Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories
Edited by Joyce Carol Oates
Library of America
Hardcover, 832 pages, $35.00
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
“Hysterically polite,” is a phrase employed by Shirley Jackson in the novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It can be well applied to the bulk of her oeuvre: Characters on the edge of sanity, grappling with, or adapting to, a hostile environment. Conforming to community standards requires acquiescence – or else results in ostracization, at best. There is a giggle in the hysteria, a disquieting comfort in familiar objects and rituals. And viciousness is insidiously pervasive.
In Shirley Jackson: Novels and Short Stories, venerable editor Joyce Carol Oates compiles 26 tales and two novels of The Mistress of Madness and the Macabre. The volume also contains a chronology, notes on the text, and Jackson’s own reflections on her most notorious short story. The horrors presented in the book pertain to identity, both lost and found. Community and kinship come with desperate baggage. Oates’ intelligent editing gives profound insight into the universe of the great genre writer.
Allegory is synonymous with Shirley Jackson. Her famous and controversial story, “The Lottery,” certainly lends itself to allegorical interpretation. In the fiction assembled by Oates, parables and analogies abound. There is a correlation in the tale “The Renegade” between the chicken killing dog and its owner; obeisance to standards must be met, and a casual country cruelty demands to be addressed. Rules get defined, in no uncertain terms. In “The Dummy,” the distinction between what is human and what is not, is faint: “It was a grotesque wooden copy of the man – where he was blond, the dummy was extravagantly yellow-haired, with sleek wooden curls and sideburns; where the man was small and ugly, the dummy was smaller and uglier, the same mouth, the same staring eyes, the horrible parody of evening clothes, complete to tiny black shoes.”
Conformity and non-conformity are confronted by Jackson, even in edifices. In perhaps the most well known structure in horror literature, Hill House, there is a rebellion against the norm. The Haunting of Hill House describes the dwelling thus: “It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.”
Not blending in, and feelings of alienation are rampant themes in the writings. Joyce Carol Oates, herself an esteemed writer of the weird, presents biographical background which illuminates Jackson’s attraction to such motifs. After the publication of “The Lottery,” the author received hate mail and heated queries about the story’s meaning. She felt herself such an outsider that she stated: “Millions of people, and my mother, had taken a pronounced dislike to me.” It was an affirmation of her status of strangeness and estrangement.
Shirley Jackson was brilliant, and observant. She said, “One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers.” That is a fine distillation, indeed. In Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, there is a cornucopia of excellence that is overwhelming. Given the intensity, and some similarity in theme, this is a tome that is best appreciated in measured form. The superb works should be savored slowly; paced with intervals.