Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Shirley Jackson Project

Rob Kirby's anthologies are always interesting at the very least, in large part because he only takes on projects as an editor that are personally important to him. Passion alone does not a great anthology make, however, and it's Kirby's other skills as an editor that tend to make his anthologies so satisfying to read. He has an uncanny sense of which artists to use for a given project, how to get the best out of them and how to sequence their stories. Sequential flow is the most important quality of any given anthology and is easily botched by editors who don't quite understand what they're doing. Even in an anthology with more than one weak piece, Kirby manages to use them as buffers or palate-cleansers. Even when Kirby was editing anthologies featuring only queer cartoonists, he always carefully thought through the artists he asked to participate in an effort to come up with the best balance of styles, themes and visual approaches. That was especially true in his excellent Three anthology, but he's carried that through in his recent series of anthologies that smartly mixed artists from the queer comics world and the alt-comics world (a line that has thankfully become far less relevant) to provide a diversity of experiences, points of view and styles. After putting together the massive QU33R anthology, he went back to doing smaller anthologies that mixed artists as I noted to address topics like accidental, self-inflicted injuries (Pratfall) and astrology (What's Your Sign, Girl?).

Kirby will surely earn some degree-of-difficult points with his The Shirley Jackson Project, an anthology featuring "comics inspired by her life and work". Jackson has been dead for nearly fifty years, but her influence on modern psychological horror remains as strong as ever. A new biography that's just been released has also stirred up more attention to the novelist and short story writer as well. Simply put, this was a passion project for Kirby, who was delighted and surprised to find as many Jackson fans in the alt-comics world as he did who were willing to contribute to this book. I did some research on Jackson's works prior to reviewing the anthology, having only read the famous short story "The Lottery" and her hilarious book about parenting, Life Among The Savages. Most of the stories were inspired by The Haunting of Hill House (the prototypical psychological haunted house story) and We Have Always Lived In The Castle (an especially creepy family thriller). Kirby's task here was to sequence a group of stories that focused almost entirely on her horror stories in a wa that wasn't repetitive.

For the most part, he succeeded. In an anthology full of deep, personal stories with a distinctly dark tone, it was crucial that Kirby was able to lighten the mood from time to time (much as Jackson did herself in her otherwise psychologically tense writing). The major pieces in the book tend to fall into one of two categories: autobiographical reflections on Jackson's work and its relation to the lives of the artists, and fiction pieces that incorporate aspects and/or themes of Jackson's work. Kirby starts off with Annie Murphy, a mainstay in the Kirby anthology stable. This theme couldn't be any deeper in Murphy's wheelhouse, as her first major comic was about a spiritualist that wove in autobiographical details. With black backgrounds and white, cursive lettering, Murphy conjures up a story weaving in her own history of living in haunted places with Jackson's own history of both dealing with haunted places and coping with an abusive mother, elegantly addressing issues surrounding fear and guilt that drive our deepest sense of terror.

Ivan Velez and Jon Macy tell similar stories, with Velez noting how often he would see apparitions of just-deceased relatives at bedside and Macy focusing instead on how many of Jackson's characters' tendency to have rich inner lives in order to combat the world around them. He perceptively notes that this is a metaphor for dealing with abusive parents and describes his own harrowing life story of dealing with a physically and psychologically cruel parent and how he used his own fantasy worlds to escape. What I liked best about Macy's story is its sense of restraint; there was a sense of quiet but seething fury underlining his words, while his art was crisp & smart but hinted at things more than it made things explicit. In that sense, it was very much like Jackson's work.

The husband-wife team of Asher & Lillie Craw did an analysis of Jackson's use of buildings and foods as highly charged objects in her stories. In many respects, it's a comics form of literary analysis, going straight to the original source to back up their theories regarding how Jackson turns what is comfortable and familiar into something eerie and threatening. The brightness and simplicity of their art is in direct opposition to the subject matter, creating one of many unusual juxtapositions in the book. Gabrielle Gamboa looks at food from a different perspective, addressing the ways in which Jackson turned comfort food into deadly threats and then looking at real-life events in which food has mysteriously killed others. Kirby's own imprint is all over the book, with several short pieces including another analytical story where he examines common Jackson character archetypes, illustrated in scratchy form by Michael Fahy.

In terms of the fictional pieces, the two show-stoppers use radically different approaches. Maggie Umber's "The Tooth" is an adaptation of the short story told entirely in shadowy images. Considering that the original story is about a woman's journey to the city to get her tooth removed, only to slowly descend into total ego loss and deterioration of self, Umber cleverly begins the story with a number of concrete images and slowly starts to iconify and even abstract the visuals, as the reader is compelled to start the see the world as she does. Eric Orner's piece about the crumbling relationship between two long-distance friends is chilling in the way the narrator slowly begins to understand his own self-absorption. Orner's balance of text and image in each panel is designed to whip the reader through the story quickly, anticipating with dread what might happen in the friendship. It can be argued, I think, that Jackson's stories are about the ways in which isolation can lead to toxic behavior, which then often supersedes concepts like empathy and kindness.

The other stories act mostly as effective buffers and palate cleansers. Colleen Frakes' story about listening to a radio reading of "The Lottery" as a child and freaking out points to the ways in which some stories really strike a negative chord with their readers, and that authors just have to deal with it. Katie Fricas' gloriously scrawled drawings try to capture individual, self-destructive urges described in Jackson's stories and is a perfect transition piece as it's right between two stories drawn in a fairly naturalistic style. Kirby's own "Cabinet of Blood" is a funny but dark anecdote about Jackson that provides a short rest for the reader after long pieces by Orner and Jennifer Camper. Camper combines elements from a number of different Jackson stories to once again write about identity lost. It doesn't quite cohere, just like Dan Mazur's imagining Jackson herself as a persecuted witch in the woods feels more silly than anything else. W. Woods' imagining a character from We Have Always Lived In The Castle recovering scraps from her burned house goes on a few pages too long, and it's the only piece in the book that feels more like fan fiction than something original. Robert Triptow's adaptation of The Haunting Of Hill House, on the other hand, is clever because of its first person perspective and recapitulation of the idea of haunting as a metaphor for abuse. Triptow keeps it short and simple, moving quickly from a powerful set of frightening images to the prospect of hope and escape.

At over 120 pages, this anthology isn't as tightly edited as Kirby's best anthologies. There were several stories that could have been weeded, and even some good stories being left out might have made a stronger, more cohesive project. That said, the best pieces in the book are as good as anything I've read in any anthology this year. Umber, Murphy and Orner in particular all used radically different approaches to create stories I won't soon forget. Kirby took risks in seeing what would stick and almost pulled it off, as the book doesn't lose steam until the end. Even the misfires are interesting in their own way and every piece is reflective of the profound influence Jackson has had on them as well as the way she expressed things in her work that spoke loudly to the experience of others, be it directly related to the supernatural or else the messages behind the metaphors she employed.

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