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The Desperate Horror of Suburbia: Thoughts on Shirley Jackson


A couple of months ago, I wrote about different modes of horror, and while enjoying the Library of America collection Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, it got me thinking about how Jackson employed (and mastered) the art of identification in her stories.

The Library of America collection, selected by Joyce Carol Oates, contains forty-nine of Jackson’s stories. Except for the previously-unpublished works, the collection effectively spans the entire twenty-year period in which Jackson wrote before her untimely death in 1965. The stories range in length from what today would be considered flash fiction (like the two-page Colloquoy) to Jackson’s short novels (including the classic The Haunting of Hill House). The book starts with Jackson’s earliest stories that were originally collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, and when I think of Shirley Jackson, these are without a doubt my favorites.

As a genre, horror has a great many tropes: moonlit streets, foggy nights, sexy gentlemen with a dark side, the unrelenting psychopath, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. However, most of the stories that rely on these tropes tend to either utilize revulsion or dread to induce the delightful frisson of horror. For folks who look for their horror to be splatterpunk blood-fests, or for sexy vampires lurking languidly in the night, most of Shirley Jackson’s work would disappoint. The reason for that is that she utilizes every tool of the horror trade like a scalpel, and in her earliest works the tool she most relied on was identification (or realization).

Most of the stories collected in the original The Lottery and Other Stories (and which are now reprinted) have zero supernatural elements, depict no violence, and arguably lack the thriller-tension that most readers think of as horror. If it were not for the subtle manipulation of the reader’s morality, these stories would be utterly forgettable slice-of-life or Americana stories, accurate, in their representation of small-town life but insignificant as to the broader human condition. However, what makes Jackson unique in my view is the way that she can ellicit abject horror and revulsion from these utterly plebian events.

Consider Flower Garden, which on its face tracks the musings of a young Mrs. Winning, a 1940′s housewife, as she goes about her life in a small country town. She interacts with people like her neighbors, the grocer, her family. Shortly into the story, we learn that a new woman (a Mrs. MacLane) has moved into town from the city, and that she has a son of an age with Mrs. Winning’s boy. However, as the story proceeds, Jackson shows us the underside of small-town life, with its small-town prejudices. As the newcomer forms a friendship with one of the town’s few African American families, the “respectable” portion of small-town society begins to draw away. What Jackson does amazingly in this story is in the way that she portrays Mrs. Winning’s rationalization of their ostracization. Mrs. Winning isn’t guilty of any such prejudice: no, that’s only for more small-minded people. But ultimately, she adopts a similar stance to the other townsfolk and effectively isolates poor Mrs. MacLane in this new community. The story works because Jackson makes us care – deeply – about the characters, both Mrs. Winning (who we know isn’t all bad) and Mrs. MacLane (who is the victim). Jackson accomplishes this using three tools:

  • Keeping Her Point of View Character Oblivious to the Theme. This is a technique which Jackson uses frequently in the best of her stories. In Flower Garden, Mrs. Winning is completely oblivious to the prejudice that is going on around her. She notices that her relationships in town are weakened by her friendship with Mrs. MacLane, and so she begins to avoid her friend without even drawing attention to it. But when eventually she does notice it, she rationalizes it such that she never recognizes the moral choice that she has already made. Because we – the reader – are aware of this choice, our emotions are engaged and our minds focused on the theme: it’s like watching a movie where you want to shout at the heroine “Don’t go in there!” because you know something she doesn’t. Jackson elicits the same emotional response, only without the knife-wielding psychopath.
  • Employing Minutia to Ground the Reader. Jackson takes much time to show us the petty, inconsequential elements of Mrs. Winning’s daily life. Her conversation with the green grocer, the fact that she went to high school with him, her relationship with her mother-in-law: these facts have zero bearing on the primary plot. However, they lay the foundation for Jackson’s character, and for the broader community. As such, they establish the “feel” of the world Jackson paints for us. And it is a world that anyone who has lived in small-town America (even seventy years later) would instantly recognize. The reader places themselves into the nameless small-town, precisely because the prosaic details are so true-to-life and believable.
  • The Tragic Triumph of Moral Failure.When we read Flower Garden, we know what the “right” outcome should be. We know – morally, intellectually – that the community’s prejudice against Mrs. MacLane is abhorrent. However, in the end, it is their prejudices – and Mrs. MacLane’s own inverted prejudices against the small-town set – which triumph. The story ends tragically, not in the dramatic sense of everyone on stage dying, but rather in the Aristotelian sense of characters changing state from good to bad.

There is nothing to suggest that Flower Garden is a horror story: there is no violence, no fear, no physical tension of any kind. There are no ghosts or other supernatural elements. Yet it leaves the reader horrified at the underlying truth dramatized through the story’s actors. It ensures that we not only understand the author’s message but that we recognize it as an inevitable (and morally repugnant) consequence of human nature. And nowhere does Jackson come out and spell this message out for us: it is in the pauses between her characters’ thoughts, in the punctuation of her sentences, in the selection of her words. The story leaves us uneasy because it is all too easy to see ourselves in it.

Jackson applies this pattern in many of her works, and I find that it is put to best effect in her short stories. There, she evokes similar sensations of horror, disgust, revulsion, and tragic catharsis but with admirable economy. In her later novels, Jackson employed more supernatural (or ambiguously supernatural) elements, which often serve as sleight-of-hand to provide us a cozy rationalization for the real cause of our horror. Of course, even this interpretation is likely an over-simplification because even in her “supernatural” stories, Jackson leaves everything delightfully ambiguous: perhaps we need to blame our terror on ghosts and demons because the alternative – that humanity itself produces such horror – is too unsettling.

For anyone looking for an excellent author – whether a literary/mainstream author, or for one of the greatest horror writers ever to put pen to paper – I strongly recommend Shirley Jackson. Having come to her stories some sixty years after they were first published, I often wonder how my modern values affect my interpretation. I suspect, however, that the themes that Jackson addresses are universal and timeless. The foibles of humanity, the petty iniquities of small-town life, the dark secrets that lurk unspoken in our hearts: these never go away. It is easy to paint a black and white moralizing picture and say a character’s actions are morally repugnant: that does not mean those actions are unrealistic, or that they are not presented in cathartic and artistic fashion. Jackson offers no easy solutions. In fact, she doesn’t offer any solutions at all. But she raises questions that go to the heart of what we value as individuals, as a community, and as a broader society. That alone makes her worth reading. The fact that her works are fun, and unsettling, and in some cases absolutely horrifying, makes it that much better.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. It’s terrible, but the only thing of hers I’ve read is “The Lottery” long ago in high school, although of course I’ve seen the movie “The Haunting of Hill House” (one of my all-time favs). I’ve been meaning to pick up “We Have Always Live in the Castle”, have you read that?

    March 18, 2011
    • I love “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”. It’s actually my favorite Shirley Jackson novel, with “The Haunting of Hill House” coming a close second. “We Have Always etc.” is just a fantastic work of twisted fiction, with great characters and really chilling context.

      March 19, 2011

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