Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

jackson_darktalesThere’s an intense ambivalence about the idea of ‘home’ in these tales by Shirley Jackson. On the one hand, home is a longed-for refuge from a harsh outside world; on the other, it’s a trap the protagonists want to escape from.

In ‘The Bus’, for instance, an old spinster is making her way home by bus, though she hates the journey and finds both the ticket-seller and the driver rude. All she wants is to get home, away from all the difficulty and unpleasantness. She falls asleep en route, then suddenly the driver’s telling her it’s her stop. Ushered off, only half awake, she finds herself abandoned at an isolated crossroads in the pouring rain, with no one around to help, and that’s just the start of her troubles. In ‘Paranoia’, a man is on his way home from work when he becomes convinced there’s a conspiracy of people following him, and is driven to increasingly desperate means of shaking them off. In both cases, home is an ever-receding goal, a constantly denied refuge from a threatening, irrational world.

In contrast to the nightmare journey home is the idea of home as a trap. In ‘The Good Wife’, a husband keeps his wife locked in her bedroom till she confesses to an affair that he himself may have invented as an excuse to keep her incarcerated. In ‘The Story We Used To Tell’, perhaps the strangest story in the book, a woman is staying at a female friend’s house when the friend disappears. The woman sees the friend trapped in a picture (an old painting of the friend’s house) on the friend’s bedroom wall and, touching it, is herself sucked into it. The two women find themselves stuck in a portrait version of the house with a pair of the friend’s ancestors, who seem to have been driven mad by being held in the painting for so long.

shirleyjacksonMarriage, an intrinsic part of the idea of ‘home’, often takes a murderous turn in these tales. The purest example of this is ‘What A Thought’, in which a happily married wife has the sudden, irrational urge to bash her husband’s head in with an ashtray. The trouble is, once she’s thought it, there’s only one way to get rid of the idea… In ‘The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith’, all the townsfolk seem desperately keen to say something to the newly-married Mrs Smith, but can’t bring themselves to do so. Finally, the landlady where she’s staying for her honeymoon sums up the courage to suggest Mrs Smith’s husband looks uncomfortably like a man whose photo has been in the papers for marrying, then murdering, young women for the insurance payout. But, oddly, the new Mrs Smith isn’t at all concerned…

Shirley Jackson’s version of a happy marriage is at the heart of what, for me, is the best story in the book, ‘The Beautiful Stranger’. Here, a wife goes to the railway station to meet her husband who’s returning from a sales trip. Just before he left, they’d argued, but when he gets off the train, the wife is surprised by how courteous and polite he is. She begins to suspect he may not be her husband at all, and he keeps giving her conspiratorial smiles, as though to say he knows she knows he isn’t. She’s delighted. Because of this frisson of strangeness and unfamiliarity, of politeness and kindness, it’s a whole lot better than with her ‘old’ husband. But then, taking a walk by herself one evening, she returns to the street where she lives to find she can’t tell which house is hers. It’s as though a blissful home life can only be sustained in a narrow band of mild alienation, but she’s passed irrecoverably through that to something far more isolating, and now everything’s lost. This tale is the perfect example what Jack Sullivan says of Jackson in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural:

‘Reversing M R James’s dictum that a ghost story should leave a narrow “loophole” for a natural explanation, Jackson wrote stories of psychological anguish than leave a loophole for a supernatural explanation.’

Community, like marriage, is a wider extension of the idea of ‘home’, and, as you’d expect from the author of ‘The Lottery’ (not included in this book), there are a number of tales of poisonous communities, here. 71-year-old Miss Adela Strangeworth in ‘The Possibility of Evil’ is very much a community insider, so much a part of her small-town’s life that everyone knows her and she knows everyone, right down to their darkest secrets, which she writes to them about in anonymous, hurtful letters. Ethel Stone in ‘Home’, on the other hand, has just moved into a countryside town and is doing her best to fit in. She’s amused by how the shopkeepers warn her off using a certain road in the rain. Thinking they’re simply concerned about the state of the road, she uses it anyway, and on the way sees an old woman and a young boy (in pyjamas) by the roadside. She insists on giving them a lift, and is a little puzzled that they want to go to ‘the Sanderson Place’, as that’s where she lives. She drives off with them in the back, but when she gets to her new home, they’ve disappeared. She soon learns they’re a pair of local ghosts. At first she’s thrilled. Having her own story to tell about a local legend will be her ticket to feeling part of the community. But on her way into town the next day, she has a second encounter that leaves her unable to speak about them, and it’s only at this point — now she has a shared secret she can’t speak of — that she finds herself being treated as a true local. Dark secrets, for Shirley Jackson, are what binds a community together, just as marriage is as much made of murderous impulses as it is of love.

The Haunting of Hill House coverNot all the stories in Dark Tales worked for me as stories, though those that didn’t, those whose hanging endings were a little too ambiguous for my tastes, do still work as nightmares. And they throw a good deal of light on the one Jackson work I know well. The Haunting of Hill House seems the perfect summation of all these wildly ambivalent feelings about the idea of ‘home’ as both a horrific trap and a longed-for refuge from a difficult world. Jackson’s prose style — unadorned and straightforward, deliciously precise — is the perfect representation of a world in which dark, unspoken impulses are waiting to break suddenly and violently through an apparently placid, well-ordered surface. The thing that perhaps adds that thrilling jolt to these tales is how much that breaking-through is, however horrific, longed for.

The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring, cover by Pauline Baynes

The Fellowship of the Ring, cover by Pauline Baynes

However much I’m blown away by the sheer storytelling power of The Lord of the Rings (I think, once The Fellowship of the Ring gets into its stride, that first volume in particular is up there with the greats of pure adventure fiction, like The Lost World, Treasure Island, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), when the Ring’s darker, more subtle effects start to make themselves known (particularly in the second part of The Two Towers, with Frodo, Sam and Gollum journeying together) things, for me, step up a notch.

In ‘On Fairy Tales’, Tolkien calls Faerie ‘the Perilous Realm’, and his own most characteristic imaginative creations often have this quality of the ‘perilous’, in being alluring and fascinating, but also subtly dangerous. There are, though, different kinds of ‘perilous’ in The Lord of the Rings. Lothlórien is beautiful-perilous: paradisiacal and peaceful, but hazardous to those who are not pure in heart (‘only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them’ — and who doesn’t bring at least some evil with them?), for they’ll have the darkest recesses of their heart laid bare by the Lady Galadriel. But while Lothlórien’s peril lies in the escape it offers from the world’s cares, Sauron’s Ring (not beautiful-perilous but powerful-perilous) offers a vastly different way of dealing with worldly troubles, the power to control or destroy them, and so is that much readier to draw out the evil from its bearers.

The Two Towers, cover by Roger Garland

The Two Towers, cover by Roger Garland

It also gives the One Ring not just a magical power in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but a literary power in ours: the power to make two-dimensional characters three-dimensional. Possessing the Ring, or being tempted to possess it, draws out a character’s flaws and strengths. The simultaneous and contradictory desires to use the Ring’s powers and be free of its burden split characters in two. (At the Grey Havens, Gandalf talks of those hobbits who haven’t borne the Ring as being ‘one and whole’, in contrast to the inner division of those who have.)

When first encountered in The Hobbit, the Ring is simply a magic ring that turns its wearer invisible. But this is just the first stage in an ever more complex relationship between the Ring and its bearer, a tempting invitation to enter its world of power and fulfilment. Preying on the quite natural desire to hide, at times, from others, even in minor ways (Bilbo’s wanting to avoid annoying relatives, Gollum wanting to gather gossip and engage in petty theft), it soon becomes a guilty secret, poisonously entwined with its bearer’s very identity. In the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring, ownership of the Ring is all about keeping secrets and not being seen. It isn’t to be named or spoken of, even to one’s closest friends, and the enemy who seeks it is embodied as the most obvious symbol of the opposite of being hidden:

‘The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable.’

Gollum, who, like Renfield in Dracula, is the human (or hobbit) summation of the Ring’s powers of degradation, is so sensitive to being seen that he flees the sun and the moon — ‘the Yellow Face’ and ‘the White Face’ as he calls them — because they are, to him, seeing things. It’s as if, despite owning a ring that makes him invisible, he needs to invest the world with watching, knowing eyes as an excuse to escape even further. He hides in the deepest, darkest caves beneath the Misty Mountains because ‘The Sun could not watch me there.’

Similarly, when Frodo is asked to produce the Ring at the Council of Elrond:

‘He was shaken by a sudden shame and fear; and he felt a great reluctance to reveal the Ring, and a loathing of its touch.’

That shame is the result of being seen — and feeling, in the gaze of those who look at you, how far you’ve already been seduced by the Ring’s promises of power.

But what power does the Ring promise? We know destroying it will not only lay waste to all that Sauron has built up, but Lothlórien too, as though the One Ring has power over all that is ‘perilous’, both the beautiful and the powerful, but what actual abilities does it confer on its wielder? As far as I recall, we only get one concrete, though not obvious, example of its use in The Lord of the Rings, immediately after Gollum attacks Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom. Gripping the Ring, Frodo says:

‘If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’

And the next time Gollum touches Frodo, that’s exactly what happens. After biting off Frodo’s finger, Gollum falls into the volcano’s fire pit. Did he trip, or was he obeying Frodo’s final command as Ring-bearer?

But, whatever the details, we know what the Ring’s power ultimately is. The Ring allows you to impose your will on others, and on the world. The Ring allows you to have your own way.

jrrt_mje

Gollum is certainly the most interesting character in The Lord of the Rings, if only because he’s the most duplicitous. Thanks to the Ring’s starkly polarising effect, he’s both Gollum and Sméagol (or Slinker and Stinker as Sam has it), always debating with himself, self-divided, and so that much more isolated from the undivided normal people. And while one side of Gollum is drawn to the possibility of trust and fellowship (with Frodo at least, being a fellow victim of the Ring), the other wants to get the Ring back, preferably served with a generous dollop of gleeful revenge.

Fritz Leiber has criticised Tolkien for being ‘not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards…’ But it would be fairer to say this is the sort of villainy Tolkien is most interested in — a far more human-level (or hobbit-level) villainy than the vast and abstract evil of Sauron. Sauron, I don’t think, is that interesting, at least in terms of character. (Evil is a diminution of humanity, not a deepening of it.) We get only one direct glimpse of Sauron as an actual person, when Pippin looks into the Orthanc Palantír, and when he speaks he sounds disappointingly formal and suave, like a Dennis Wheatley Satanist:

‘Wait a moment! We shall meet again soon. Tell Saruman that this dainty is not for him. I will send for it at once. Do you understand? Say just that!’

It is, rather, the effects of evil on lesser, more human, creatures that Tolkien wants to explore:

‘Work of the Enemy!’ said Gandalf. ‘Such deeds he loves: friend at war with friend; loyalty divided in confusion of hearts.’

And Gollum, being self-divided and at war with himself, is the ultimate vision of what Tolkien is warning against: not an absolute, pure and abstract evil, but a corruption of the soul.

The forces of ‘good’ in The Lord of the Rings are equally human in scale (whether hobbit, elf, dwarf or man). Tolkien’s ‘good’ is about striving towards what is right, with a free and often uncertain will, about doing one’s best and accepting that you may make mistakes. (Frodo at one point says ‘All my choices have proved ill.’ Aragorn says something similar, and both Gandalf and Sam express grave doubts about what they should be doing at key moments.) The true evil of Sauron’s Ring comes from the way it allows its bearer to deny their own humanity, their essential weakness, thanks to its overwhelming power. The Ring is abstract power, and is defeated in the end by the most ‘human’ (fallible, weak, self-doubting, powerless) characters, the hobbits.

The Return of the King, cover by Roger Garland

The Return of the King, cover by Roger Garland

The Lord of the Rings is, then, a book in praise of human weakness, and — particularly in the third book, The Return of the King — a sort of paean to endurance in the face of unrelenting despair. A moral, though not a moralistic, book, it’s about the ultimate triumph of ‘Pity, and Mercy’, of ‘understanding, making, and healing’ (which are the aims of the three Elven Rings) as opposed to ‘Knowledge, Rule, Order’ (Saruman’s ‘high and ultimate purpose’), or Sauron’s ‘One Ring to bind them’ totalitarianism. It’s a book that has long outlasted the immediate allegorical interpretations of the age in which it was written (Sauron as Hitler, the Ring as the Atom Bomb) to remain relevant in a world where abstract power has become an end in itself (say anything so long as they vote for you, then do whatever you want once you’re in), and where a whole political class of doubt-inducing Wormtongues and sweet-talking Sarumans seem to have taken over. What we need right now is an Ent or two to tear down a few ivory towers! Or, better still, a Gandalf to offer some withering comments and a little magical, perilous-but-revealing light. If nothing else, at least The Lord of the Rings tells us that we small folk, we hobbits of the human world, can make a difference even in such doubtful times, against such vast odds, in the face of such peril.

The Searching Dead by Ramsey Campbell

cover to The Searching Dead, art by Les Edwards

cover to The Searching Dead, art by Les Edwards

Set in 1952 and 1953, The Searching Dead (the first volume in a projected trilogy, The Three Births of Daoloth) starts with young Dominick Sheldrake attending a new school, The Holy Ghost, where his form tutor, Mr Noble, turns out to be something of a misfit among the otherwise strictly Roman Catholic staff. Mr Noble has recently started attending a local spiritualist church, not to make contact with any of his own dear departed, but to help the bereaved with new techniques for bringing back the dead — techniques which work rather too well. It’s not long before Mr Noble is fired from his position at The Holy Ghost, but Dominick — who, along with friends Jim and Bobby (Roberta), make up the Tremendous Three — realises he’s only going to get up to much worse now he’s free of restraint.

If Dominick’s gang’s name, the Tremendous Three, sounds a bit Famous Five-ish, that’s only because it’s how Dominick wants to think of them. He’s as keen on writing stories about the trio’s imagined adventures as he is about clinging to the ideal of their childhood friendship. But the reality of Campbell’s post-Blitz Liverpool, with its casually strict parents, repressively religious teachers, and the burgeoning realities of adolescence, are more than enough to undermine any sense of simple Blytonesque adventure. And that’s before the horrors kick in.

Part of the Lovecraftian feel of The Searching Dead (which has none of the grotesquely comic feel of Campbell’s most recent Lovecraftian fiction, The Last Revelations of Gla’aki, and in fact often feels quite low-key and restrained for the often hallucinatory Campbell) comes from parallels with “The Dunwich Horror”. Mr Noble was conceived shortly after his father, a soldier in France during the Second World War, came, during that conflict, to a field he felt held a presence that was hungry for the dead. And the feeling that Mr Noble himself is somehow, in part, parented by that presence (just as the Whateley twins were by Yog-Sothoth in Lovecraft’s story) is intensified when we meet the next generation, Mr Noble’s precocious two-year-old Tina.

campbell_probablyKnowing something of Campbell’s own life, it’s impossible not to read biographical elements into The Searching Dead. Dominick has obvious parallels to the young John Ramsey Campbell: raised as a Roman Catholic in 1950s Liverpool, spending his Saturdays watching films at a variety of local cinemas (Dominick tries to sneak into his first X-rated one, about giant ants), and making his first steps in developing as a writer (Dominick finds that he prefers Lucky Jim to The Devil Rides Out, for instance). At the same time, I can’t help reading a shadowy sort of inner biography in the contrasting Noble family. Reverse the sexes, and that family sketches Campbell’s own from when he was growing up. Two-year-old Tina Noble is the entire focus of the mentally-unbalanced/visionary Mr Noble, to the extent that Tina’s mother is ousted from the family; Campbell himself has written about his mother’s increasing mental illness, and how she forbade his father from having any contact with his son, despite living in the same house. Even the presence (and death) of Mr Noble’s father echoes that of Campbell’s maternal grandmother, who lived with Campbell and his mother for a while before her death. It’s as though the biographical portrait of Campbell-as-Dominick is completed by its shadow in Campbell-as-Tina.

The whole novel has a stifling air of religious repression, where conventional religion is used by adults as a force for coercion, control, and setting harsh limits on the inner development of the adolescent protagonists. In contrast, Mr Noble’s beliefs, though horrific, at least seem to be offering genuine truths (he does make the dead come back, after all), however bleak those truths are. But his answer to conventional religion’s repressive frustrations of inner growth is a cosmic breaking of the limits of self that can too easily result in having one’s individuality devoured by something far larger, and darker. In The Searching Dead, death is not the end, but the beginning of a far greater terror, when memory — one of the defining features of selfhood in this novel (and, so the prologue implies, in the trilogy as a whole) — becomes increasingly difficult to hold onto.

I’m really interested to see where Campbell takes this series. Obviously, the title implies Daoloth, the dead-devouring entity that begins to come through in this book, will be making two more appearances, presumably at significant later stages in Dominick’s life. Hints at the start and end of the novel imply things aren’t always going to go as well as they do in this one, whose ending, nevertheless, addresses the loss of childhood innocence thanks both to events in the normal world (the implacable advance of adolescence putting its inevitable strain on relationships in the Tremendous Three, for instance) and in the wider realisation of more terrible truths compared to which Dominick’s conventional religious upbringing, repressive though it is, is a comforting childhood dream.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

josephconradHeart of Darkness (1899) ends with a moment in which its protagonist and narrator Marlow, returned to Europe after his adventure in the Congo, feels alienated from his fellow human beings:

‘I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend.’

There’s a similar moment at the end of HG Wells’s books from the same time. This is from The War of the Worlds (1898):

wells_wotw_penguin1971‘I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. I sit in my study writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me empty and desolate. I go out into the Byfleet Road, and vehicles pass me, a butcher-boy in a cart, a cabful of visitors, a workman on a bicycle, children going to school, and suddenly they become vague and unreal… Of a night I see the black powder darkening the silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer… I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body…’

Or, in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896):

wells_iodm_penguin1973‘Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them… When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be…’

higgs_strangerIn each case, an adventure into darkness has given the narrator a double vision of the world or humankind: the civilised surface and the horror beneath. Usually, Conrad’s novella is read as being about how Kurtz, sent to the Congo by the Company to plunder it for ivory, allowed himself to become debased by the supposed savagery of the region. But on a recent re-read of Heart of Darkness, I was also making my way through John Higgs’s book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the 20th Century, and the two books kept chiming together. The chief characteristic of the 20th century, for Higgs, was its loss of any shared central ‘omphalos’ — belief, political system, or cultural perspective — with the result that societies are reduced to nothing but a collection of dissociated individuals, each of whose needs become their own centre, with no larger, more encompassing ideal to bind them together. Higgs’s chapter on ‘Growth’ goes into the idea of how corporations, empowered by the legal fiction that they are individuals, with equal rights to human individuals (though incapable of being imprisoned, or of dying of old age), ‘had no choice but to become undying, unjailable profit-taking machines’. And I think the real darkness Kurtz encounters when he heads down the Congo to rape the natural world of its resources, is the one he brought with him. Unlike the other ‘pilgrims’ (as the narrator Marlow refers to the other Company agents) who are kicking their heels while they wait for an opportunity to pillage some ivory and make their personal fortunes, Kurtz has taken the Company’s driving need for profit as a fervent belief and philosophical ideal — his ‘omphalos’ — and it has made him the most successful ivory-gatherer in the Congo. But it has also made him the most spiritually bankrupt, and utterly dehumanised creature Marlow has ever met. Kurtz has raped the world and debased the people of the Congo to serve his and the Company’s need, and has dehumanised himself in the process. This is not a vision of Imperialistic Europe, but of 20th century corporate man, who serves the need to increase his employer’s profit and believes in nothing else, no other ideals, not even the worth of his fellow human beings.

Returning to Europe, Marlow is brought up short when he visits Kurtz’s ‘Intended’, and finds her talking of her fiancé’s nobility, his vision, his love, and his greatness, when all Marlow has seen is the depths to which a human being can go if he has the capacity to believe in an ideal that is, at heart, utterly corrupt.

HG Wells had his narrators see different hearts of darkness — the ‘Beast in Man’ (John Higgs says that the foregrounding of the previously-hidden id was a defining mark of the 20th century) in The Island of Doctor Moreau, and the way that civilised Europeans might be treated as they themselves treated those they ‘colonised’, when sufficiently powerful yet uncaring aliens invade in The War of the Worlds — but there’s an undeniable feeling that, as the 19th century moved into the 20th, there were idealistic shocks to come, and Wells and Conrad, prophetic writers both, were sensing the early-warning tremors.

Apocalypse Now! is one of my favourite films, and I only really understood Heart of Darkness once I’d seen its transplanting of Conrad’s tale to the US war in Vietnam. But, in a sense, it weakens the story, implying that it takes special conditions, such as war, to reveal the heart of darkness. Conrad’s novel may take place in what was then seen, at the time, by his intended audience, as an exotic distant land, but it’s about everyday things, not war: it’s about work, and the corporations who provide us with employment, and how serving them may lead us to dehumanise ourselves and others, even as we ravage the world in the name of profit.

(John Higgs’s interview with Alan Moore, about H P Lovecraft and the 20th Century, is worth a watch on YouTube (23 minutes).)