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Dark Tales (Part One) | Reading Shirley Jackson

After another reread, I’m bringing forth my thoughts on each of Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales. These rapid fire reviews are split up into two parts: the first eight stories are featured here, and the final nine will be in the second post. I hope you enjoy, and also look forward to hearing your thoughts on any of these stories, or Shirley Jackson’s storytelling, in the comments below.


 

SYNOPSIS

For the first time in one volume, a collection of Shirley Jackson’s Scariest stories, with a foreward by PEN/Hemingway Award winner Ottessa Moshfegh.

After her short story “The Lottery” was published in The New Yorker in 1948, Shirley Jackson quickly established a reputation as a master storyteller of horror. This collection of classic and newly reprinted stories provides readers with more of her unsettling tales, including “The Possibility of Evil” and “The Summer People.” In these deliciously dark stories, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide-and-seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts, and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the crumbling country pile, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods. There’s something sinister in suburbia. 

DISCUSSION

My favorite questions that Shirley Jackson imposes are: what is real? and which characters can be trusted? And even after a few rereads, the answers are still quite vague. Apart from the storytelling techniques, I think that’s what keeps me coming back.

The Possibility of Evil

Like many (if not most) of Shirley Jackson’s stories, this one is deliciously surprising and disconcerting. Miss Strangeworth is the last member of a historic family in her small town, and she has been writing letters to other citizens warning them of the evils of the world. Well, in reality, she is starting rumors and planting terrible ideas into the minds of her neighbors – anonymously through the mail. This is not a scary story, but one that makes the reader uncomfortable as pressure mounts to the moment when she is exposed as the letter-writer; a moment that arrives with a satisfying consequence.

…as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to it.

Louisa, Please Come Home

Another not-so-scary story, and it’s not entirely unsettling (although maybe that says more about me than anything). Louisa reflects on the day she ran away, and how she was lucky enough to establish herself with housing and a job almost immediately. On the one year anniversary of her “missing” date, she hears her mother on the radio pleading for her to return home. When a childhood companion finds her in her new city, she does in fact return home, but does not receive the welcome that her companion hopes for – and while it is shocking to think that your family would not recognize you, this story doesn’t really end unhappily. This is thanks to Louisa’s narration; she wants her new life and is happy to be “missing.” This type of story may have been more shocking within the context of its time period – the story was first published in 1960 – when the idea of a nuclear family reigned. Or, again, my impression of it may just be saying something about myself.

They decided that the college business was the reason for my running away, but if that had been all, I don’t think I would have left. No, I had been wanting to leave for so long, ever since I can remember, making plans till I was sure they were foolproof, and that’s the way they turned out to be.

Paranoia

The best way to describe this story – a statement backed up by common results of a quick Google search – is that it feels like a blueprint to many episodes of The Twilight Zone. The premise is very ordinary: a man makes his way home through the city on his wife’s birthday. But strange encounters with the man in the light hat and others makes Mr. Beresford (and the reader) quite uneasy. Even up to the final moment when Mr. Beresford makes it home to his wife is rife with spooky uncertainty. The story is skin-crawling genius.

The man in the light hat was on the corner ahead, waiting. Mr. Beresford hesitated in his walk and then thought, It’s preposterous, all these people watching.

The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith

An anticipatory mood is set right from the beginning. Mrs. Smith and her husband are the topic of gossip and hushed conversations in town, and Shirley Jackson is once again intentionally vague as to why people seem to be avoiding the Smiths. However, it becomes clear that Mrs. Smith is quite aware of their morbid curiosity pertaining to her situation with Mr. Smith. The reader is given the information when a neighbor, Mrs. Jones, intrudes on Mrs. Smith in her apartment and tries to warn her and suss out information, all in a scolding, invasive manner. Everyone — including Mrs. Smith — is aware of Mr. Smith’s identity, and it’s as if each character is holding their breath waiting for the pin to drop out in the open. When Mrs. Smith finally rids herself of Mrs. Jones’ company and sits alone in her apartment, the reader is privy to her thoughts on how her patterned, structured life has led her to this point. And while there is an uncertain feeling about whether or not Mr. Smith will come home, he indeed does. Shirley Jackson again does not wrap up this story with a fleshed out ending; rather, the clues the reader has been given all along create speculation about what will happen next. In turn, making the reader another morbidly curious audience member to the relationship of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Some of this Mrs. Smith realized dimly as she walked back to her apartment with the bag of groceries. She, at least, was almost not in doubt; she had known almost certainly that the dreadful fact was true for three weeks and six days, since she had met it face to face on a bench facing the ocean.

The Story We Used to Tell

At its simplest, this is a haunting story featuring a cursed object. And quite honestly, it does not get much more complicated. The timeline is quick and linear, and details like an old mansion, a lone painting in a bedroom, and recollections of deceased loved ones set an appropriately ominous tone that lasts right to the end. What is a bit unexpected during a first read through is the very end, when our two main characters don’t seem to escape their artistic confinement, but rather, continue the curse that brought them there. Unexpected, unless the reader recalls the first few lines of the story.

This is the story that Y and I used to tell, used to tell in the quiet of the night, and the moonlight would come, moving forward, moving close; used to whisper to each other in the night…

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Excuse my shift to first person (which I typically prefer to avoid in analyses like this), as I say that this tale puzzles me. There is definitely a mysterious air throughout the entire tale, but what sets this one apart are the specific references to literature at the beginning. There is Silas MarnerAfternoon of a Faun, and of course, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. This third reference appears a few more times, in addition to also being the title, which leads me to believe it has more significance. This poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is quite infamous, but I can hardly stretch an interpretation of Shirley Jackson’s story that relates to it. However, perhaps that is looking too closely; all three named references feature themes of social constructs and individual behaviors, as well as somewhat tragic or uncomfortable-in-context events (according to my quick foray into analyses of the three texts; I’ve read The Sorcerer’s Apprentice before, but not the other two referenced works). All themes that are present in the life of Miss Matt, Shirley Jackson’s character. This tale really just presents more questions than anything for me — while I think it is an interesting story, I believe it requires more complex interpretive attention than many of other Shirley Jackson’s works.

Sometimes, when it had been a hard day at school and the future looked unusually dark, Miss Matt would permit herself to cry luxuriously for half an hour; afterward she would wash her face, and dress and go out to some nice restaurant for dinner.

Jack the Ripper

This is Shirley Jackson’s way of adding to the mystery and folkloric catalogue surrounding the very real London serial killer. It’s horrifyingly poetic and breathtaking, the way a seemingly concerned man takes a drunk, sleeping woman (who has a reputation for sleeping on the streets) to her home after finding the address in her pocketbook. The reader is meant to assume he kills her once he gets her home without incident — the knife description is quite stark — and then the mild shock that this man has a home life, to which he returns. At least he is thoughtful enough to take a bath before getting into bed with his wife.

Reaching into his pocket, he found the picture of the girl with the two sailors and thought for a minute; then he went to his wife’s dressing table, and with her plastic-handled nail scissors cut the two sailors out of the picture, leaving the girl alone. This fragment of picture he put into the lower corner of the frame holding his wife’s picture. He lighted a cigarette and stood looking at it.

The Beautiful Stranger

While this story has elements of mystery and peculiarity, it ultimately becomes one of deep sadness. It’s a ghost story in a way, as a widow (who we do not know is a widow at the beginning) goes through a stage of grief in which her husband is present, but as a stranger who does not know their history but provides her with the sweetest, most joyful parts of partnership. At least, that is how I interpret it. Many of the analyses I’ve found online talk about the stranger as sort of a projection from the woman, a way for her to see her husband in a new light than the one before he left for a work trip (they had fought before he left). To me, this story feels full of mourning: for a husband and the ideal life she had hoped for. Particularly the ending, when she comes home after a day away by herself, and she does not recognize her house or the endless rows of houses.

The evening was very dark, and she could see only the houses going in rows, with more rows beyond them and more rows beyond that, and somewhere a house which was hers, with the beautiful stranger inside, and she lost out here.


That concludes Part One. Part Two is coming soon. 

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