Several weeks ago I was lucky enough to win a copy of Let Me Tell You; New stories, Essays and other writings of Shirley Jackson from Dovegreyreader’s blog, a delicious newly published hardback. I feel as if I have come very late to the Shirley Jackson party and then having arrived left early – the only novel of hers I have read is The Haunting of Hill House, and I have read her most famous short story The Lottery – which is absolutely unforgettable. This new collection, edited by Shirley Jackson’s children, and which runs to a little more than 400 pages brings together: unpublished and uncollected short fiction, early short stories, essays, reviews and lectures.
I picked up Let me Tell You the other day for a little perusal and ended up reading with huge enjoyment, Ruth Franklin’s Foreword ‘I think I know her’ and four of the short stories from the first section; Unpublished and uncollected short fiction. I was forced to lay the book aside with a heavy heart as it was time to start reading my book group choice. I will get back to the Shirley Jackson eventually – but you know what it’s like when you lay something aside – but I wanted to tell you all about theses first four stories. I think perhaps this is a book that will be better reviewed in smaller chunks anyway.
Paranoia – is a story I really can’t say too much about. What Jackson does do so very brilliantly is to write about very ordinary people, they live recognisable lives, they seem very familiar indeed – and then she injects just the right amount of sinister, uncertainty to leave the reader with slight chills. Here we have Mr Beresford who leaves his office on his wife’s birthday and begins his journey home after having stopped to buy a box of candy. Then Mr Beresford notices a man in a light hat standing next to him on the pavement. From here on Mr Beresford finds he can’t shake off this man, it seems as if he is always with him, and as if everyone around him, in shops on the bus, conspire against him, in league with the strange man. It’s a short brilliantly executed little piece which immediately whetted my appetite for more. There is wonderful tension in this story, a feeling of real oppression, that affects the reader every bit as much as poor Mr Beresford.
“ ‘Take a look,’ the clerk insisted. This was unusually persistent even for such a clerk; Mr Beresford looked up and saw the man in the light hat on his right bearing down on him. Over the shoulders of the two men he could see that that the shop was empty. The street looked very far away, the people passing in either direction looked smaller and smaller; Mr Beresford realized that he was being forced to step backward as the two men advanced on him.”
In Still Life with Teapot and Students, Mrs Harlowe the wife of a college lecturer invites his two best students to have tea with her. She clearly has an agenda; these students are capable of inspiring insecurity and jealousy in these college wives, and Louise Harlowe wants to send them on their way for the summer. This story while not packing the same kind of punch as Paranoia is subtly astute.
The Arabian nights, is a story about a twelve year old girl, who, the day following her birthday, is looking forward to a sophisticated night out at The Arabian Nights nightclub with her parents and their friends the Carringtons. Alice has a new charm bracelet, and feels very grown up. Once at the club, poor Alice is not quite ready for the insistent hectoring of her companions to go over to another table and speak to a man who they all firmly believe to be Clark Gable.
Mrs Spencer and the Oberons – is a wonderful story, a little longer than the previous three, in which we meet the Mrs Spencer of the title, but never the Oberons, who we only ever hear about. Mrs Spencer is an obviously socially successful woman, she is a bit of a snob, she gives wonderful dinner parties – everything planned to the nth degree. When Mrs Spencer receives a letter from the Oberons, of whom she claims to have no knowledge, disgusted by the handwriting on the envelope and the obvious cheapness of the stationary she throws it away. However the Oberons are not so easily dispensed with, they move to the town, and using Mrs Spencer’s name wherever they go and to whoever they meet they rent a house by the river and begin to enjoy the society of everyone. Again I can’t say too much about this story – but things take a slightly unexpected turn, when having previously snubbed the Oberons, Mrs Spencer sets out to meet them.
“She started the car then, fired with anger, and turned around by the gas station and started back along the road, driving very slowly and close to the road. When she came to the spot where she had heard the singing she went even more slowly, her head partly out of the window. It was possible – considering the haphazard Oberons, it was even probable – that the fence post that had marked the driveway had been allowed to fall down, but even so, the driveway ought to have been visible as an opening between the trees. From far away she could still hear the laughter and the singing as though the guests wandered now all along the river, perhaps in boats, going up and down the river and singing.”
Shirley Jackson’s writing is just so good, there is wonderful exactness in every detail, from their small actions we understand so much about her characters, she opens up their worlds to her readers in just a few pages, while making her story very compelling. I have seen Shirley Jackson described as a mistress of modern Gothic fiction, I am sure she must be. I feel as though I am only now getting to know Shirley Jackson, but I am very much looking forward to getting better acquainted.