What do you do when you’re well into your fourth month of lockdown, your country had just held presidential election won by minuscule majority by a homophobic nationalist, the country you live in is run by a man who blatantly admits that decisions to reopen the economy are made against scientific advice by ‘elected politicians’ and thinks that’s fine? Oh, and you just read a series of non-fiction books tackling poverty, social injustice, neoliberalism, climate change, and violent misogyny? The short answer is you look for something offering escape.
Now, why would I turn to Shirley Jackson for the escape, you may ask. Well because I know despite the darkness of her writing she will take me away from the reality I cannot bear anymore. She will spirit me away to the haunted house full of paranoid people, planning violent crimes. And it will be great! Because none of it will be real.
How low have we fallen if Shirley Jackson’s stories seem to offer a cheerful, pleasant escape? Or maybe the question is how much further can we fall? I don’t know, I don’t have the strength to care anymore, at least for a while. So thank you dear Shirley Jackson for offering me an alternative reality that feels cozy, despite all the ghosts and vicious, scary people that populate the pages.
Dark Tales is a lovely collection of seventeen of Jackson’s short stories. As it happens with short stories collections they are not all equal, some literally knocked me off my feet, while others were just a nice read. But none of them is bad and it certainly is worth reading for those few amazing gems that it’s hiding. Since many of the stories were published earlier, you may have read them elsewhere. But reading this book has been for me like going through a treasure chest full of little gems of creepy evil. It was such joy! Almost like rewatching The Addams Family and wanting to become like Wednesday.
The Possibility of Evil opens the book and does it in style. In the eleven pages, it packs two major twists beautifully executed within a single sentence, both chilling to the bone. It’s almost like Jackson wrote those two sentences first as her axis and spun the story around them. It’s a fascinating tale, but also the execution here could not be more assured. Jackson really shows us what she’s capable of, without arrogance or showing off, it’s really just light touch, two sentences, that’s all it takes. She really makes it look easy.
Louisa, Please Come Home is chilling in a completely different way. The narrator’s dispassionate voice adds a weird distance to the whole story. And when you think of it it makes you wonder how come such things don’t happen more often? Or maybe they do, they’re just not newsworthy.
I don’t want to write about all the stories. But what comes across clearly is Jackson’s versatility. She can spin any number of haunted house stories, and we have a few here. I still admire how she makes them all different, how the dread always comes from somewhere we weren’t looking. But she also writes a story like Jack the Ripper, which is very tender, tragic in how society’s indifference leads to tragedy, there’s nothing supernatural in it, just people too busy to care about anyone else.
We then have a few stories about wives. They all throw fascinating light on Jackson’s take on marriage. One of the wives secretly harbors a dream of murdering her beloved husband, another married a known wife-murderer, yet another happily accepts a stranger impostor in her house to replace a clearly abusive husband. All that in the time when women were really not expected by society to have any agency, they were supposed to quietly smile and care about their daily, while the men made money. Jackson gives us a glimpse of the undercurrent here. We may smile, and we may cook, and we may be pleasant and quiet, but really deep down we keep our independent selves, even if we’re forced to hide them.
Another trope is city people moving to the country. Which I suspect may also be rooted in Jackson’s own experience. The invading strangers, trying to become one of the country folk. Desperately trying to fit in and yet offending everyone with everything they do. And on the other side the close-knit tight communities who really don’t want those strangers invading their way of life. It makes for a beautiful tension in which to develop a scary tale.
It was a fantastic escape. Also, you may say that Jackson occupies herself with scary tales. But what she also does in an amazing way is to observe society. Read separately those stories may just be scary tales, but together they talk about so much more. The themes that run through many of them are developed under her watchful gaze, to a point when we realize it’s not really the ghosts we should be afraid of but our neighbors and the person sleeping next to us. I’m so happy I read this! It gave me the much-needed escape.