Before and Afterlives and The Shirley Jackson Award

In all the hustle and bustle that lead up to the release of “Jamie Marks is Dead” I failed to report a fantastic bit of news that occurred in mid-July. As I’d mentioned in an earlier post back in May, my short story collection Before and Afterlives had been nominated for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award in the category of Best Single-Author Collection. In July it was announced that I had won the award. In fact, there were two winners: my collection and Nathan Ballingrud’s amazing collection, North American Lake Monsters.

I could not be happier to have this collection–something of a retrospective of the best of my short stories from the first decade of my life as a publishing writer–recognized with this award. Shirley Jackson’s work has been an enormous influence on me since I was a teenager assigned to read “The Lottery” in a high school English class, like so many of us from a certain generation were. Her small town spooks and just-on-the-edge-of-surreal thrills spoke to me on so many levels. To have my collection of stories recognized in her name is really, as they say, a dream (or perhaps in Shirley’s case), a nightmare come true.

I’d like to thank Steve Berman, my publisher at Lethe Press, for believing in my stories and for bringing this collection out into the world. I’d also like to thank Alex Jeffers for the gorgeous interior design, and Steven Andrew, who designed the cover, which I still look at from time to time and think, Damn, that cover is unbelievably fantastic.

Thanks, too, to the many editors of the magazines and anthologies that first published the stories individually.

Here’s a photo of the book and the award itself.

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James Sallis reviews Before and Afterlives

Something really amazing came in this week: a review of my collection by James Sallis, in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

When I say it’s something amazing, I mean it. Because, man, I have never read a review that was written so eloquently and with its own poetic energy to it like this one.

And on top of that, it’s a great review of my collection, bookended with reviews of Kij Johnson’s latest collection and George Saunders’. Great company to be in!

In any case, I received permission from the publisher to show a decent chunk of the review here on my blog. I’m still bright-eyed from reading a review like this, by someone who reads really closely. This excerpt is the main body of the review for my book, but there are other bits in the whole review, which I’ll link to once it goes up on the magazine’s website:

Boxes, black or not, come in every imaginable size and shape. And there’s that word again. Imaginable. Imagination. Image.

     “Lying here in this abandoned hotel, I have done it once again. Once every year or so, depending on my finances, I allow myself to die. […] Now comes the burning sensation of re-entry, a tingling sensation that grows to feel like fire. As I find myself returning to my body, every cell expands, flooding with electricity. […] I gasp for a first breath, then howl like a newborn. After this I can see the people who killed me hovering over my body, their oval faces peering down, curious, amazed.”

“A Resurrection Artist” is a story that wears its subtext like a second skin just beneath the first, something that might be said of many of the stories collected here in Before and Afterlives. Are they about haunted houses, the death of a classmate one hardly knew, a world in which mermaids wash up so regularly on the beach that the police have clear procedures to deal with them? Yes. But for all their high fantasy and somber tones, the stories speak clearly and directly about straightforward things — verities, daily struggles, and choices. Like going on.

     And they move, forever restless, forever reaching.

     He has a taste for blurriness, Christopher Barzak has said in interviews, for stories that change shape as you read them, for writing fiction that skates around various genres, sometimes going straight through their territories, other times just around the edges, and oftentimes starting out in one kind of story and ending up in another.

     “What We Know About the Lost Families of — House,” the social history of a haunted house, abounds with the stories of those who inhabited it and with finely wrought sentences such as “And Jonas’s father, the gun cracking his life open like a pocket watch, to let all of the time spill out of him.”

     Much as Kij Johnson’s “Fox Magic” led to her novel The Fox Woman, Barzak’s “Dead Boy Found” later grew up to become his novel One for Sorrow. Part coming-of-age story, part the portrait of a dissolving family, part ghost story, it recreates for us the far-reaching effect of a boy’s murder on a fifteen year-old classmate barely managing to hold himself together, tugged this way then that, in the flash and tamped-down fury he sees about him.

     Another begins, “There was once a boy who was born wrapped in barbed wire. The defect was noticed immediately after his birth, when the doctor had to snip the boy’s umbilical cord with wire cutters.”

     Like Kij Johnson’s, Christopher Barzak’s stories do not take the shapes we anticipate; they continuously mutate, changing as our eyes move down the page, as language doubles back to catch its breath, as a comma pauses to hook its tail into a sentence. And dense as they are — “Dead Boy Found” spins from a domestic argument to the mother’s paralysis in an auto accident, to discovery of the murdered child, to the haunting of the girl who found the body, to Adam’s own unsettling encounter with dead Jamie, then flashes forward to what his life will be — the stories unfold easily, nary a bump in the road.

     Determined that something undeniable and nontrivial will happen to the reader.