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.

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Like the classic children’s adventure story problem of how to get the adults out of the way so the action can begin, the basic problem of so many haunted house stories is how to get a bunch of (usually emotionally rickety) people into the most haunted house you can find, then keep them there once the ghosts start appearing. Shirley Jackson solved the problem by having a psychic researcher, Dr Montague, seek out some paranormally-charged individuals for a stay in Hill House for the express purpose of seeing ghosts; Stephen King had his would-be-author Jack Torrance take on the job of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel so he can finish his novel. Wylding Hall isn’t a haunted house story — it deals with faeries, not ghosties — but Elizabeth Hand presents an elegant solution to the same problem: it’s 1972, and producer/manager Tom Haring hires an out-of-the-way country house so acid-folk band Windhollow Fayre, still recovering from a recent tragedy, can write songs for their crucial second album.

Of course, he’s chosen the wrong house. Wylding Hall is a ‘vasty house’ — one of those dream-like labyrinths of hidden nooks and winding passageways, locked doors and dark stairways, far bigger on the inside than they should be, with an ancient library here, a corridor of locked doors there, maybe the odd roomful of dead birds. Outside in the woods there’s a ‘rath’, a hill fort or barrow-mound whose sides, when you start to climb them, seem oddly steep, and when you reach the top you find yourself looking out over the country for miles around, even though, when looked at from below, the top should surely be much lower than the surrounding trees. The local pub is no better. It has a wall display depicting an ancient custom wherein local boys, on one particular day of the year, are allowed to kill wrens and walk around displaying their bodies in little cages, like little musical sacrifices. It’s a custom that died out over most of the country many years ago, but these are recent photographs.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_LThe basic story of Wylding Hall borrows as much from the legends of real folk-rock as it does from haunted houses and fairy tales: in an interview over at the Coode Street Podcast, Elizabeth Hand mentions Fairport Convention’s renting a house (Farley Chamberlayne) to work on their (excellent) Liege & Leaf album, shortly after a tour-van crash killed two people and injured others; she also mentions Nick Drake, the figure who in part inspired her genius-level guitarist/singer/songwriter Julian Blake, a somewhat otherworldly, overly-distanced member of the band, and the one around whom the supernatural events in the story focus. The book itself takes the form of interview snippets from a documentary about the band’s now-legendary stay at Wylding Hall, recorded forty years after the event. The one member not able to take part is Julian Blake, because he disappeared shortly after the band made their only recordings of the songs they’d been working on. What happened to him? The answer lies in the mysterious figure of ‘the girl’ who appears on the cover of the album, which shows the band standing in front of Wylding Hall. The thing is, none of the band recall seeing ‘the girl’ at the time the photo was taken — she only appeared later, very briefly, when most of the band dismissed her as an over-young and more-than-slightly-fay groupie-type, drawn like a moth to the flame of Julian Blake’s talent. Only, it seems more likely she was the flame and Blake the moth. He was, after all, interested in bringing a little magic into his already spellbinding songwriting…

Eliade_SacredProfaneYoung Julian Blake is fascinated by the idea of ‘sacred time’. He reads Mircea Eliade’s book, The Sacred and the Profane, and explains how ‘When you step into sacred time, you’re actually moving sideways, into a different space that’s inside the normal world.’ This idea, that a period of time can become special, magical, and sequestered from the normal flow, pervades the book in several ways. First there is of course the band’s stay at Wylding Hall: they’ve deliberately stepped out of the contemporary world to concentrate on their own particular magic, the creation of music that is itself trying to evoke a lost time through reviving old folk songs. Sacred time within this sacred time is the single ‘magic hour’ in which they make their one and only recording, out in the gardens at sunset. Then there’s the way the band members, in the present, are looking back, for the documentary, on the ‘sacred time’ of their youth, a golden time highly charged with hippie ideals, intense emotion (‘everyone in love with the wrong person’), casual drugs and rather too much drink. And then there’s the genuinely magical time that operates in Faerie, the way it can reach out and grab a particularly talented musician, and take him out of conventional time altogether, never to be seen again.

US cover

US cover

I knew I was going to like Wylding Hall as soon as I heard the set-up: English folk-rock meets faerie-weird. It’s a short novel (another plus, for me), but although I liked it, I did find it a little unfulfilling, in large part because of the documentary-interview way in which it was told. In those haunted house narratives I mentioned at the start of this review, if you think about the human story, aside from the supernatural one, you see that The Haunting of Hill House is basically about unstable Eleonor Vance’s longing to find a home where she truly fits in, instabilities and all, and finds herself helplessly falling into the clutches of un-sane Hill House; and The Shining is about Jack Torrance’s attempt to get on top of his inner demons (by writing a book), only to find himself unleashing those demons on his own family — aided, of course, by the demonic forces of the Outlook Hotel. These haunted houses act as amplifiers of emotional instability, enactors of inner demons, drawing out the flaws of their chosen victims, those characters most susceptible to their dark charms. The core character of Wylding Hall, from this point of view, is Julian Blake, whose otherworldliness, born of high sensitivity and musical talent, is drawn into the genuine otherworldliness of the faerie realm. But we don’t get access to that story. Blake is no longer around to tell it, and even when he was, he was too closemouthed to let his bandmates in on it enough that they might understand. This means his story — which, for me, would have been the most interesting part of Wylding Hall — is absent, or to be glimpsed only from very sparse hints, leaving the result more a straightforward horror story (genius musician snatched away by the supernatural) than an investigation of why he allowed himself to be snatched.

It’s like the difference between Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’ (which gives an insider’s view of slipping into the faerie realm) and his ‘The Great God Pan’, a purely external view of a supernatural horror. Of those two, I prefer ‘The White People’, though ‘The Great God Pan’ is the more well-known. Of course, in the days of folk ballads, it was enough that a musician be exceptionally talented to explain why the faeries should want him. But I’d have liked a little more than that.

What books do best

I love films. I love music. I love games, comics, paintings, the lot. But most of all I love books, stories told in words. I’m not going to argue that my chosen favourite form of art/entertainment (if only there was one word that meant both and didn’t sound either pretentious or disparaging) is better than the others, because it’s not. They’re all means of telling stories, or saying interesting things, and they all work in different ways. The ones that work best are the ones that use the strengths of their form to the best advantage. In Watchmen, for instance, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore deliberately used one of the advantages of comics to do something which can’t be translated into film — the fact that you can pack a lot of detail into each panel, and the reader can linger, and flip back and forth, to really absorb that detail. That’s why, when watching the recent film of Watchmen, I kept thinking, “But they’ve missed out… And what about… And where’s..?” All the way through.

But what do books do best? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

The weaknesses are obvious. Unlike all the other art-forms I listed above, they can only say one thing at a time — worse, they can only build up what they want to say one word at a time, which means you have to put a lot of work in just to get to the first thing they want to say. Music can be instantly impressive; the first shot of a film can just grab you; a splash page opening a comic takes you right into its story; but even “Call me Ishmael” has to be read one word at a time.

What are books’ strengths? I’ll take my answer not from a book, but a song:

Book after book
I get hooked
Every time the writer
Talks to me like a friend

— “Spaceball Ricochet“, Marc Bolan

Books talk to you, just like people do. Alright, you don’t see them waving their hands and pulling faces while they’re talking (books are more like telephone conversations, in that way), and they don’t allow you to talk back (or they don’t listen if you do), but although books are the least like our sensory experience of the world (mostly pictures and sounds), they are, I think, the most like our experience of people.

Some books (like some people) talk at you, and expect you to believe what they say because it’s they who say it. Such books are written by Authors, and their Authorship comes from them regarding themselves as Authorities — and that’s a little too close to regarding themselves as what Philip Pullman called The Authority in His Dark Materials, i.e., God. (Books written by Adults for children all too easily fall into this trap. Don’t they, my dearie wittle ones?)

The best books, though, are written by human beings, not Authors. They talk to you as an equal, as another human being, and don’t try to be clever or sophisticated or loud, or to put on airs:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson.

Idle reader: without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine. But I have not been able to contravene the natural order; in it, like begets like.

Don Quixote, Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

Ever since people started reading books silently (Saint Ambrose is recorded as the first to engage in this peculiar practice), when books speak, they do so inside your head. In this way, they can seem not so much to be speaking to you, as to be the result of your eavesdropping on someone else’s thoughts, their own interior monologue raised to the clarity of complete and artistically ordered sentences.

What goes on in other people’s heads is, of course, one of the great mysteries of life. We can be reasonably sure that if I see a red penguin and you see a red penguin then the sensory impression received by our eyes is roughly the same thing, but the thoughts that go through our separate heads (“A red penguin? Am I insane?!” and “Ah, the Red Penguin returns…”) can be as different as, well, two books on a shelf.

But it’s in books that we have the solution to this mystery. Books allow the most intimate contact with the inside of another person’s head, because the writer doesn’t have to talk to us like a friend, they can go one better, and talk to us as they would to themselves, either about themselves, or (if they’re pure narrator) about the story, situation or picture they see:

The Piano Teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother.

The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where is grass colding on I’s feet and wetting they.

Voice of the Fire, Alan Moore.

A good book opens up a world and surrounds you in it. Because it starts inside your head, if read right, it replaces your senses and becomes your world, while you read it. One word at a time you go into all the strangeness, wonder, fear and peculiarity of being another human being. Which, you of course find, is just like being yourself. Only, with the furniture moved about a bit.

Arthur Machen’s The White People, Jo Walton’s Among Others

Arthur Machen’s “The White People” is one of the true masterpieces of short fantasy fiction, one that never fails to surprise me with its downright weirdness whenever I read it. Its main portion purports to be the journal of a young girl initiated by her one-time nanny into a strange world of rural magic and skewed faerie folklore. Its narrative veers from fragmentary dark fairy tales to the narrator’s exploration of the the weirder, wilder regions of the surrounding countryside, all written in a breathless stream-of-consciousness style that predates the experiments of the Modernists by almost a decade.

Machen wrote the core part of “The White People” in the 1890s, but (quite understandably) didn’t know what to do with it, and it remained unpublished till 1904, when he packaged it up with an explanatory prologue and epilogue and submitted it to Horlick’s Magazine. Or was it Ovaltine Monthly? Either way, some magazine with far too cosy a title for such a twisted little tale. Perhaps because it was the only way it could be published, Machen’s prologue and epilogue try to turn the tale into a decadent horror story, with two gentlemen aesthetes discussing the the young girl’s journal as an example of “sin”, and concluding with the information that the young girl was found dead, probably poisoned by an overdose of whatever had been giving her all these weird visions. This, perhaps a necessary defensive manoeuvre on Machen’s part to fend off the criticisms of literary conservatives, has always struck me as a false note. The narrator of “The White People” is just too full of vitality, and of magic, to be the mere victim of a horror story. “The White People” touches the genuine twilight world of early adolescent imagination gone weird, blurring the dividing line between childhood games and magic ritual, fairy tales and ecstatic religious vision.

This is a whole favourite sub-genre of mine: stories of the superheated twilight world of adolescent imagination, particularly where fantasy is used to make the distinctions all the more explicit. Examples include Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Steve Cockayne’s The Good People, (is Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory one? I can’t remember, now) and films such as Spirit of the Beehive and of course the superb Pan’s Labyrinth. The most obvious thing to do with this sort of story is to equate the fantasy/magical aspects with childhood imagination, and to have the adolescent narrator come to terms with the loss of their childhood by having them lose the magic. This is the Peter Pan approach, where the only way to retain the magic of childhood is to remain stuck as a “Lost Boy”, an eternal child, regressed and cut off from adulthood. But the best of these stories see through this rather obvious use of fantasy-as-metaphor for childhood, and do something different. The best of them take the magic through to the adult world. Doing this convincingly, and meaningfully, is difficult, which is why a good example can be hard to find.

Jo Walton’s Among Others does it marvellously. Like Machen, Walton is Welsh, as is her narrator, Morwenna. (I did my best to sound the story in a Welsh accent as I read it. It probably wouldn’t have convinced a native speaker, but what would a native Welsh speaker be doing in my head, anyway?) Written in the form of Mor’s diary when she is fifteen (and set quite specifically in 1979 and 1980), Among Others starts soon after a terrible event in its young heroine’s life. She was born with a twin, with whom she shared the intensely imaginative world of her childhood life. Like Machen’s heroine, the pair rambled the Welsh countryside, naming its ruins and hidden pockets with fantasy-tinged names (many of them lifted gleefully from The Lord of the Rings), and quite naturally interacting with the wonderfully imagined faerie folk they find there. But Morwenna and Morganna’s mother is a witch; she is also insane (the two may go together), and has dark plans. The girls go against their mother. The story of exactly what happens is spread out through the novel, so I won’t say any more on it, but by the time Among Others begins, Mor is living in the aftermath. Her twin is dead, she herself has a badly injured leg, she has run away from her mad mother, and her childhood is over forever.

The fantasy elements in Among Others are spot-on subtle. Mor spends a lot of time wondering about the fairies she sees and the magic she does, and how it is different from the way the world operates anyway. The book provides one of the best, most succinct, explanations of faerie nature when it says fairies are as they are because they’re “part of everything”. But for much of it, Among Others could be a non-fantastic novel, merely about an imaginative teenager. One of the best parts of the book is Mor’s passion for science fiction, which she consumes by the bookload. It’s amazing how fun it can be to read about a fictional character’s reaction to a book you yourself have read. It’s not essential to know a bit about late 70s SF, but it would certainly add to your appreciation of the book. (If not, anyway, the internet can provide all the footnotery you need. Not having read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, I had to look up “karass“, for instance, which is a key word in Among Others, referring as it does to a group of true friends who share your interests; one of the main threads of Mor’s story is her wish to find such a group, and what happens when she uses a little magic to do so.)

A wonderful book. I’m amazed it hasn’t yet found a UK publisher, as I think it could well be a mainstream, as well as an SF/fantasy, success over here. Still, perhaps in the current Amazonian age of bookselling, such things matter less. (Actually, now I come to think of it, I got mine through the Book Depository.) (And I should point out that I first heard about the book via the wonderful Notes from Coode Street podcast.)

But to return to “The White People”, Among Others reads more like how Machen’s tale should have ended, with its teen narrator not losing herself in the horrors of a dangerously un-Christian world of imagination, but finding the proper place for magic in a real, adult world. Among Others has a wonderfully affirmative ending. It’s one of those rare books that blends its fantastical and realistic elements seamlessly into a single vision, that manages to seem far more true, and far more insightful, of what it means to be a human being than a merely realistic novel ever could.