My Rating: 4 stars Read: 2/4 2017
- My Lifetime Challenge (1968)
- My Horror Challenge
I’m doing a lifetime book challenge where you read one book from each year since you were born. I chose this book for 1968 because I wanted to include a Shirley Jackson and the rest of her books were published before I was born. This collection was released posthumously. As for her previously work, I can highly recommend “The Haunting of Hill House”, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, and “The Lottery and Other Stories”.
This volume is a mishmash collection including some lectures/essays, a partially finished novel, and various short stories. Reviews of each after the break.
Come Along With Me — This is part of a novel that Ms. Jackson was working on when she died (at the way too young age of 48). It’s about 4 chapters or so. It’s interesting and I was just really getting into it when it abruptly ended. In the story, a woman has moved to a strange town after her husband died, and her internal voice is a little crazy. It’s unclear why she decided to move and change her name, but she claims to be a psychic and holds one seance just before the book ends. I would love to know where the author intended to go with this story, if the woman really saw ghosts or just thought she did. As it is, it’s a bit frustrating.
My favorite stories:
The Beautiful Stranger – 5 stars
It seems to me I read this long ago. Wonderful example of Shirley Jackson’s understated suburban horror/squirmyness. A woman is sure her husband is a stranger when he comes home from a trip.
The Summer People – 5 stars
Probably the most outright horror story in the book. The story ends before the worst happens, but it’s the slow built up that is so creepy. Fantastic!
Louisa, Please Come Home — 4 stars
A young woman deliberately vanishes from her family and home, moving away under a new identity and building a new life. We never learn why she felt compelled to do this–there was no abuse or reason, it was simply a compulsion perhaps. There’s not a big scary ending, it’s more a subtle tale on identity and the slippery nature thereof.
The Bus — 4 stars
This is the last short story in the volume and echoes the “lost from home” theme in many of the others. An older woman is trying to get home on a bus and falls asleep. The driver wakes her and puts her out at “her stop”, but after the bus leaves she realizes she’s in the middle of nowhere. She is picked up by a truck and taken to an old house which is a converted road house, but it reminds her of the home she grew up in. The story is creepy throughout and the ending was a little more concrete than others. At least I thought I understood what was going on!
Biography of a Story & The Lottery — 5 stars
The Biography of a Story is an essay by Jackson on the reception “The Lottery” received, including excerpts from many letters she got from the reading public. In short, everyone hated the story and some were outraged and angry and others tried to figure out the story’s meaning. As a writer myself, I found this fascinating to read. “The Lottery” is included, and since it’s been years since I read it, I enjoyed experiencing it again. Definitely hard-core creepy and quite relevant today. Deservedly considered a masterpiece.
Janice — Super short, basically dialog. Not much meat. 2 stars.
Tootie in Peonage — This is a very odd story that seemed to be about racism? Or it was racist? It’s about a lazy servant and the family that can’t get rid of her. 1 star.
A Cauliflower in Her Hair – Also very short – a young girl has a friend over for dinner and her dad likes her a little too much. Vaguely creepy. 3 stars.
I Know Who I Love – 2 stars. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Sort of an odd and sad little character study.
Island – 3 stars. Another sad slice of life / character study about an old lady and her companion. Nothing much happens but it’s got a nice melancholia. I liked the imagery of what was going on in the old lady’s head.
A Visit – 3 stars. A young girl is spending the summer with a school friend in a huge and fantastic old house. Or is she? There’s lots of reflections and repeated images of the house and an old aunt in a tower. I confess, I’m not sure the meaning of this. Is the girl dead? I would have liked more hints.
The Rock – 3 stars. Another bleak and lonely setting, this time a rocky island with a mysterious old man. Is he a ghost? Is he death? Once more the story is creepy and unsettling, but I wasn’t sure what it meant precisely.
A Day in the Jungle – 3 stars. This is another story of a woman who runs away from her home and husband and attempts to take on a new identity in a nearby town. We never understand why she left her husband, though she seems a little unhinged initially and becomes very much so at the end. By the time she meets up with her husband, she’s relieved because she’s become so afraid of everything and he’s a safe harbor. So many of Jackson’s heroine are just not quite right in the head that a vague/dreamy way.
Pajama Party– 2 stars. This isn’t horror and reads more like one of Ms. Jackson’s cute family stories. A family is having a slumber party for their daughter’s birthday. Sort of amusing, I suppose, but not my thing.
This Little House – 3 stars. A young woman inherits her aunt’s house after her death and meets some rather insidious neighbors. This was enjoyable but very short and uneventful.
So many of these stories are about women escaping their suburban/domestic prisons only to realize that running away to a new life doesn’t save them. There’s a consistent theme of the rubbery nature of identity, with one “fake” spouse and other escapees changing their name and trying to vanish. In one case, when an escapee tries to go back to her original reality, she is no longer recognized and everyone thinks she’s an imposter. I’m not sure why this theme of escape and identity seemed to haunt Ms. Jackson to the extent that she wrote it over and over again. I know she was married to a literary critic and professor and had four children. Did part of her long for escape from her role as housewife? I can completely understand that, if so.
There’s also a subtle edge of insanity in many of her characters. When we’re in their heads, their narration is just left of center, which instills that creepy vibe. Many of these characters reminded me of Nell in “The Haunting of Hill House”, who was definitely whacked.
The other thing I noticed was that all over her stories have a creepy overtone but few have any kind of real “end” in the end. Often there is very little action either, more of a slice of life and internal dialog. I suppose this is inherent in the short story form, to some extent, since the stories are too short to have much of a plot. Most of the stories are left off vaguely so that you wonder if you understood the story at all, or if it was an allegory or what. In many cases this isn’t satisfying to me–I tend to be a more literal reader and I want something to happen.That may be why I prefer her novels, and, in the case of this collection, I liked best the stories that had at least some plot movement.
Having said that, I find that not showing the horror play out works brilliantly in “The Lottery” and “The Summer People”. In those stories, it’s clear at the end what’s about to happen, and there’s some plot movement, but you don’t see the gory details. I think leaving the monster to the imagination is highly effective.
One more note: In the included essay “Notes for a Young Writer”, Jackson writes “Do not try to puzzle your reader unnecessarily; a puzzled reader is an antagonistic reader.” This made me smile because I found a number of the stories in this volume puzzling and not very clear, and that seems to be their charm.
Overall rating – 4 stars