Hearts of Darkness: The Short Fiction of Shirley Jackson

December 14, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Shirley Jackson’s birth. To celebrate, we’re taking a look at some of her most memorable novels and short fiction.

If you asked anyone about a American short story that stuck with them for their entire lives, it would not shock me if they were to think for a moment, and then say, “that one story, ‘The Lottery,’” followed up with some form of, “that shit is fucked up.”

One of the seminal works of American short fiction, “The Lottery” is the most widely-read piece of Shirley Jackson’s to worm its way into the heart of many a reader, but it is far from her only piece worth of attention. While “The Lottery” remains her best known story, Jackson was a prolific writer of short fiction, and though her other stories may not have involved a signature pile of smooth stones, they all demonstrate what Shirley Jackson did best: examined the domestic and interior lives of the insular, the middle class, the lonely, the strange, the aloof, and the cruel, and artfully spun their stories like a stained-glass spider illuminating an indifferent, dark, sharp world.

What follows is only a mere sampling; Jackson’s bibliography is long and storied, and the stories below are only a few of hers that stand out the most. Most can be found in her collection, The Lottery and Other Stories, but I encourage you to look far and wide, because like the dread in her stories, Shirley Jackson’s work is hiding in most every corner.

“The Intoxicated,” is a classic Jackson story to start on. Like many of her short fiction pieces, it is brief, but not lacking in edges. At a dinner party in a small town, full of people who feel they are intelligent, an older man wanders into the kitchen feeling just a little too intoxicated to continue the revelry. At the table is the teenaged daughter of the hosts, and when he attempts to be polite in speaking with her, realizes he has no idea what they could possibly talk about. That is, until he becomes the focus of her scrutiny, and in a too calm voice, she begins to talk about how the end of the world is coming, and he will not survive. Is he just drunk? Is she kidding? The slow escalation of her direct attention, the man’s growing dread, the uptick in specificity—all serve to unmoor him from the party, and consequently from his belief that he is fine, and special. In one brief interaction, Jackson cuts out the legs from under those who think highly of themselves, and exposes the dangerous fragility of something as simple as a domestic party.

“The Daemon Lover,” starts off simply enough: a nameless narrator wakes on her wedding day, and spends the early morning hours making sure everything is perfect: her attire, her makeup, the coffee, the food for the next morning. She is waiting for her lover, Jamie, to pick her up at 10 AM sharp, so they can go get married. But 10 AM comes and goes, and she is left alone. She calls. She goes to his apartment. She searches for him in every corner of the brief life they had together. And with every step she feels the world laughing at her, feels her heart shrinking in on itself, desperately reaching out with any hope she can muster that she’ll find him. And just as she passes a new apartment door, she thinks she hears him on the other side. She thinks she can hear laughter. But no matter how many times she knocks, day after day, no one ever comes to the door. A master class in building tension (something Jackson did so remarkably well), the examination of our nameless narrator’s breakdown, as the world she wanted to be refuses to come into existence, is minutely and heartbreakingly rendered, all culminating in the unanswered door. She will never know if Jamie, the writer, the Daemon Lover himself, is on the other side. And Jackson is content to leave you waiting by the door with her. (I’m also wondering if Kelly Link wrote her award-nominated short story “I Can See Right Through You” in homage to this particular story, for her tale contains a demon lover as well. You be the judge.)

“After You, My Dear Alphonse,” is short but packs a punch. Little Johnny invites Boyd into his home for lunch, prepared by Johnny’s mother, Mrs. Wilson; the two boys playfully utter the phrase, “After you, my dear Alphonse,” to each other before every action. Despite attempting to welcome him into her home, Mrs. Wilson cannot see past Boyd’s dark skin: she insinuates that his father is a manual laborer, that his mother has to work to support the family, that he’s not getting enough to eat, that he has many, many brothers and sisters—even though all of this is untrue, as Boyd politely explains. She even begins to offer him and his family old clothes, because she thinks they need them. When Boyd refutes all of this, and politely refuses the clothes, all the while perplexed and confused, Mrs. Wilson becomes very angry with him, takes the desserts away, and says that he should be grateful, that not every boy would be lucky enough to be offered clothing. The two boys are confused, and leave, politely insisting to the other, “No, no, after you, my dear Alphonse.” Jackson quickly, and with deft strokes eviscerates the self-righteousness of the white middle class, while tugging away at the inherent racism held tightly within the center of that supposed good will. While Mrs. Wilson will not become aware or disabused of her awful views, the reader walks away furious, with eyes wide and seeing.

“Flower Garden,” has Mrs. Winning, the daughter-in-law to the older Mrs. Winning, in the small town Vermont home of three generations of Harold Winnings, doing her best to assimilate and earn her place in the family. She is even beginning to look like her mother-in-law. But when a widow and her young son move into the house on the hill—the house that Mrs. Winning the younger has always wanted for herself, to fix up and make her own—she soon finds herself venturing outside of the family, and making friends with Mrs. MacLane, who is returning to small town life after the death of her husband. The two women and their sons grow close until Mrs. MacLane hires Mr. Jones, a black man, to help her tend her gardens, her only dream in coming to this house. Soon enough, the insidious racism and judgment of the town rears its head, and the whole town begins to pull away from Mrs. MacLane. To Mrs. Winning the younger’s horror, she finds that she has been caught in that orbit, and has begun to be associated with Mrs. MacLane and Mr. Jones. Horrified that she is being lumped in with the supposed perpetrator, Mrs. Winning soon turns against her one-time friend, the only person who made her happy, in order to be accepted by the town she hates, and the mother-in-law she cannot stand. Finally, in Mrs. Maclane’s moment of greatest need, Mrs. Winning turns away without a word. This story serves as a canny exploration of racism, classism, and group behavior, as well as the terrible insularity, judgment, and cruelty of the small town elite.

Finally, “The Lottery”, as mentioned above, remains Jackson’s most famous short story, and for good reason. Once a year, a small town comes together for an ancient rite; every male head of the family pulls a piece of paper out of a box. One of those papers has a black mark on it. Each member of the chosen family must then pull a piece of paper in turn. One of those papers has a black mark on it. The person who pulls it is then, almost gleefully, stoned to death by the rest of the townspeople. A story taking place in some timeless, nameless world, it is a dark fable that revels in the truth writ on the underbelly of humanity: that we are cruel in our reliance on systems that rid us of culpability; that the power of a group can override the power of decency; that many will go along with a heinous act because that is what the group decided; that left to our worst devices, we will willingly hurt each other over some manufactured slight. In a day and age where people are all too ready to attack those that seem different, where figureheads of reliant systems openly encourage violence, where groupthink is being used to justify attacks and hatred and Othering, “The Lottery,” has never been more relevant. The story has remained vital for so long because in a simple fable, Jackson rips away the rosy skin to reveal the dark heart underneath and show that at our worst, not only will we turn on one another, we will do so gladly simply because a system tells us to. Now more than ever, that tendency must be fought; those systems reconsidered.

Jackson’s fiction can be dark, twisted, sharp, and cruel. But equally, it is brave, funny, revealing, and compassionate. While the aspects of humanity that she uncovers can be disturbing or harmful, she doesn’t try to dissuade her readers that there is good in people. But she does not allow us to convince us ourselves that there is not darkness, as well.

Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.

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