Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales – strange loops and the suburban gothic

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There are worse things in the world, but still I do get riled at the rise of trick-or-treating in the UK. It’s partly the arrant commercialism of the event. I hate the fact that supermarkets cashing in twice over, with the rinky-dink witch and zombie costumes shelved right next to the bags of orange and black themed candy. The now-extinguished penny-for-the-guy, by comparison, offered a simpler, less costly and more direct transaction between kids and adults: handfuls of loose change given in tribute, for the stuffing of old clothes and tights with balled up newspaper.

But it’s also the way that trick-or-treating leaches any real sense of fear from the traditions of Halloween – for the kids at least. They aren’t scared; they’re just in it for sweets. If anyone’s spooked by trick-or-treating it’s the parents, so fearful of the idea of their children wandering around at night that they insist on chaperoning them. You have to hope their kids don’t catch sight of mum or dad’s face, a rictus of stranger-danger hypervigilance and forced jollity. That would give them a shock.

I’ve never taken my kids trick or treating, like the dull dad they insist I am. One Halloween, though, I did take them to the local cemetery to hang out. It didn’t work. London suburbs: far too much ambient light. I’d like to think that the country graveyard on the edge of the village where I grew up would have been a different matter, with its wonky headstones and moonlight-blocking yew trees.

When I think of trick-or-tweeting, I think of E.T., with its mass takeover of the streets by children, producing something like the benign anarchism of a May Day carnival or Saturnalia. There is freedom here, it’s true, but no fear of the dark, no sense of the dead hovering just out of sight, needing to be appeased.

Does this antipathy translate into a bias against US horror and gothic writing? Is this why I’ve never really read Shirley Jackson, beyond her classic story ‘The Lottery’, which is apparently the one story all US schoolchildren will have read by the time they reach eighth grade? Well, perhaps – but then I don’t really read gothic and horror as a genre. (The only book I can think of that gave me sleepless nights is Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.) A reader of literary fiction, i.e. prose tragedy, I suppose I prefer despair to fear. The world is quite bad enough without ghouls and ghosties.

So it is only right and just that I give my full attention to Jackson’s work, in this new selection of short stories – although quite what decisions lie behind the selection is unclear, as two of the three collections they are taken from are already available in Penguin Modern Classics. And, presumably, all of her tales are ‘dark’ – aren’t they?

There are some stories here that enter into what I would call familiar gothic territory – the intrusion of the supernatural into human affairs, and the all-too-willing reconfiguration of the supposedly dependable material world to accommodate it: ghosts, haunted houses, unthinkable fates – but many of them stick closer to the suburban world of E.T., albeit tilted or shaken up, so you can see the dark truth below the surface fiction. These are the stories that might have inspired Hitchcock, or become episodes of Tales of the Unexpected, and one of the best of them is ‘What a Thought’, which gives Penguin’s hardback its back cover quote:

She knew that if she asked her husband to take her to a movie, or out for a ride, or to play gin rummy, he would smile at her and agree; he was always willing to do things to please her, still, after ten years of marriage. An odd thought crossed her mind: she would pick up the heavy glass ashtray and smash her husband over the head with it.

It’s the shortest story in the collection, and plays on the chilling but I assume (I hope) common idea that the most awful of thoughts can slip in and make themselves at home among our ordinary day-to-day ruminations. Who hasn’t thought – not that they will actually kill someone, or step off the pavement in front of that bus, but that they could. And if you can have that – entirely harmless – thought without even meaning to, then who’s to say you can’t have the other?

There is a wonderful inversion to this dull-but-happy marriage scenario in ‘The Beautiful Stranger’, which has a housewife meeting her husband at the train station after a business trip, only to realise with a shock, once they’re home, that he is not actually her husband. And, with another shock, that he knows she knows it. And, further, that this is a good thing. It’s a brilliant take on a common theme, the doppelganger or succubus who has somehow taken over a loved one. Here, however, the uncanniness comes from the woman’s ready acceptance of the stranger into her life. What seems to us like at best transgression, at worst terrible risk, seems straightforward to her. (It is suggested that her real husband was actually not that nice, but that doesn’t make the ‘good’ version of him any less scary.)

For the rest of the day she was happy. There was a constant delight in the relief from her weight of fear and unhappiness, it was pure joy to know that there was no longer any residue of suspicion and hatred; when she called him ‘John’ she did so demurely, knowing that he participated in her secret amusement; when he answered her civilly there was, she thought, an edge of laughter behind his words. They seemed to have agreed soberly that the mention of the subject would be in bad taste, might even, in fact, endanger their pleasure.

Reading this collection, what becomes clear to me is that a big part of my problem with gothic and horror as genres is the narrative constraints of the form, especially when we’re talking about short stories. If all such stories start from a safe, stable situation, and then introduce a dangerous, disruptive element – one that essentially risks the life or sanity of the protagonist – then you’ve basically got three options for an ending: a return to safety; or death or something like it; or an uneasy cliffhanging compromise between the two. Jackson, to her credit, doesn’t offer any returns to safety, though perhaps that’s as much to do with the form of the short story; it’s the novel that more often demands happy endings. The stories I don’t like so much are the ones that end with a pat twist. (I shan’t say which ones they are, so as not to spoil them. I’ll let them spoil themselves.)

What I do love though are the stories that build into themselves that most uncanny of narrative devices, the strange loop: stories that trap their characters inside themselves, giving neither them and the reader a way out. These are the stories that are the most traditionally ‘gothic’, in that they depart from or never inhabit the modern suburban world of cocktails and dull husbands. ‘The Story We Used to Tell’ is one of these; ‘The Man in the Woods’ another. Best of all is ‘The Visit’ – which also appears to have been published as ‘The Lovely House’, about a girl spending a holiday with the fabulously rich family of a schoolfriend. The house is ludicrously huge and elegant, like something out of a Scott Fitzgerald story, with a locked tower, extensive gardens and endless strangely designed rooms, all of which contain representations of the house itself, in tapestry and mosaic. Again, I’ll say little about it, other than it successfully marries the ancient and inescapable logic of the fairy tale to the trappings and desires of the American century.

(‘Trappings’: I love the happy coincidence of that word – nothing to do with a trap for catching things, of course. It’s derived from the word for the decorated harness for a horse, and closer to words like ‘drapery’.)

That story, ‘The Visit’, makes me think equally of Angela Carter and John Cheever, and those are two writers I could never have imagined being brought together in my mind. Read ‘A Visit’, then read ‘The Swimmer’. ‘The Swimmer’ was published in 1964, ‘A Visit’ in 1950.

The other interesting thing about these stories is the prevalence of female protagonists. Only three of the stories insist on a man as the central character – the person to whom things happen, or whose psychological or moral oddities drive the story – and two of those are the weakest ones in the book (‘Paranoia’ and ‘Jack the Ripper’).

Although fantasies like ‘A Visit’ offer some of the best stories in the collection, in a way the most fascinating are the ones that have nothing supernatural about them, but that offer visions of the female psyche as either abnormal or unknowable to itself: the wife who keeps having those unprompted thoughts of killing her husband; the wife who accepts the man who isn’t her husband as her husband, no questions asked; women who seemingly collude in the matter of their own destruction (see also Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat) and women who seem to exhibit sociopathic tendencies.

Thinking about this I was reminded of a comment in Elena Ferrante’s new book of collected interviews and pieces, Frantumaglia:

We [women writers] know everything about the male symbol system; they, for the most part, know nothing about ours, above all about how it has been restructured by the blows the world has dealt us.

There are two young girls in the collection who have recently been orphaned and don’t react as they should. Of these two, the more intriguing is Anne in ‘Family Treasures’, who embarks on a campaign of kleptomania in the girl’s dormitory at her boarding school, carefully destroying all sense of calm and cohesion before calming walking out of the front door, one morning, with her collection of – largely inexpensive – stolen items in her bag. Here’s how the story ends.

She stood for a minute just inside the front door, surveying the house, which was silent, with all its doors shut; it was her first minute of unalloyed pleasure since her mother’s funeral. Then she slipped quickly out the front door and down the street, carrying the overnight bag: mighty, armed.

Until this ending I had read Anne as a female anti-hero. Is this what people mean when they say that teenage girls are the worst, I wondered, for the ways they can wreck emotional damage on each other, when boys just push each other around without ever really falling out. But when I came to that ending I changed my view of Anne.

The character of Anne is not a portrait of a particular kind of femininity, or of women in general. She is a portrait of a writer.

Thanks to Penguin for the review copy of Dark Tales.

Last night I started reading The Haunting of Hill House.

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