Well, my second Jackson in as many weeks and I can tell you I am seriously getting addicted to this writer. Constance and Mary Katherine (Merricat) live alone with their Uncle Julian in the family home. Their family was poisoned by arsenic in the sugar bowl, and since Constance's aquittal of their murders, the diminished family have been shunned by the nearby village. Constance is agoraphobic and Julian is, at best I can say, suffering early onset dementia - or is he just eccentric? So it is up to the young 18 year old, Merricat, to venture into the village twice a week to buy supplies for her family. The community poke fun at Merricat and her family. Children's rhymes are made up about them figuring them as the 'bogeyman'. Parents tell their children to be good or that Constance will get them with her sugar. Only a few 'good' villagers deign to visit the family, and really they are just looky-loos.
It's is hard to categorize this novel - is it horror? Is it a mystery? Or is it just good plain Gothic fun? I'm with the latter. But what is certain is that Merricat is a wonderful character. She is wilful, loving, compassionate and extremely odd to say the least. The envelope of protection she weaves around her family is literally spellbinding and you just never really know what is going on in her mind. I loved her. I loved this book - it's a perfect read with a perfect ending.
Continuing my Jackson binge for the latter part of this year, yesterday I finished this short story collection which is introduced by the wonderful A M Homes. Fans of Homes, Carver and Hempel will really need to seek out this book and treat themselves. Nearly every story is a lesson in how to write the short story and I enjoyed almost all of them. The ones I didn't, I just wasn't quite sure about and I am sure that I need to reread these at some point.
Each story focuses on the theme of displacement; new people in old areas, new comers to new areas, people out of their comfort zones, people set aside for isolation from the rest of the community. So each makes for a very unsettling read. There are 25 stories in this collection, and they steadily get darker as you progress, culminating with the infamous story, The Lottery, possibly the archetypal, terrifying short story that was sensationalized in 1948.
The Lottery is a terrifying read. It is extremely well-paced in creating suspense without ever really letting you know what is going to happen. I really don't want to summarise the plot at all, I don't want to spoil it for you.
A couple of my favourites in the collection:
The Witch - a mother and her young son take a long bus journey to a new place, and a strange man says some terrifying things to the young boy. Chilling but darkly amusing. It captured the nonplussed child and the desire in an adult to tell scare stories to young children very well.
Of Course - A new family moves in next door, and the young wife gets talking to her the next-door neighbour. From the existing neighbour's point of view, the young wife complains about her old neighbours but in fact it is her that is the source of the difficulties. All the neighbour can say is "of course". It ends wonderfully too - which obviously I won't give away.
And the best of the collection, for me, Flower Garden - A young woman and her son move into a cottage that has lain empty for many years. She becomes friendly with the older lady up the road and the other villagers. She employs a local black man and his young son to work in her garden and make it beautiful, but as the villagers turn on her for doing so, the garden begins to die. Very sad but wonderfully written tale.
If Shirley Jackson wrote menus, I would buy them. Highly recommended.
Come Along With Me is a collection of Shirley Jackson's short stories, an unfinished novel (written just at the time of her death in 1965) and 3 lectures that she delivered in her last few years. Only the short story, The Lottery, have I read before in another collection I have of hers.
Out of the books that I have read of Jackson's, I would have to say that this collection is possibly the most disturbing, each story leaving me with a chill as I finished. Overall, the collection features stories (14) that mostly focus on alternative realities for the protagonists - dreams of fantasy lives, desires for lives other than the ones handed out, desires to be someone else - and somehow each is thwarted in its own way.
It is very difficult to discuss her tales as the denouement of the stories are 80% of the success of them. Jackson is highly skilled at tying up a tale, weaving it just right to sucker punch you. You know from the outset that what is about to unfold isn't a 'normal' story - take a look at some of her opening sentences -
"I always believe in eating when I can."
"What might be called the first intimation of strangeness occurred at the railroad station."
"The house in itself was, even before anything had happened there, as lovely a thing as she had ever seen."
"It was planned by Jannie herself."
""Louisa", my mother's voice came over the radio; it frightened me badly for a minute."
"I'll have to get some decent lights, was her first thought, and her second: and a dog or something, or at least a bird, anything alive."
However, particular favourites in this collection were -
The Visit - Margaret, a school girl, college age maybe, goes home to her friend Carla's house for the summer. The house is a splendid, sprawling mansion, lavishly decorated. In each room are grand tapestries, mostly all of the house itself, created by Carla's mother and grandmother. Ornaments around the home are highly reflective, all reflecting back the image of the house itself. Margaret is shown round the house but never to the tower. (I was imagining a Bluebeard type storyline by now). Paul returns home, Carla's brother, and causes a tremor to ripple through this harmonious mansion. Margaret eventually makes it up to the tower. And the cracks in this palatial idyll begin to show...
The Bus - Old Miss Harper is travelling on the night bus, and she is put off in Ricket's Landing, which isn't her stop. She meets two young giggling men in a truck who take her to 'the old lady's' which turns out to be a saloon attached to a grand house. A house which Miss Harper recognizes from her childhood. Everything is off kilter - and while this tale has a cliched ending (maybe not so in 1965 when it was written), it is still very unsettling.
Lousia, Please Come Home - Lousia, at 19 and on the eve of her sister's wedding decides to run away from home. She plans it meticuously and nothign goes wrong. In fact, 5 years later, she is living happily under an assumed name, has a job and in fact has made quite a happy life for herself. Contrast that with that of her parents, who believe she was kidnapped, abucted, or killed and each year make tearful pleas on the TV for her return. Then, Paul, an old neighbourhood friend, spots her and demands that she come home.
In her essays, Jackson attends to the craft of writing itself. Mostly answering that eternal question "where do your ideas come from?". In The Night We All Had Grippe, she relates the true tale when her entire family were ill and hopped in and out of each other's beds all night. A far cry from her usual unsettling tales, this is a funny, well-observed piece that will be familiar to families. The punchline of the story is typically understated but affecting.
Fans of The Lottery, her most infamous short story which is included in this collection, get a little treat by way of her explanation of how the story came into being and reception in Biography Of A Story. She generously shares with us some of the emails, letters and comments she received after it was published. It's mind-boggling that so many people either believed it was real, based on a real ritual - someone even thought it was an old or rural English custom - or they thought she was Satan incarnate for writing such a horrific story. Jackson, constantly reiterates "it's just a story...I made it up...".
What I like most about Jackson's writing is that she can create mood, atmosphere, ambience just by using the simplest of language. No fancy purple prose or experimental clap-trap - just good tales, told simply, but told well. Real fire-side stuff. In Notes For A Young Writer, her last essay, written for her aspiring writer daugher, she shares her authorly wisdom. Some of my favourite quotes -
"if your heroine's hair is golden, call it yellow"
"A bore is a bore, on the page or off it"
"conversations start in the middle unless (your characters) have a very good reason for their telling each other good morning and how are you?"
"All remarks can be said"
"not every object needs a qualifying adjective...your reader probably has a perfectly serviceable mental picture of a lion"
"Exclamation marks, italics, capitals, and most particularly, dialect should all be used with extreme caution. Consider them as garlic and use accordingly"
"a puzzled reader is an antagonistic reader"
"if you keep your story tight, with no swerving from the proper path, you will find it will curl up quite naturally at the end"
I cannot recommend this collection highly enough. If you are a fan of short stories and often find that collections have maybe one or two good tales, but not worth keeping the book for re-reading, then this is the collection for you. Every tale needs a pause before going on to the next, and the characters within will haunt you as do their fates. Definitely a collection to return to time and time again.
This is a collection of Jackson's unpublished/rarely published short stories that were discovered and hunted down by her son and daughter after her death. As there is quite a lot of stories in this book, I decided to open the thread now and add my thoughts per story if the notion strikes. 'Cause I am too lazy to go back once finished.