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Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children

Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children

by Shelley Jackson
Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children

Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children

by Shelley Jackson


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Finalist for the Believer Book Award for Fiction
Named a Best Book of Fall by Vulture, New York Magazine, and more

"A ravishing novel charged with the idea of the incommunicable." —The New Yorker

Eleven–year–old Jane Grandison, tormented by her stutter, sits in the back seat of a car, letter in hand inviting her to live and study at the Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing–Mouth Children. Founded in 1890 by Headmistress Sybil Joines, the school—at first glance—is a sanctuary for children seeking to cure their speech impediments. Inspired by her haunted and tragic childhood, the Headmistress has other ideas.

Pioneering the field of necrophysics, the Headmistress harnesses the “gift” she and her students possess. Through their stutters, together they have the ability to channel ghostly voices communicating from the land of the dead, a realm the Headmistress herself visits at will. Things change for the school and the Headmistress when a student disappears, attracting attention from parents and police alike.

Set in the overlapping worlds of the living and the dead, Shelley Jackson’s Riddance is an illuminated novel told through theoretical writings in necrophysics, the Headmistress’s dispatches from the land of the dead, and Jane’s evolving life as Joines’s new stenographer and central figure in the Vocational School’s mysterious present, as well as its future.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781948226363
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)
Lexile: 1130L (what's this?)
Age Range: 15 Years

About the Author

Shelley Jackson was born in the Philippines, raised in Berkeley, California, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, her daughter, and a three–legged dog. She received a B.A. in art from Stanford University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Brown University. She is the author of the short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, the novel Half Life, the hypertext novel Patchwork Girl, several children’s books, and “Skin,” a story published in tattoos on the skin of more than 2,000 volunteers. She teaches in the graduate writing program at The New School.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 6, excerpt from “The Stenographer’s Story”

“No, no, no, no, no! I said, listen with your mouth. I did not say gargle, or whatever it is you think you are doing. You, girl. Grandison!”

Still holding the rolled paper cone to my mouth and with most of my attention directed toward the vicinity of my tonsils, I did not recognize my own name until I heard it again, this time from much closer to. The instructor had stopped directly in front of me.

“Grandison, I am speaking to you. Cannot you hear me?”

Since I spoke, without thinking, through the cone, my “Yes—no—I can” came out unexpectedly loud, and muffled giggles rose from around me. I lowered the cone, flushing.

"“It is ‘yes, sir’ or ‘yes, Mr. Behalf.’ You are new here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You have conceived a dislike for this exercise?”


“You are crumpling your trumpet.” Happy laughter greeted this observation.

I looked down. I was more than crumpling it. I had crushed it into a ball and was kneading it compulsively.

“Take this one, and try to refrain from destroying it.”

“Yes, sir.” My cheeks burned.

“Now try once more, without huffing, or puffing, or gagging, or fizzing, or anything, to listen with your mouth. . . . No, no, no!”

All my life I had borne the double burden of my stutter and my skin. Coming here, though, I had thought at least to halve my load—had looked forward to the novelty of being celebrated for my stutter, instead of mocked. I now learned better. Everyone had a stutter. What mattered was how well one employed it to summon up the dead. And that I could not do at all, nor even imagine how to start. Was it all a bunco game? The exercises we did seemed pointless (and some of them hurt), the teachers’ instructions frankly nonsensical. Seeking to “breathe backward,” I might forget to breathe at all and fall off my seat in a faint, or inhale my own saliva and suffer a coughing fit. And a paper cone was not the preciousest object I destroyed in my clumsiness! Not even among my cousins had I been made to feel such a ninnyhammer. The littlest of my fellow beginners, scarcely half my age, was more adept than I.

“Von Gunten, why don’t you show Grandison how it is done? Try not to upset the furniture,” added Mr. Behalf, as a stout little girl with white-blond braids, brows, and even lashes clumped to her feet, rocking the bench as she did so.

The dutiful giggles cut off abruptly when Von Gunten raised her cone, and my participating laughter, belated and a trifle hysterical, rang out for a moment. Then there was silence. Into it, her eyes a little crossed, she fed a low, hollow note, sustained like a drone. Rather than weakening, it grew louder, and then, just when one would have expected her to run out of breath, it resolved into an adult, female voice saying forcefully but quite naturally, “No respectable girl wears crimson stockings with red morocco tie shoes, except at home or on the summer piazza.” There was a rustle as everyone, including myself, looked surreptitiously around, but no crimson stockings were in attendance. (Nor was it at all likely that any of us would be permitted so much liberty in matters of dress.)

“If we may inquire, madame or miss,” the instructor said, “what other wisdom do you have for the living?”

“Snuff-dipping is a revolting habit,” said Von Gunten, the cone trembling with effort, “that invariably leads to moral and physical dereliction. Crimson stockings . . .” Her voice grew faint and crepitating.

Mr. Behalf inclined his ear. “Stockings?” he said gently.

“Wound around my . . .” crackle crackle . . . Then, with great force: “Pulled tight!

“Yes, quite!” he said hurriedly. “That will be enough, Von Gunten. Von Gunten, enough,” he repeated, prying open the fat little hand that had convulsed around the cone.

When I first arrived at my aunt’s house I was given a new home, new clothes, and a new body. This body had various names: stutterer, colored girl, poor relation. I did not recognize it. It seemed to me a sort of cenotaph for another body, now lost. What I still called my self flickered around this marker, homeless and very nearly voiceless.

I am loath to turn a very real affliction into a metaphor by suggesting that if I could not speak it was because I was schooled in silence. Yet I was. And if I spoke all the same, though in a Voice that said nothing, wasn’t that because there was so much not to say? A whole hullabaloo of silence, with my parents’ unspeakable marriage at the center of it. I was not to speak of my father, whom I remembered only in parts—long lovely hands, a black hat, the open collar of a white shirt—though I burned to know more, that I might stitch those parts together and understand why he had left us. (“People leave,” my mother said. Then she left, too.) I was not to speak of my paternal grandparents, born into slavery, as I presumed, and long dead. Nor of my people in general, though they were all around me, spooning tiny wrinkled potatoes onto my plate, filling my water glass, bearing away my gravy-blotched dress to be sponged and pressed—“my people” because so they would be reckoned by any stranger, not because I was invited to claim them, or they me. Of all this I was the impertinent reminder, the blot in the family Bible. My mother and Bitty had done the right thing by dying. It was too bad I had not had the grace to follow suit.

Such was Jane Grandison, age eleven: All too present, as to body. All but absent, as to voice.

Now I was instructed that this disjunct condition was in point of fact ideal. That I would never recover my lost voice, and must indeed endeavor to lose my Voice as well. Is it remarkable if every part of me refused this teaching? The information that I was “an empty space,” “a hollow,” “an opening,” had the exact opposite of its intended effect. Never had I so keenly felt myself to be a dense material body as when I was striving to fashion myself into an absence.

My resistance had a color. Was color: my blackness bound me to this body that was not my body, but a sort of pickaninny doll into which I threw a voice that also was not mine. And it seemed to me they knew it would be that way and wanted it that way. Nothingness needs somethingness to prove itself against. The spotless needs the spot. And I—my obdurate, impertinent, unmentionable body—was that spot.

Certainly I was the very worst student in the school. Again, I was an outsider, and the other children made me feel it, as other children had always done, through they did so through stutters that at the Academy for Disadvantaged Girls would have made them prey just as surely as mine had made me.

Leaning low over her plate of bread and cheese: “Hello, n-n-new girl. Grandison. Hello. Hello. Hello. Look at m-m-me. Hello! Why, you . . .” Here she sat back, struck the table with her knuckles, then drew her baby finger across her sealed mouth. The other girls nodded; one pinched off a scrap of bread and kneaded it into a ball, balanced it on one fingernail, and then flicked it into the air to appreciative laughter, an operation that I followed closely while affecting disinterest, for I did not understand these gestures, though I caught the derisive intent well enough.

Another girl took up the attack. “Listen, Grandison, I have something to tell you, no joke. Don’t you want to hear it?”

I folded my bread around my cheese and took a bite.

“You’re hurting my feelings, Grandison.”

I unfolded my bread again and began scraping the mold off my cheese.

“What, are you deaf? Rude thing! D-d-didn’t your mother teach you any manners?”

Now I looked up.

“O-o-ooh, she’s getting mad. Watch out, I think she’s going to s-s-s-summon a ghost to s-s-s-scare us!”

Then one of them summoned a ghost to scare me. In this she miscalculated, though. The spirit she called up was a great bore who started in on explaining double-entry bookkeeping as necessary background to the exciting story of an error in arithmetic that he had found in his employer’s records, “a punctiliousness for which I was not rewarded,” he complained, as his channeler sought vainly to fit a slice of buttered bread into her mouth around his words. “Quite the opposite!”

As he droned on, the girls picked up their bread and deserted their unfortunate comrade, for it was forbidden to call up a ghost without supervision, and Mother Other was already bearing down on us. I hitched myself a little farther down the bench and continued stolidly eating my lunch. I will not let them drive me out, I thought. In any case I have nowhere else to go, and I saw in my mind’s eye the retreating rear of the car that brought me, taking itself and its driver, not unkind, swiftly away, and for a moment felt a quite unmanageable grief. “But I have nowhere else to go,” I said aloud, and took a bite of bread.

“You next carry into the columns of profit and loss the balances of . . .” said the girl, as she was pulled away by the ear.

Another time I had been backed into a remote corner of the playfield by a group of white boys and girls who, by calling me, as I guessed (for their words were much garbled by their stutters and nervous laughter) a “bulldyking coon”—albeit with sidelong glances at two colored students nearby—were trying to elicit some interesting reaction. I had heard worse in Brooklyn and maintained a contemptuous silence. So did Ambrose Wilson and Maritcha Dixon, whose expressions of lofty unconcern vied to convey their elevation above ignominious me. My tormentors had resorted to plucking at my clothes and putting leaves in my hair when Miss Exiguous came hurrying up. “Grandison, I have been looking everywh—what are you doing, boys and girls?”

“We’re helping Grandison put herself in Compliance, the nasty messy thing.”

“Straighten your uniform, girl. Headmistress wants you to take down a dispatch.”

How I gloated, under my calm exterior, as I left my now-subdued tormentors. But alone in the Headmistress’s office, behind the typewriter, I experienced another sort of torment. The Headmistress’s words buzzing through the brass trumpet came so fast sometimes that I had to leave out whole sentences, or were so subsumed in static that only with the liveliest exercise of the imagination could I concoct a coherent transcript.

“Zzzzzridzzz . . . ffzzzmamzz . . . cozzzzpapazzzlllie . . .”

“The ridge of the mountain,” I typed, “is covered with papillae.”

Every time I presented my trembling sheaf of papers, I was sure of being exposed as a fictionist. So I set about forming a new program. If I could not secure my reputation with my talent for ghost-speaking, I certainly would not secure it with charm, wit, or good looks. Let others be liked, applauded, or admired: I would be useful. I schooled myself in Dr. Jameson's New Improved Phonographological Method and, whenever I was not occupied with my studies, put in hours drilling on the typewriting machine. And before too many months had gone by, I really had all the skills that I had pretended to have, and if I still fictionalized now and then it was for my own amusement and in the confidence that I would not get the sack, for I had become the Headmistress’s most accurate, most assiduous, fastest, cleverest—in short, best—stenographer, typist, and transcriptionologist. Words I often rolled over my tongue when alone, for I had never before done or been anything that took so many long words to describe.

But my chief object of study, from blank fascination as much as from method, was the headmistress herself.

Table of Contents

Editor's Introduction


Final Dispatch: “Borne on racing white-streaked black . . .”

The Stenographer’s Story: “The Headmistress’s tiny, tinny voice has fallen silent.”

Readings: My Childhood

Letters to Dead Authors, #1: Melville: “You will not have heard of me . . .”


Final Dispatch: “Someone is missing, a child is missing, calamity . . .”

The Stenographer’s Story: “Another pause. The room is quiet, though today’s events have left their spoor . . .”

Readings: from a Visitor’s Observations: How I Conceived the Plan to Visit the Vocational School; On the Architecture of the Vocational School

Letters to Dead Authors, #2: Melville: “It has come to my attention that you are dead.”


Final Dispatch: “[Extended static, several words indistinct] . . . someone is missing . . .”

The Stenographer’s Story: “‘Wake up!’ The Intake Coordinator, if that was what she was . . .”

Readings: from Principles of Necrophysics: The Mechanics of Channeling the Dead

Letters to Dead Authors, #3: Brontë (Charlotte): “I am—but I shall not introduce myself.”


Final Dispatch: “It is easy to forget what you are about, in the land of the dead . . .”

The Stenographer’s Story: “I traipsed dumbly around behind Florence . . .”

Readings: from a Visitor’s Observations: On Eating and Other Oral Activities; On Methods of Listening

Letters to Dead Authors, #4: Charlotte: “I have seized my Eve, my ‘v’!”


Final Dispatch: “But if we are all dead, then there is certainly no rush . . .”

The Stenographer’s Story: “Mother Other was waiting in the hall when I emerged . . .”
Readings: from a Visitor’s Observations: On Methods of Listening

Readings: The Analphabetical Choir

Letters to Dead Authors, #5: Hawthorne: “I stop by the dormitory at night to imagine the ghosts rushing in and out . . .”


Final Dispatch: “The road, the ravine, the fields, the . . .”

The Stenographer’s Story: “No, no, no, no, no! I said, listen with your mouth.”
Readings: from The Principles of Necrophysics: A Report on Certain Curious Objects . . .

Letters to Dead Authors, #6: E. A. Poe: “A faint hissing—snow . . .”


Final Dispatch: “I had never seen a person looking the way she looked . . .”

The Stenographer’s Story: “She sweeps down the hall, her heavy skirts . . .”

Readings: from a Visitor’s Observations: On Punishment; On Play

Letters to Dead Authors, #7: Brontë (Emily): “Doctor Beede tells me, one finger probing greedily . . .”


Final Dispatch: “I have just spent a summer in my mother’s hand.”

The Stenographer’s Story: “I was lying in my bed, putting in a little extra practice.”

Readings: from a Visitor’s Observations: On Play

Readings: Consuetudinary of the Word Church

Letters to Dead Authors, #8: Mary Shelley: “Intermediate Death Studies. The students bend their heads . . .”


Final Dispatch: “So I am back at the beginning of the chase.”

The Stenographer’s Story: “I swim up from sleep, frowning . . .”

Readings: from a Visitor’s Observations: On Certain Objects in the Collection; On Articles of Dress; A Secret

Letters to Dead Authors, #9: Stoker: “My voice weakens. It seems to sink back . . .”


Final Dispatch: “This is how it happened.”

The Stenographer’s Story: “It is customary in telling stories from school . . .”

Readings: from a Visitor’s Observations: On Articles of Dress

Readings: Early Dispatches from the Land of the Dead

Letters to Dead Authors, #10: Mina Harker: “Now it is my mother whose voice I seemed to hear.”


Final Dispatch: “[Crackling] Where am I?”

The Stenographer’s Story: “I have told how I gained a reputation as a necronaut . . .”

Readings: from a Visitor’s Observations: A Secret on the Patois of the Vocational School

Letters to Dead Authors, #11: Jephra: “I believe I addressed my last letter to a fictional character.”


Final Dispatch: “[Static, three to four sentences indistinct] . . . thought it was a piano factory . . .”

The Stenographer’s Story: “The months passed, the years.”

Readings: Documentarian of the Dead

Letters to Dead Authors, #12: Herman: “Something is going on in my school that I don’t understand.”


Final Dispatch: "I am down at the swampy verge of our lawn . . ."

The Stenographer’s Story: "The voice crackles, drops out, returns as pure sound . . .”

Readings: from a Visitor’s Observations: On the Patois of the Vocational School

Readings: Report on a Cemetery

Letters to Dead Authors, #13: Ishmael: “I have grown gaunt—no one knows how gaunt . . ."


Final Dispatch: "Well, here we are again in my office. It looks real . . ."

The Stenographer’s Story: "There is an excellent private sanatorium in Pittsfield . . .”

Readings: from The Principles of Necrophysics: The Structure of the Necrocosmos

Letters to Dead Authors, #14: Jane E.: “I have had a disappointment.”


Final Dispatch: “Do you hear it too? That low, cool, reasonable voice . . .”

The Stenographer’s Story: "The alarm, though we did not recognize it for what it was . . ."

Readings: from a Visitor’s Observations: On the Difficulty of My Task

Readings: from Interviews with the Dead: Or, Luncheon with a Spirit Medium

Letters to Dead Authors, #15: Jane: “At first my Theatrical Spectacle bid fair to be another disappointment . . .”


Final Dispatch: "I flew like a phoenix out of the fire, and like a phoenix I was reborn . . ."

The Stenographer’s Story: "The water went down, leaving the grass all slicked with mud."

Readings: from a Visitor’s Observations: On the Difficulty of My Task; A Private Conversation

Letters to Dead Authors, #16: Bartleby: "The story may have already reached you . . ."


Final Dispatch: "The inspector set his hat on the spindly-legged occasional table . . ."

The Stenographer’s Story: “Reader, she was dead.”

Editor's Afterword

Appendix A: Last Will and Testament

Appendix B: Instructions for Saying a Sentence

Appendix C: Ectoplasmoglyphs #1–40

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