appetite had come back by then, but she refused to pay it attention – John had already thrown out her chicken in a fit of mute disgust. For her, sleep had come reluctantly and without grace. But she was awake now, facing an unseen intruder. That was the wrong word, of course, because this presence had made itself welcome. Diane was unafraid for the first time in a long, long while.

“Yes, Diane, you have no cause to fear me,” the voice cooed, smooth as black velvet. “I am here to make you happy again.”

That word sent a pulse of electricity into Diane’s skull. It was an awful suggestion, because she word was forbidden in her vocabulary. Yet, this honey voice was assuring. She knew, somehow, that it was not lying to her.

“How?” she whispered to the darkness.

“By granting your wish,” the voice laughed. “I know how long you’ve been calling. You thought no one was listening. I listened. And now, you will be free of your sorrows at last.”

Free. Diane felt weak. She leaned against the banister and closed her eyes. Against the lids, she thought she could see the projected image of her guest – a halo of white glow, surrounding the lightless impression of a smiling and inhuman face, carved out of the darkest shade. The first stab of dread went through her. What kind of face is this? she thought. She opened her eyes and the impression stayed, but only for a moment. The hallway was empty.

“What are you?” she said. Her voice was high and weightless, like a child’s.

“It would be difficult to explain to your ears,” the voice said carefully. “You may not understand. It is better if you do not, in fact. Let us just say that I am here to give you what you want.”

What I want, she thought. What is it that I want?

“Why, you want a happy life! You want to be rid of the people who take away your freedom! Is that not what you want?”

Each word ripped into Diane and she thought she might sob. Yes, she told herself, that is my terrible dream. She hated the intruder now, coming into her home like this, stealing her private thoughts, and resurrecting her want. What right did the intruder have? Her tears did not come, but she had to grip the banister to keep her knees from failing.

“You musn’t cry,” the voice said. “No one would blame you for dreaming of this. In fact, any other might not have been able to withstand it as long as you have. Day after day, enduring the screams and the crying, holding back when you just want to scream at them yourself so they understand how you suffer? Slaving away at meals that get thrown out and scrubbing the house clean only to watch them ruin it so gleefully; all this, and never a word of thanks, of kindness. You’re watching them make jokes, long and cruel ones, and you are the punch line. They never see you as a member of their family – you may as well be a prisoner of war. What person deserves this life, Diane? Not you, not anymore.”

—-

Stay tuned for Part 2 of DIANE’S WAY OUT tomorrow, 1/6!

Four Horror Novels for Halloween

Posted in Dark Musings, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Happy Halloweek, everyone! To kick off prime celebration time, I’ve put together a short list of my favorite horror novels that capture the Samhain spirit. By no means is this a comprehensive list, but it scratches the surface.

For atmosphere, ghouls, and disturbing stories, these are four novels that can’t be missed.

THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ouvre goes beyond tedious, forced high school reads. “Seven Gables” is a classic American Gothic, stocked full of Puritan themes, eerie imagery of witchcraft and brutal settlements, and a terrific drama about a cursed family. The titular house is full of spectres not seen, but felt, memories that won’t go away. By now, a plot like this has been overdone, but Hawthorne’s gorgeous descriptions make up for any familiarity. Autumnal and phantasmal, it’s a must-read.

PET SEMATARY

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Yeah, yeah, Stephen King is great and all. But not all of his novels are suited for Halloween reading. “Pet Sematary,” though, has it all – cursed graveyards, undead children, evil spirits, and a spooky suburban setting over which the presence of death hangs like fog. On top of that, it’s beyond terrifying. The first time I read it, I had to put it down while I waited for the chills to pass so I could keep going. With both entertaining and psychological horror, and one of the most disturbing ending lines of all time, this one is perfect for ghost season.

HELL HOUSE

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A terribly cheesy title – but this is one of the best horror novels of the 1970s. Penned by weird fiction master Richard Matheson, this novel is oppressively atmospheric, with doom and dread oozing from the first pages. The house is masterfully described and full of hidden horrors – in true 70s fashion, psychedelic and sensual, too. The terse prose creates such an aura of paranoia and horror that it’s actually difficult to read through, but the suspense is such that you can’t stop. For a quick, terrifying, and entertaining read, with all the Halloween trappings, there is no better book.

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

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If you talk about Hell House, you have to talk about Hill House. Shirley Jackson is the master of quiet, psychological horror. This book pairs her brilliant character analysis with an uncanny haunted house story, a combination that results in madness and terror. It subverts the cliches in the most disturbing way possible. And Hill House is one of the most formidable villains in all of dark literature – how can you fight a house? Finding a way to dissect loneliness and agoraphobia within the most ghostly of places, “Hill House” is a truly horrific read.

As Halloweek chugs along, keep your eyes peeled for more original Smucky stories and short films! And stay spooked – it’s the best time of the year.

Contemporary Horror Stories to Read in October

Posted in Best Of, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Only a week and a half until the big day! That means we’ve got to start stocking up on our Halloween-themed films and literature. The dark days are just around the corner… don’t be caught without your proper collection of spooks.

As a follow-up to Smucky’s post at the beginning of the month, I’ve dug up some other stories that fit the October bill – this time, ones that have been published in the last few decades. For some fresher terror, look no further than our list of CONTEMPORARY STORIES TO READ IN OCTOBER.

  1. JERUSALEM’S LOT by STEPHEN KING

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Mr. King is the obvious choice, but that’s because he has such a wealth of horror tales, ranging from more experimental to classic, atmospheric chillers. This one, a prequel to the amazing “’Salem’s Lot,” captures a Lovecraftian tone with degenerate themes and a terrifying secret lurking beneath an abandoned town. It’s got everything – a creaky old mansion, ghouls in the walls, a Puritan settlement that went to the devil, and a decaying church that harbors a horrific evil. And even better, it explains in part what makes ‘Salem’s Lot such a magnet for evil. Though published recently, this story is classic, in the best way.

  1. THE LADY OF THE HOUSE OF LOVE by ANGELA CARTER
Artwork by Lee McConville

Artwork by Lee McConville

Part of the monumental collection “The Bloody Chamber,” this is the only story not adapted from a specific fairy tale. Instead, it inverts the vampire myth, spinning a melancholic and beautiful portrait of a young undead woman who despises herself for drinking blood. The imagery – a shambling Gothic castle, a blood-stained wedding dress, and a corpse-like woman feasting on virile young men – is stunning. There’s quite a statement made about archaic spooks and real-life horrors, too. A must read for a rainy afternoon.

  1. THE DAEMON LOVER by SHIRLEY JACKSON

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You can’t have a best of list without mentioning Ms. Jackson. Though “The Lottery” is her most accomplished story, I find this one equally haunting, in an even more subtle way. It follows a woman who is supposed to be married, but she can’t find her groom – and no one else seems to think he exists, either. Like some of the best horror, it’s unsettling and disturbing because nothing happens, but the implications are awful. Perfect for its spectral plot and dark images of phantasmal New York in the rain.

  1. THE FUNERAL by RICHARD MATHESON
From the 'Night Gallery' episodic adaptation

From the ‘Night Gallery’ episodic adaptation

A bit of tongue-in-cheek macabre to lighten the mood this month. Richard Matheson is the master of the uncanny mundane, and this is a great example – a funeral director gets the strangest offer of his life when a man asks to host his own funeral. And the guests? They’re all monsters – from a witch to a werewolf, and some vampires thrown in between. This is a delightful mash-up of our favorite monsters, and Matheson’s genre genius elevates it to hilarity. Not scary in the least, but certainly a huge amount of monstrous fun.

  1. ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD AGAIN by NEIL GAIMAN

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Like “The Funeral,” this story is a melting pot of classic horror tropes – best of all, it’s set in Lovecraft’s fishy town Innsmouth, and narrated by one werewolf Lawrence Talbot – but it has a dreadful weight of its own. Gaiman has a ridiculously brilliant imagination, and here it wanders through dreary, fog-filled streets where hideous rites are being performed. With sea monsters, a creepy fortune teller, and a character from the Universal vault, it’s hard to go wrong.

I’m sure I’ve missed some, so send in suggestions at your leisure! And happy reading, freaks.

Forbidden Tomes: HANGSAMAN by SHIRLEY JACKSON

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2015 by smuckyproductions

As we enter into the full swing of the school year, we encounter once again the dramas and anxieties of classes and fellow students. There are legions of comedies and dramedies that deal with these themes. But, I find, very few horror stories; and as the ever-brilliant Shirley Jackson proves, that genre may be the best suited to conveying them truthfully. She demonstrates this to stunning effect in her second novel, HANGSAMAN.

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Everyone knows Shirley Jackson for her slow-building nightmare “The Lottery” and her maddeningly terrifying ghost tale “The Haunting of Hill House.” But her tragically short literary career was full of quieter gems as well. In her sophomore effort, she enters the mind of a socially awkward (or worse?) young woman who has just started college. She desperately wants to create her own identity and grow into herself… but that’s hard to do when everyone around you is backstabbing each other, and you start going insane.

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Part coming-of-age drama, part social satire, and a whole lot of psychological nightmare, this novel is a powerhouse of emotion. Anyone who is familiar with “The Lottery” knows that Jackson is the master of slow-build, suffocating tension. She is brilliant at keeping the reader in the dark, spinning cryptic thoughts within her characters that hint at something dreadful and placing them in situations that are eerily confusing. This novel demonstrated that in full force. Natalie, the main character, navigates a world in which people – including herself – are dangling by a thread over the abyss of insanity. There is the constant threat of danger, but never an outburst of violence. We, along with everyone else, are holding our breath, waiting for it to come.

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Natalie’s world is populated with deliciously off-kilter characters – a handsome teacher who marries his student, and the wife, who drinks away her anxieties; a gossipy classmate who spies on girls whom she wants to slander; a mysterious, unnamed friend who leads Natalie into a nebulous and dangerous existence; et cetera. Many of these characters, uncanny as they are, also give humor to the book. Jackson is a genius when it comes to gallows humor. You laugh, but only to prevent yourself from screaming.

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But what makes me adore this book, and Jackson’s others as well, goes beyond the grotesque characters and growing tension – it’s the penetrating, ruthless, but accurate insight into the human condition. These characters, in their madness, reveal a disturbingly recognizable side of the reader: a side that is riddled with irrational terrors and hatred of themselves and others. We’d rather not look at this side of ourselves, but Jackson allows us to do so without destroying ourselves completely. I always discover something about my thoughts when I read her books. The xenophobia and paranoia that infect her characters are things that I have felt, and to recognize them in something else makes it easier to rid myself of them.

Shirley Jackson is a glorious writer, and “Hangsaman” demonstrates the best of her abilities in comedy, horror, and human insight. It is a book to consume when you’re alone, shut away from the world. And the monsters lurking inside the pages look so terribly much like you.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: Review

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on July 9, 2014 by smuckyproductions

Author: Stefan Kiesbye
Published in 2011
Rating: 7/10

I stumbled across this book totally by chance, but the description – and, of course, the infamous cover – ensured that I wouldn’t forget it. (For those who don’t know, the cover is printed with a sneaky message only revealed under the right angle of light. Go to Barnes & Noble to see what it says.) A few months later, I was finally able to read it.

The jacket compares this short novel, made up of disparate stories connected by narrators and the location, to Shirley Jackson and The Twilight Zone. It tracks the coming-of-age experiences of a group of children who live in Hemmersmoor, a sinister backwoods village untouched by time or modern logic. The village is full of superstition and dark secrets, from the eerie manor on the outskirts to the haunted mill. As the children navigate this perverted, insular world, they accumulate secrets of their own – some of which are too horrible to say.

The premise of the novel, and the atmosphere it manages to construct around the village, are terrific. The world is disturbing and ugly, but it’s impossible to leave it until its secrets are unveiled. Its stories and style borrow heavily from Jackson in their detached point of view, describing awful events without understanding that they are awful. Some of the tales are extremely disturbing – one involving a circus particularly frightened me – but as the novel goes on, they become more and more normal. There is no real sense of climax, and the pieces add up to a hollow whole. This is, in a way, in keeping with the themes of adulthood – the world seems a little less special and exciting with each year you age – but it is a betrayal of the promise to the reader, which is to build to an ending.

That being said, the moodiness and evocation of the setting are worthwhile in their own right. It’s a disturbing joy to spend time in Hemmersmoor, even if its secrets don’t live up to the comparison of Shirley Jackson. It’s a fun read for an autumn evening, when everything is just a little bit spookier than usual.