Thursday, September 24, 2020

Making America Grim Again: Shirley Jackson's Dark Tales (2017)

"Well," he said again.  "Never been summer people before, at the lake after Labor Day."

--"The Summer People" (1950), by Shirley Jackson

Having grown up in a state with a substantial rural white population that often proved profoundly hostile to the liberalizing tendency of the twentieth century (and, seemingly, is now winning out against it here in the twenty-first, by means of the cunning anti-democratic devices embedded in the American Constitution by our ingenious Founders), I have long been fascinated by depictions of rural America by writers of mystery and horror fiction, my two favorite genres.  How did these arty types respond to the American heartland?

Particularly fascinating to me are those writers who themselves came to reside in rural America, like contemporaries Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) and Hugh Wheeler (1912-1987), though they originally came from bigger, more sophisticated places.  The authors were born respectively in San Francisco and London and were significantly "othered" from "traditional" America (Jackson was a "working Mom" married to a Jewish intellectual, while Wheeler was a gay man who had two successive long-term same-sex partnerships); yet they resided for much of their lives about sixty miles apart from each other in small towns in New England, Jackson in Bennington, Vermont, where her collage professor husband taught classes in English literature, and Wheeler in Monterey, Massachusetts.  (Granted, Bennington's then population of about 12,000 makes it seem like a vast metropolis compared to Monterey's 400 odd.)  

Hugh Wheeler always spoke highly of his tranquil home in the Berkshire Mountains, which he said was the once place he could really work, and he spent the majority of the last three decades of his life there, dying in a hospital in the area from a long-term illness in 1987. However, two decades earlier, in his New England Patrick Quentin crime novel The Man in the Net (1956), Wheeler darkly imagined a pastoral New England town like Monterey producing a lynch mob of locals to pursue an innocent man, an artist from New York, over a murder he didn't commit.  

For her part Shirley Jackson became famous in the writing world almost overnight with her shocking little New England village horror story, "The Lottery," one of the best known American short stories ever published; and she also enjoyed great success with her final completed novel, the mystery/horror tale We Have Always Lived in a Castle, which pits a New England town against a couple of eccentric sisters, though the villagers meet more than their match in the form of an adolescent girl nicknamed Merricat.  Most fittingly from my perspective, Hugh Wheeler adapted Castle into a stage play which was performed on Broadway, albeit very briefly, a year after Jackson's death.  He must have seen a connection.

While as a novelist and a short story writer Wheeler never really successfully broke free from crime fiction (it took writing for film and stage to do that), Jackson "transcended" genre, assuming she was ever really confined to it in the first place.  Yet much of her writing falls in the category of psychological horror and some of it has strong elements of mystery and certainly crime.  Jackson was, after all, thrice nominated for Edgar Awards by the Mystery Writers of America, once during her lifetime and twice posthumously, winning once.  Arguably she has been more recognized by the MWA than any other literary body. 

In 2017 Penguin Classics published Dark Tales, a collection of short fiction which culls seventeen tales from Jackson's three posthumous volumes of short stories: Come along with Me (1968), Just an Ordinary Day (1996) and Let Me Tell You (2015).  IIs it a perfect collection of short stories?  Not for me, as some of the stories are mere vignettes and some trail off inconsequentially, yet there are two masterpieces, "The Possibility of Evil" and "The Summer People," bookending the volume, and about seven or so additional stories, in my estimation, which richly reward reading. (It also includes all three of three of Jackson's Edgar nominated tales.)

"The Possibility of Evil" was published in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1965, four months after Jackson's death.  It won the Edgar for best short story the next year, beating out Holly Roth and Charlotte Armstrong and someone named Brian Cleeve, of whom I know nothing.  It's Jackson's classic contribution to the poison pen subgenre, in which a disturbed individual terrorizes a village (it always seems to be a village) by means of anonymous letters making scurrilous accusations against neighbors.

In this case the letter writer is genteel, seventy-one year old Miss Adela Strangeworth, granddaughter of the founder of the town's lumber mill and a longtime cultivator of prized roses.  Miss Strangeworth is very much an insider, yet there are signs she is losing touch with the changing town ("It had been a long time since she had known the name of every child....") and she very much disproves of any change and contamination from the outside world.  "There were so many wicked people in the world and only one Strangeworth left in town," after all.  "Besides, Miss Strangeworth liked writing her letters."  This is a highly sinister "cozy" crime story, with a kicker of a last line.

As a fiction writer Jackson specialized in old women, variously sinister and sympathetic, who are at odds with time.  She also excelled at portraying troubled wives and disturbed young women, in the manner of mid-century domestic suspense crime writers.  In the moving "Louisa, Please Come Home" (1960), Jackson tells of what happens when a nineteen-year-old woman, Louisa Tether, who has successfully run away from home for three years (after having been expelled from college for untold reasons), finally returns home again.  

Much of the story is devoted to detailing the young woman's ingenious devising of her disappearance.  Like Jackson's novel Hangsaman (1951) and her short story "The Missing Girl" (1957), "Louisa" surely was inspired by unsolved 1946 disappearance of Paula Jean Welden, an eighteen-year-old Bennington College sophomore who went out hiking one December day and unaccountably vanished.  The unsolved case, which also inspired Hilary Waugh's landmark police procedural crime novel Last Seen Wearing (1950) and in some ways seems oddly anticipated by Hugh Wheeler's Q. Patrick novel Death and the Maiden (1939), seems to have obsessed Jackson. "Louisa" was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1961, but it lost to John Durham's "Tiger," about which I know nothing.

Paula Jean Welden (1928-?)

Two other great tales in this collection about dissociative young women are "Family Treasures" and "All She Said Was Yes."  The former story, which went unpublished until 2015, was nominated for an Edgar in 2016.  (It lost to Stephen King, who had already won best novel the year before.) 

"Family Treasures" tells the tale of the plunge into petty crime--pilfering--of a rather anonymous college sophomore, Anne Waite, whose mother has recently died, leaving her alone in the world.  Jackson gives us an incisive and sardonic look at college dorm life as well as another balanced portrayal of an unbalanced mind.  

"All She Said Was Yes," which was published in Vogue in 1962, takes us into sci-fi territory in telling about fifteen-year-old Vicky Lanson, whose parents have just been killed in a car accident.  The bearer of this bad news to Vicky is a well-meaning but dense neighbor, a woman of the age of Vicky's mother who narrates the story.  This narrator can tell that Vicky is different from other girls her age, like her own daughter, Dorrie, (distinctly odder), but she proves perilously unable to discern the reason why.  

brides in the bath murderer
George Joseph Smith, 40, with his 
first victim, Beatrice Mundy, 31

Other stories take a dim view of the marital relationship between husbands and wives, in the manner of mid-century mystery writers of "domestic suspense."  In "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith," a new bride's neighbors suspect that she has married a serial murderer, of the "brides-in-the-bath" variety, but they do hate to say anything.  When one of them does speak up, finally, she finds that the bride is oddly laconic about the whole thing.  In "What a Thought" a seemingly contented housewife suddenly imagines, during another cozy evening at home, picking up a heavy glass ashtray and smashing it over her husband's head.  Now that the nasty notion has insinuated its way into her brain it becomes queerly resistant to leaving....

In "Paranoia" it's a husband who finds on his way home that he is being pursued by a man wearing a light hat.  Minor irritation becomes overmastering fear as the man, Halloran Beresford, just tries to get home unaccosted.  Will he make it?  And if he does, what will happen when he gets there?

The last two stories take us to that favored theme of Jackson's which I mentioned at the beginning of the piece: the conflict between rural New Englanders and urban interlopers from New York.  "Home," published in The Ladies' Home Journal in August 1965 around the time of the author's death, seems to be a genuine supernatural story.  Why do the taciturn townspeople seem surprised that supercilious Ethel Sloane, summering at the grand old Sanderson place with her writer husband, Jim, would dare drive to town down the Sanderson Road on a wet and rainy day?  Ethel didn't think the road was that bad, but she sure is getting glances....

This leads us to "The Summer People," published in Charm in 1950, which to my mind is the finest story of disquiet which Jackson ever wrote.  (At least it is after the blunt force trauma of the twist in "The Lottery" dissipates.)  Mr. and Mrs. Allison have been summering at their lake cottage in rural New England for seventeen years.  (He's now sixty and she's fifty-eight.)  This year they decide to stay after Labor Day, feeling that with their children grown there is not all that much in New York to go back to anymore.  This decision is met with, in their understated way, much surprise by the villagers.  None of the "summer people" have ever stayed on past Labor Day, they keep announcing....

This superb story builds with mounting unease to a memorable finish, providing not only fascinating observations on the clash of culture and class, but a poignant meditation on aging which stays with you--though, really, the characters should be ten years older to my mind, our conception of what is aged having changed in the last seventy years.  Jackson herself was only thirty-four when the story was published, making her almost a quarter-century younger than the fictional Mrs. Allison (though Jackson fell far short of her fifty-eighth birthday, tragically dying at the age of forty-nine).  

I'd love to say more about both the summer people and the natives, but, unlike some reviewers, I shall restrain myself.  The darkly discomforting pleasure of reading Shirley Jackson's dark tales should be left to readers alone, as darkness descends upon them.


  1. Jackson is s superb writer. Your review makes me want to read all of her stories again!

  2. "The Summer People" was the first Jackson story I read, having it in Hal Cantor's GHOSTS AND THINGS (a fine anthology, that Berkley reprinted not a few times and shopped it around nearly everywhere for more than a decade) when I was 9yo. One the ways the twig was bent.

    Interesting what this volume leaves out.

    I've barely read Cleeve, a short story or so, and it seems a backfile of (UK) ARGOSY would acquaint me with quite a few more.

    1. I haven't read the three posthumous volumes, but missed from this one “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts.” Maybe it was too humorous!

  3. Probably the best of the stories she placed with THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, despite (like a small but notable number of F&SF stories) it wasn't fantasy nor sf, not fantasticated at all. Nor her one story in long-term "competitor" FANTASTIC. The compiler of JUST AN ORDINARY DAY, while bastardizing the title of "With Peanuts" for the book, seemed most concerned with how little F&SF paid...perhaps this not quite irrelevant (but close) detail has tended to color the perceptions of the stories in the fantasy magazines. You know, the way Highsmith's "The Snail Watcher" is (or must be, under this sort of "logic") Clearly inferior to "The Quest for Blank Claveringi" because the first was first in GAMMA and the second in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.

    1. I just got a copy of the issue and it has "with Peanuts" in the title? I hadn't recalled, but should have, that Anthony Boucher was the editor of FSF. Were there three stories by her published there? I have never read "Bulletin."

    2. Yes, "One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts" is a much better title than JUST AN ORDINARY DAY being what I'm getting at. Boucher was the co-founder of F&SF with J. Francis McComas, with whom he also edited, briefly, TRUE CRIME DETECTIVE magazine for Mercury Press, as well...the same folks who published THE AMERICAN MERCURY, ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, MERCURY MYSTERY, BESTSELLER MYSTERY, and a slew of other magazines, before the the last vestige of the company disappeared when Gordon Van Gelder bought F&SF, their last magazine, from Edward Ferman. "The Missing Girl" was the third and last story she placed with F&SF..."Root of Evil" was in FANTASTIC (founding editor, Howard Browne, crime fiction writer in prose and for the screen).

    3. I'm going to be writing about The Missing Girl sometime. Yeah "with Peanuts" is a great hook. I first read it in a slim standalone hardcover volume about a decade ago.

    4. Yeah, I knew Boucher loved sci-fi as well as mystery, like Edmund Crispin.