Friday, September 28, 2018

Dark Tales, by Shirley Jackson

I've read loads since completing Space Odyssey - chapters of various mates' works in progress and all sorts of material for work, including a sizeable chunk of Amelia Edwards' 1878 travelogue, A Thousand Miles Up The Nile. Then there's Shirley Jackson.

Dark Tales is a collection of seventeen short stories by a writer who really ought to be a household name. One is a ghost story, one involves psychic abilities, one involves a painting that's like something out of MR James. But the rest are unsettling stories of very human monsters, the tyranny of ordinary snobbery, pettiness and meaness, of social conventions and small communities. They all take place in the modern day, in settings busy with people getting on with everyday life. The best of them are at their most disturbing because they're psychologically real. Women are usually central.

"The Good Wife" is about a jealous husband who incarcerates his wife. The twist ending reveals that the husband is more monstrous than first supposed, but what lingers is the awful detail of the wife's gradual acquiesence - having clearly tried to resist him to no effect, she now presents nothing but sweetness in the vain hope he will relent. In "The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith", a young bride accepts her imminent murder rather than make a fuss. In "Home", a woman learns better than to speak of the ghostly experience that almost killed her. The horror is not only of passivity, but of the ways these women are rendered passive.

In the brilliant "The Possibility of Evil", a respectable old lady notes the strains affecting her neighbours, before we discover that she's been sending them all anonymous, poisonous letters. Yet there's real tension when this malicious creature unwittingly risks being exposed. Jackson has deftly make us sympathise with the monster.

I'm keen to know more about Jackson and what shaped her extraordinary vision. It's surely no coincidence that her first story, "The Lottery" (not included in this anthology) was first published in 1948, in a post-war world lacking moral certainties - though some readers felt strongly otherwise, and she received death threats in response. I feel something noirish, something Hitchcock, in her stories, something haunted by the Holocaust and the Bomb, something deeply ill at ease with "ordinary" life.

It all feels so very contemporary, but not overtly political. In the final story in the collection, "The Summer People", there's mention of degeneration and inbreeding (p. 183), but the story is about the growing anxiety of an old couple when the local shops are out of groceries and oil. It's so relatable, the horror is horribly real.

I'm keen to see the new film version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle once I've reread Jackson's novel and adore the 1963 film The Haunting (based on The Haunting of Hill House), which first got me reading her stuff in my teens. I've also got a biography of Jackson - so more of this to come.

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