The OF Blog: Shirley Jackson, Novels and Stories

Monday, May 31, 2010

Shirley Jackson, Novels and Stories

Ever since I watched a short film on "The Lottery" in high school, I have been a fan of Shirley Jackson's works, both in novel form (such as The Haunting of Hill House) and in short form (the above-mentioned "The Lottery").  Recently, I had learned that Library of America was devoting a volume to collecting two of Jackson's finished novels (The Hanting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle) and two short story collections, including a posthumous collection of early stories from the 1940s as well as previously unpublished works.  While this is not the entirety of her work, this Library of America edition (edited by Joyce Carol Oates) does contain representative works of hers.

This review will be rather brief, in part because I may want to revisit some of the novels in the near future, particularly around Halloween (as I had intended to write a full review of The Haunting of Hill House for Halloween last year, but got sidetracked by work demands at the time).  What I would like to focus on are a few elements in common in her novels and short fiction, because I believe that as spooky, strange, and scary as several of her tales were, it was in the manner in which they were presented that makes her one of the best writers of the mid-20th century.

Jackson was a consummate stylist.  Even in her earliest short stories, there is a measured pace to the tales.  Characters are often introduced as being average, ordinary people placed in strange situations, or (in a few cases) as abnormal people residing in a more mundane setting.  The clash between character and setting occurs in several of her more famous works.  For example, in "The Lottery," it is the female character's protests over the unfairness of the town's annual Lottery that accentuates the alienation that often exists between a person and his/her society.  This is furthered when the Lottery is revealed to be harsh, strange, and unsettling for readers trying to grasp the full import of what was happening throughout that short story.

In her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, this conflict between character and setting becomes even more apparent, as a group of people who have scoffed at the House's dark legend, have decided to reside there to prove that these tales are just exaggerations and superstitious fabrications.  However, there is much more to the House and Jackson slowly and subtly introduces elements that not only freaks out the characters, but the reader as well.  There is nothing really overt about what happens, but her slow, atmospheric buildup, the sense that something that goes bump in the night is lurking behind the next corner or behind a wall where a character is resting is very effective in creating a sense of spookiness.

This sense of atmosphere carries over into the other novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, except here the setting is balanced by a narrator who at times appears to be rather distant and maybe even unhinged.  While this novel does not have the chilling conclusion of The Haunting of Hill House, it is a good companion for this famous work.  However, I could not help but to wonder why none of Jackson's non-fictional works (she was very interested in portrayals of witchcraft and wrote an account of the Salem Trials) were not presented in this volume, unless perhaps there are plans for a second or third volume of her works where those would be included.  This lack of some of her more interesting work is my only complaint about an edition that presents one of the best 20th century writers in a very gorgeous and well-constructed edition.  Highly recommended for those who are curious about Shirley Jackson's works.

No comments:

Add to Technorati Favorites