The Darkness Within: Shirley Jackson’s Tales

For my last spooky read of the year (it’s almost Christmas!) I chose an author I’m familiar with. I’ve been a fan of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle because they really scared me, although not in a way that most horror books do. Shirley Jackson’s writing is measured and subtle, focused on what happens within rather than without; it is about leaving things out rather than about showing things, it is suggestive but never obvious. This is perhaps why most of the things I’ve read by her leave me feeling a bit queasy: you can’t quite point out why you’re scared, but you are.

I have read Jackson’s most famous story “The Lottery” in several occasions (it is one of those short stories that people like to point to when explaining what makes a short story good) and was expecting a similar thing when I bought Dark Tales, which compiles 17 stories. From wicked old ladies to serial killers, Jackson explores various degrees of evil in these stories. Her characters are usually the same: the neglected housewife, the least favorite child, the seemingly quiet and unassuming man… and underneath, lurking behind the facade, evil.

Jackson seems to ask us how well we really know our neighbors, our family and our partners, even how well we know ourselves. It the usually small acts of evil and wickedness explored in this book there’s usually a deeper question about the nature of it, are humans inherently selfish and evil? Should we trust one another? The answer for Shirley Jackson seems to be… no (can’t really blame her, taking a look at her life), and that’s why I find her work so scary.

As with other works, this book’s scariness seems to be rooted in unfamiliarity and ambiguity, rather than gore or the supernatural. The peculiar, the bizarre and the unfamiliar take the central stage in these stories, which do not have a resolution but are left in ambiguity. In a story I particularly enjoyed, “Louisa, Please Come Home”, a teenager runs away from her wealthy family and is gone for three years; when she decides to come back home, her family can’t recognize her. In Shirley Jackson’s world people are but masks, their motives and true selves always hidden.

As with The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson recurres here too to the character of the social outcast, who is for her not a hero but a dangerous creature: the middle-aged spinster or the neglected teenager, much like Stephen King’s Carrie, remind society of its meanness and corruption, often in a particularly cruel way.

This book can’t really be defined as “scary”, but it is certainly unnerving and disturbing. Each story warns us about the evils lurking in every shadowed corner of civilized society and, of course, in every shadowed corner of our own mind. I really enjoyed these stories, it is the kind of book you can enjoy with a cup of tea these cold and long nights.

I’m currently reading The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, but looking forward to more cosy reads for the season. Any suggestions?

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2 responses to “The Darkness Within: Shirley Jackson’s Tales”

  1. Love Shirley Jackson but I have not read these short stories must add to my list. Sometimes the scariest most haunting books are those that tap into the everyday of civilised society.


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