Monday, 19 February 2018

Bringing 'Dark Tales' into the Light

Haunting. Menacing. Horrifying. Nightmarish. These appear to be compliments when describing horror.

Aged 13, there was a period when sleepovers with friends were accompanied by the watching of a horror film. Despite protestations, I have therefore seen various numbers of Saw films in no particular order, The Ring, The Grudge, What Lies Beneath, Scream, Wrong Turn and the few parts of It during which I brought myself to look at the screen (not recommended). Not only did this result in sleepless nights and a fear of taking my eyes off the mirror in the bathroom, in case I blinked and found some monstrous being had appeared there, but I also could not see any reason to watch the films in the first instance. I did not find them entertaining or clever or cathartic. And they all seemed to end at random, as if the lead actress simply couldn’t back-brush her hair anymore that day or the writers had temporarily run out of horrendous uses for chicken wire, so that there was neither closure nor a great deal of sense in the ending but merely a certainty that there would be another film a year later in which much of the same occurred, very likely more violently.

In many ways I still can’t understand the motivation for watching these films. If there’s some kind of psychological argument for doing so, experiencing fear whilst remaining safe ourselves, well, most people in the Western world can experience that just by reading international news. Increasingly however I think the horror genre is rather a false one. There are some books and films which it seems are designed solely to scare. They are either characterised by extreme violence generally perpetrated by males with sick fantasies or by ghostly thin figures of young women who have been mistreated by males in their lifetime and now inexplicably want some rather dull teenagers to pay for it. But most actually good books or films are never about just one thing; they aren’t just trying to make you jump or to instill a deepset need to check under the bed each night. Categorising a book like Stephen King’s The Green Mile, for example, as horror belies the fact that it is also a work that explores the death penalty, the prison system, abuse...

In my experience bookshops that have a horror section also tend to put it somewhere near fantasy at the back of the shop and lack any kind of rule about what actually goes there. This results in the bizarre situation that some of the weirder or ‘more adult’ vampire novels, all of Stephen King (usually about four or five shelves’ worth), Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Susan Hill and Shirley Jackson are just separate from the rest of the shop. Thomas Harris seems to go wherever booksellers can fit. I’ve seen his books in fiction, crime, horror and once, in science fiction and fantasy. By all means, devote a table to books that King fans will also love, but maybe think about getting rid of that separate horror section – I think it might be meaningless.

After my experience of some rather trite horror films and of reading without enjoyment The Woman in Black at school, I foolishly claimed until recently that I had no desire to read horror. Fortunately, a friend proved that I was misinformed by insisting that I read Shirley Jackson. Helped no doubt by the (very attractive and almost totally pointless) new Penguin blue spine Modern Classics edition, I spent some time with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s last novel, and discovered that it was subtle, intelligently woven and unnerving in ways that highlighted the flaws and fascinations of the characters and of humanity.  

The story follows Merricat and her sister Constance living in their huge old family home separated by space and feeling from the nearby town. Since their family, except for Uncle Julian, died from arsenic poisoning and Constance was acquitted of charges of murder, they have become figures of hatred and mockery for the town. I will give nothing else of the plot away here since it is all the more enjoyable for coming to it without expectation or assumption. However, I will say that it shaped my reading of many of the stories in the recent collection, again published in that attractive blue spine edition, Dark Tales.

It is something of an oversight that this was published without an introduction for one ought to know a little about why these stories were brought together. There have been many posthumous editions of Jackson’s novels and stories in the almost 53 years since her death. Dark Tales draws together some stories first published in magazines before her death and some after. So it would be interesting to see some reasoning for why these specific stories have been drawn together, rather than the obvious answer that doing so was timed for the centenary of her birth. When researching this I discovered that in America one can buy a Penguin Black Classic version with a foreword by Ottessa Moshfegh. If anyone at Penguin fancies clearing up why this is lacking from the English version, I’d love to hear from them (some form of rights issue? - surely the largest publishing house in the world could have sorted this?)

Perhaps in the UK we are to be left to our own devices to see that the themes of preservation, separation from society, otherness, small town mentality and obsessive cleanliness run through these unsettling stories as in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. In many of them so too does the fascination with food in its roles as both nutrition and murder weapon, which fascinate Merricat and Constance. The stories are horrifying in the true sense (horrere is the Latin verb ‘to bristle’, ‘to shudder’, ‘to cause to stand on end’) but they strike me also as exploring our most human thoughts and natures even, or perhaps most, when straying into more fantastic realms. Experts on Jackson’s biography talk about her unhappiness, her agoraphobia, her excessive smoking and eating which led to her death and maybe she drew on all this to write, much like any author. But I wonder if it would be beneficial to set aside speculation about her inspiration and look at the work itself, because my god it’s good.

The first story included in the collection, The Possibility of Evil, follows Miss Adela Strangeworth of Pleasant Street who writes one or two anonymous letters each day to the inhabitants of the town in which she has lived her whole life. They comprise hinting questions rather than accusations: to a husband whose wife is worrying that their six month old should have developed more by now, ‘Didn’t you ever see an idiot child before? Some people just shouldn’t have children, should they?’; to a friend she has greeted amiably only hours earlier, ‘Have you found out yet what they were all laughing about after you left the bridge club on Thursday? Or is the wife really always the last one to know?’. The words are carefully written, no blemishes tolerated, on brightly coloured childish paper. Mrs Strangeworth has no interest in facts, only in suspicion. Even she would be shocked if the possibilities she suggests actualise. Her role is that of a perverse preserver of the town, acting for the common good as she perceives it. Similarly she keeps her own house in a state of perfect arrangement so absurd that a tourist once mistook it for the local museum and, after going round it, was never apprised of his mistake. Her roses are maintained obsessively and she keeps to the same routine each day. Nothing and no one is allowed to interfere, except her of course.

It is a brilliant and satirical story in and of itself and a good choice to set up a collection which frequently features characters struggling to maintain their homes and preserve a way of life that ascribes to a sort of ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ mantra, often with results reminiscent of The Crucible where those claiming to stamp out wickedness become the proponents of it. So in The Good Wife, James Benjamin appears to play the concerned husband for his poor weak and bedridden wife until it emerges that she is in fact his prisoner. He responds to her letters, impersonating her, and maintains an appearance of unblemished domesticity while she is in fact locked in her room night and day on suspicion of having spoken to another man.

What makes these stories all the more unsettling is the blissful domestic setting of so many of them. Little idyllic towns in which the most shocking behaviour would be someone not cutting their lawn to the appropriate length, where homes have spotless floors and perfectly ironed bed sheets are violated by dark scenes. Thus in What a Thought is the devoted wife beset by thoughts of picking up a heavy ashtray and smashing it over her husband’s head. Jackson depicts perfectly the moment where an unwelcome thought pops into the most refined character’s head and will not be batted away. A cruel inevitability infects the loving wife. Her chilling words as she reaches for the ashtray are, ‘I never loved you more’.

Two of the most accomplished stories in the collection take the domestic small town scene, set up routines and security and then break these down utterly: The Beautiful Stranger and The Summer People. These are magna opera and proof of the power of the short story. In The Beautiful Stranger, it is but the work of a few sparing sentences to conjure that picture of perfect housewife as she comes to meet her husband at the station returning from a business trip. Yet things are slightly off. She arrives too early, so that Smalljohn’s (Jackson employs a simple and effective wit when it comes to names) hair is mussed and the baby aggravated by the time John’s train arrives. The baby cries all the way home so that no one can speak in the car. It isn’t until they are settled back in the house that she sees him bending over to speak to her son and realises, this is not my husband. He is slightly taller. The most delicious moments in the story are those explaining her reaction. She reasons that she cannot be astonished that such a thing is possible for here it is, happening in front of her. And she is relieved. She had grown frightened of her husband. But this stranger brings fascination and the chance for games. Every time she calls him John, she is amused that he is not he. When he knows how she likes her martini, she devises other small tests to ascertain how much research he has done. She steals little glances at him when he returns from work to check that her husband has not returned instead. The change breaks in on the boredom of her household duties and she begins to change her routine. Until, that is, she finds herself unable to recognise her own house. The suburban nightmare of conformity is writ large.

The Summer People too decide recklessly to change their routine. Jackson finds that line between comedy and horror as she describes the Allisons decision to stay at their pretty country cottage after Labour Day for the first time in their many years of staying there. The reaction of the entire town, seven miles away, is perfectly summed up by the grocer, ‘Nobody ever stayed at the lake past Labour Day before’. No local can fathom this momentous decision. Life gently and inevitably unravels. The grocer cannot deliver shopping to them past Labour Day – his son and delivery driver is back at school. The kerosene man doesn’t have the supplies at this time of year to fill their tank, leaving them with no means of heating water or cooking. The car won’t start. No one answers the phone at the nearby garage. Then the phone stops working. The radio sputters in the ensuing thunderstorm... Their idyllic lifestyle and this sweet little town seem not to function past Labour Day. Does the town even exist outside of the allotted time for visitors? The sweet old couple are outsiders. It is understood that they come for a set time each year and they are punished for their audacity in breaking their unwritten contract with the town. People don’t do this rings Ibsen’s line.

Jackson’s stories are horrifying. But I did not wake up in the night in a cold sweat or find myself unable to move from a corner of the room for fear of leaving my back uncovered. The ghosts, and there are ghosts, are not pointlessly masked or ugly for maximum scare tactics. Much of the action is hinted at – you don’t live through gratuitous violent scenes, although knives feature significantly in two of the stories, and are not witness to specifics. Instead they leave one fascinated, wondering, looking at society, looking at oneself and yes, shuddering too. Jackson demonstrates how refined an art form the short story is; I read each sentence so closely, I puzzled over the choice of food Mrs Strangeworth made for lunch and searched for significance in the locked up Mrs Benjamin’s way of holding her coffee cup.

The very best short stories are not about leaving you with a wish that it had been a novel and the very best horror is not about making you scared to go outside, though Jackson herself was. They place you in a series of moments so perfectly that you gain a quick and painful identification with the characters and they unsettle you so gently you hardly feel it happening until you realise you cannot quite recognise the world as you once did. Let’s move Jackson’s oeuvre out of some dark recess of a bookshop, stop putting it in meaningless categories and give her her own section. If there’s no space for her front of store, under ‘J’ for Jackson would do, I suppose – in the Art section, that is. 


  1. It looks like an ordinary link, neat, orderly and blue, nothing out of the ordinary, quotidian, but when you click it ...

  2. Spooky. Comment submitted at 10:50 but stamped by blog as 02:50. All was not as it seemed. Nor when it seemed.


In which I fall over Sir Tom Stoppard

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