Riddance by Shelley Jackson

Riddance is a ghost story like none other I’ve read. It’s not a story of a terrifying haunting; it’s not a possession story (per se); it’s a more technical look at ghosts and the afterlife.

Riddance is styled like an expose on a school, The Sybil Joines Vocational School, that takes in children with stutters and teaches them how to use this speech impediment to channel the dead. The practice revolves around the mouth and esophagus – the dead coming up from the land of the dead through your mouth and also you are able to travel to the land of the dead by throwing yourself into your mouth and down your throat. The motif of mouth and esophagus run rampant throughout the collected “documents” that make up the expose.

“…saw the hollow tube of the quill pen as a neat reiteration of the hollow tube of the windpipe, and recognized no very great distinction between speaking (writing on the wind) and writing (speaking in ink).”

The headmistress and founder of the school, Sybil Joines, struggled with her stuttering throughout her childhood. Her peers constantly ridiculed her, and her father was cruel toward her. It was during a harsh punishment from her father that she found her talent with channeling the dead, and then again when being ridiculed harshly by her peers. She built up her talent and started the school where parents struggling with their speech impeded kids could turn to. However, the kids didn’t always make it out – several being lost in the land of the dead.

As much as Sybil hates her father, she becomes exactly like him towards the kids enrolled in her school. She acts under the principle that the children have to have everything personal stripped from them so they can be fully open to the land of the dead. She didn’t care that some children disappeared. She was solely worried about learning everything she could about the land of the dead and the souls that reside there.

“When I myself am dead matter, I will speak the language of things. Then at last I will understand what it is that the world has been trying to tell me, all my life.”

With her fascination – or more accurately, obsession – with death, you would think she would face it eagerly. But once her health begins to fade, she becomes feverishly desperate to perfect her studies. She wants the answers while she is still alive. Maybe she wants to be the one credited for such marvelous feats of receiving such secret information. Or maybe she wants the answers ahead of time so she is not going into the unknown. Instead, her quest for answers consumes her to the point where she becomes a wisp of what she once was.

“We imagine death can be consumed, like everything else, when death is itself the mouth.”

Alongside the interesting scientific aspects of the writings, there are tons of interesting philosophical statements that peaked my interest. Here are some examples:

  • She was no longer convinced that even human speech was semiotic. That we generally made sense of it was no proof that it made sense; we are also prone to discover faces in mildew stains. When we think we are conversing rationally, we are merely, like a tree, rustling.
  • The idea that things happen one after another, each causing the next in line, like a row of dominoes, strikes me as bizarre. Dominoes can fall two ways. So can effects cause causes, turn back the turning points, fold the unfolding.
  • …like life, escaping each now only to arrive in now again, almost unchanged, just a little more out of breath, until the day you are done with breathing. Escaping the now into the now, it’s enough to make you lose faith in last resorts, the closest you ever get is the next-to-last, and the door that keeps on opening to let you in is the same door, maybe it’s a revolving door.

The first quote, about conversation, struck me because I often find myself thinking similarly when I ponder how we talk to animals as if they understand the actual words we are saying instead of probably just inflection, body language, intuition, etc. And not even just humans with animals but humans with other humans. English being the language I’ve spoken my whole life, it is interesting to think about all the other people in the world whose first language is not English. They think in their language, they dream in their language, they LIVE in their language, and if you don’t speak that language than you have a lot of trouble understanding that person. So yes, in the grand scheme of things, we do seem to just be trees rustling.

The second quote, about the dominoes, was harder for me to grasp. The only thing I came up with as an example is how violence can become a cycle. Unjust use of force causing infuriated people to riot which causes more violence that causes more infuriated people to riot, on and on and on.

The last quote brought to mind an interesting question. Obviously, in life, we face hurdle after hurdle in the attempts to live how we want to live, almost like levels we have to pass through. Which made me wonder, could death be the same? Could death also have different layers? Is there ever a final resting place or is life and death more like an infinite staircase – constantly climbing up and then down and then back up again?

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