“I loathe writing autobiographical material because if it’s dull no-one should have to read it anyway, and if it’s interesting I should be using it for a story.”
Toward the end of September I wrote what was supposed to be the first post in a series about the Shirley Jackson collection ‘Let Me Tell You.’ In that post I talked about the first four stories in the collection which I was lucky enough to win from Dovegreyreader. Those first four stories really whetted my appetite – I decided to read the rest of the volume alongside my main read – dipping in and out. That is exactly what I have done since then – although there were plenty of weeks along the way when I didn’t touch the book at all. That is only because I am hopeless at juggling books – my second book always ends up neglected. There have also not been any more posts about the book – as I had originally intended – the nature of many of the short pieces really didn’t lend themselves to being written about.
All that said Let me Tell you is a brilliant collection, and for someone who has read very little Shirley Jackson it was a fantastic introduction to her work. In this collection of stories, essays and lectures, the reader begins to feel they are getting to know the woman behind the writing. I came to really love the unusual way her mind works – how she personifies the inanimate objects in her kitchen and even the kitchen itself for example.
“When I turn my back on the sink to take up the dishtowel, the kitchen brightens and beams at me reassuringly. It rather resents being polished up, and there was quite a scene about the new curtains. I explained that I had made them myself, and was a little proud of them, and wanted to take the old ones down, but a great loyal voice was raised for the old curtains, and when they went into the hamper regardless, to be washed and turned into dust cloths, a vast silent resentment confronted me and my new curtains.”
Her essays cover subjects as diverse as clowns, ghosts, family arguments and motherhood – we meet her children and husband, in a sense seeing Shirley at home with the family – washing up and setting the dining table. She is a funny and observant chronicler of her family life. One is left with the impression that her family were quite used to her unconventional way of looking at things. My favourite pieces entitled ‘Good Old House’ and ‘The Ghosts of Loiret’ – of essays which I suspect a certain amount of fictionalisation – they concern poltergeists, ghosts and peculiar goings on inside the Jackson home, and in the picture of a house on a postcard; one of a group of postcards bought for Shirley by her husband.
Her essays are fabulous, like sitting down with someone who you want to talk to for hours, I enjoyed them far more than I had expected. While some of the stories are really very short I particularly enjoyed the way Jackson leads the reader in a particular direction in her stories before gently pulling away the rug. Many of the stories are just too short to talk about – in doing so I would inevitably ruin them for future readers. Stories of mysterious maids who have a very peculiar effect upon the family’s they work for, wartime homecomings, an odd child who invites herself into a school teacher’s apartment. Some of the endings are ambiguous, some stories darker than others – and possibly those first four stories I reviewed before are among the best in the whole collection.
In the last section of the book is a small collection of lectures about the craft of writing. Here Jackson talks about some of her various works of fiction – The Sundial and The Lottery – about how she works and how she fits her work around family life. She reveals how some of her ideas are called ‘Mother’s delusions’ by her four children, a tease I suspect she rather liked.
“…I would like to pass on a few things I have learned from those harassed, tense, welcome moments when I finally sit down to write. This, by the way, is what makes for Mother’s delusions. All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories. Stories about anything, anything at all. Just stories. After all, who can vacuum a room and concentrate on it?”
I know penguin have re-issued a number of Shirley Jackson novels – and (shallow I know but I love the new covers) so I must get myself some. Having only read The Haunting of Hill House – I am more determined than ever to read novels like We Have always Lived in the Castle that I have seen so highly praised by other readers.