Tagged: John Cheever

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


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? Continue reading


Reading Cheever: lay those poetic explosives with care

Today’s text is taken from The Journals of John Cheever, pg 106 (Vintage Paperback edition):

He throws sticks into the water, which is a perfectly clear, shallow, and rippled scarf of light.

The trick with prose – or a trick – is to withhold the poetry, and lay it like you’d lay a mine, some way ahead of the reader. Let them enjoy the walk, strolling through the amiable woodland of your paragraphs, hearing a bird but not seeing it, feeling the sun in dappled patches rather than full on… then: boom!

Reading submissions to a Creative Writing course last week, I came across far too many stories that showered the reader with fireworks, right from the first page. As you might expect, many of them (these were apprentice writers) were more squibs than the mesmerising explosions they may have been aiming for, showing the ooh-ing, aah-ing reader with adjectives and adverbs.

But, I thought, later, reading some of Cheever’s journals, any one of those audacious adjectives, or those at-full-stretch descriptions, if placed with care, might have had the poetic power of Cheever’s “scarf of light”.

“Scarf of light”: Is it a great phrase, on its own terms, in any context, or does it depend on what leads up to it, both in terms of that very carefully structured phrase and, more generally, in the paragraphs that lead up to it?

I think probably the former (“scarf”, such an underused, unpoetic word, does much to defuse the potential clunker “light”), but still it benefits from its delicate handling.

It’s not that ‘less is more’, but that the more less you use, the more the more you leave in will glow.

Writers are often told to grab the reader’s attention from the word go. (The First Five Pages, etc). But, I think, the trick for the first page, the first paragraph, the first line even, is not to dazzle, or to seduce, but to give confidence. Make the ground underfoot seem springy and solid; give the sense that the going will be easy; give them enough of a glimpse of the view ahead that they will think it will be worth the trek. Don’t sprinkle the path with orchids and butterflies from the very first step. Set them off, let them enjoy the stroll, with expectation of poetry to come.