The Lovecraft Reread

Don’t Talk to Strangers After All: Shirley Jackson’s “The Witch”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

This week, we’re reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Witch,” first published in 1949 in The Lottery, or, The Adventures of James Harris. Spoilers ahead.

“I saw a witch.”

Summary

The train coach is nearly empty; four-year-old Johnny has a bench all to himself. His mother sits across the aisle with his baby sister strapped to the seat beside her. Baby keeps busy with a rattle and toast. Mother reads a book and answers Johnny’s many questions without looking up. Now and then one another passenger walks by and responds to Johnny’s “Hi” with the kind of commonplace questions that annoy him, such as whether he’s enjoying the train trip. He’s more interested in looking out the window and reporting on what he sees: a river, a cow, etc.

Baby falls over and bumps her head. She squalls, and Johnny hurries to comfort her, petting her feet and begging her not to cry. Soon Baby quiets down. Mother rewards Johnny with a lollipop, and he returns to window-gazing. The next thing he reports seeing a witch: “a big old ugly old bad old witch” who threatened to come in and eat him. But Johnny chased her away.

Fine, Mother says, unperturbed.

A white-haired man with a pleasant face and blue suit enters the train coach, smoking a cigar. He returns Johnny’s greeting, leans over the seat, and asks what Johnny’s looking for out the window. “Bad old mean witches,” Johnny replies.

And does he find many?

Johnny’s non sequitur is that his father smokes cigars. All men do, the old man says. One day Johnny will, too. And how old is Johnny, and what’s his name? To which commonplace questions Johnny replies “Twenty-six. Eight hunnerd and forty eighty.” And his name is “Mr. Jesus.” His mother smiles fondly at the first reply, frowns at the second. Johnny adds that his sister is twelve-and-a-half.

The old man sits down next to Johnny. Mother is momentarily anxious, until the old man starts telling Johnny about his own little sister. Was she a witch, Johnny wants to know. Maybe, the old man says, which makes Johnny laugh excitedly. The old man settles in, puffing his cigar. Once upon a time, he continues, he had a little sister just like Johnny’s, so pretty and nice that he loved her more than anything in the world.

Mother smiles.

The old man bought his little sister gifts and a million lollipops. Then he put his hands around her neck and pinched her until she was dead.

Johnny gasps. Mother’s smile fades.

Yes, says the old man, to Johnny’s growing fascination. He pinched her dead, then cut off her head and hands and feet and hair and nose. He hit her with a stick and killed her. Mother’s about to protest when Baby falls over again and needs attention. Meanwhile the old man tells admiring Johnny how he put his sister’s head in a cage with a bear, and the bear ate it all up.

Mother comes across the aisle and demands to know what the old man thinks he’s doing. He better get out. She can call the conductor if he won’t. The old man asks if he frightened her. He nudges Johnny, who proclaims that this man cut up his little sister, adding that if the conductor comes, he’ll eat Mother. And he and Johnny will chop Mother’s head off!

And little sister’s too, the old man prompts. He stands and edges into the aisle, politely asking Mother to excuse him as he leaves the coach.

How much longer do they have to stay on this old train, Johnny asks. Not much longer, Mother says. She looks at her little boy, wanting to say more, but finally she can only tell him to sit still and be a good boy, for which he’ll earn another lollipop. After receiving the treat and providing a prompted “Thank you,” Johnny asks whether that old man really cut up his little sister. He was just teasing, Mother says. Urgently she repeats it: “Just teasing.”

Prob’ly, Johnny allows. Back at the window, he adds, “Prob’ly he was a witch.”

What’s Cyclopean: Johnny spots a “big old ugly old bad old witch,” making up for in reduplication what he lacks in vocabulary.

The Degenerate Dutch: Too tightly-woven to include much variety of culture or background, this story just has people… and witches. Assuming those are in fact different things.

Mythos Making: This week is less “Cthulhu rises from the deep” and more “a crack in the façade reveals the something lurking beneath, and we hate it.”

Libronomicon: Mom is trying to read her book on the train.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Excuse me, sir, this is more discussion of gruesome dismemberment than is appropriate without a formal introduction. Allow me to introduce you… to social norms.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Here’s our third dangerous child, balanced somewhere between Atherton’s treacley angelic belle (and mundanely obsessive wanna-be father figure) and Bixby’s omnipotent changeling (and necessarily neglectful parents). Jackson—as is frequently the case—walks the deniable horror line like a master tightrope walker. Johnny might be just another 4-year-old going through a phase where he thinks talking about violence is funny. Creepy Dude could just have a good sense of what little boys find entertaining and a poor sense of what parents find acceptable. But… prob’ly not.

Reading this in close proximity to the previous two stories, I’m struck by the contrasts—particularly with “Bell in the Fog.” Atherton fails so drastically at genre ambiguity, where Jackson nails it. Atherton’s sentimental where Jackson is observant, invested in the supernatural interpretation where Jackson is invested in making you nervous about it. Atherton’s characters are unbelievable, either as reincarnated socialites or just as humans. You can easily imagine watching Jackson’s across the train car, trying to decide whether to intervene. It’s that familiar yet horrifying line of “not quite definite enough to feel comfortable doing something,” realism adding layers to the horror rather than getting in the way.

Closer in than the fear of the observer, though, is the fear of the mother. Is my kid a good person, and will they behave today? When I take them out, will they get hurt? Will strangers give them horrible ideas?

And also: Will I get five minutes on the train to finish reading my book? And if I don’t give the kids my undivided attention—if I don’t respond seriously to every weird statement that comes out of their mouths—what horrors might arise?

Johnny seems like a normal kid—mostly. He makes up stories, chatters at his mother, comforts his sister when she’s hurt. And if he talks about ideas he finds scary (witches, violence), and if he finds them exciting too, well, that’s also pretty normal. But he also seems off. As in, I’ve never met a four-year-old who was annoyed to be asked their age. Most, assuming they’re not too shy to talk at all, will tell you how old they are several times in a row, with great enthusiasm. Ditto their name. Johnny obfuscates the answers to both questions, and wants something else from his random social interactions. And what he wants, apparently, is what Creepy Guy provides.

I notice that Creepy Guy doesn’t introduce himself, either. Names have power, and prob’ly he was a witch. So what is a witch? Per Johnny, it’s someone who dismembers people, or eats people, or both. Per the iffily-translated original Hebrew of Exodus, it’s an oathbreaker—the “oath” in this case being the social contract that says you can entertain strangers’ kids on the train, but may not wax eloquent about sororicide. It’s someone who breaks the rules about what can and can’t be done, in order to do harm. Whether or not Creepy Guy ever had a sister, and whether or not he ever fed her head to a bear, he’s worked a spell with language, and the harm is done. He’s encouraged Johnny to let his violent obsessions grow, shown him the fascinating heights that adults can build them up to. And he’s given Johnny’s mother the idea that her son is dangerous, and turned an annoying trip into a frightening one.

And back to Johnny—my suspicion is that what Creepy Guy’s actually done is recruit a new witch. After all, Johnny was waiting for something. And unlike most four-year-olds, he already knows that names have power and that he’d rather keep his hidden.

His mother may have some frightening years in front of her—if more subtly so than Anthony’s.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Shirley Jackson was a witch. No, really. She made the claim in the jacket bio for her first novel The Road Through the Wall, calling herself “perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch.” She kept cat familiars. She amassed a collection of books on witchcraft that would have been at home in any of Howard’s wizardly libraries. She could read Tarot cards, and she cast hexes on various members of the New York publishing world, including Alfred A. Knopf, whom she made break a leg while he was skiing in her adopted home state of Vermont. Why a skiing accident, when she could have just had an NYC cab hit him? Well, duh—she couldn’t practice black magic across state lines, could she?

She was also the mother of four, two girls, two boys. She wrote stories about them for women’s magazines which were later collected as fictionalized memoirs. The titles of these two books are telling: Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Jackson knew the dark truth of the universe: Kids are little agents of chaos and destruction, the veritable spawn and understudies of Nyarlathotep, don’t let those cute lisps and chubby faces fool you. If all children had “Good Life” Anthony’s powers, the entire world would be Peaksville, Ohio. How should the reader have known that little Blanche of “The Bell in the Fog” was no mortal child? Come on, she was simply too sweetly angelic to pass as one.

So what if Jackson’s domestic semi-fictions were often hailed as laugh-your-butt-off funny? Sometimes you have to laugh or you’ll scream and retreat into the sanctuary of a new Dark Age, am I right? Ask any sanity-conscious witch, like Shirley Jackson. Or any mother who’s encountered what I like to call the evilability of children, that is, their attraction to the cruel and horrific, the ogres and trolls and, yes, witches of our imaginations.

Johnny’s mother doesn’t end up laughing, though, which puts “The Witch” into the horror column of Jackson’s literary ledger rather than the social comedy column. Unlike “It’s a Good Life,” which doffs its mask of normality on the first page, “Witch” retains the illusion for a good third of its length. Mom and kids on the train, slightly but comfortably bored, sure to reach their destination in the fullness of time with no worse perils to fear than Baby Sister’s occasional head-bump and the trite small talk of fellow passengers. Johnny’s a good kid, more imaginative than some but in a drollish, undisturbing way. Sister’s very little trouble to anyone when she remains upright; a rattle and toast are enough to keep her entertained. Mom multitasks effortlessly, readjusting Baby as necessary, acknowledging Johnny’s observations and questions, reading her book. But then Johnny has to go and imagine he sees a witch out the train window.

Or does he imagine the witch? Everything else he’s remarked on has really been there. At any rate, by “speaking of the devil,” he conjures one in the form of an old man breathing smoke. Freud is supposed (perhaps erroneously) to have said that “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” mere leaf-wrapped tobacco rather than a symbolic phallus. I think the old man’s cigar is symbolic, though of a potency beyond the sexual. It bears fire at its tip, destructive force channeled for the old man’s pleasure. Johnny realizes that the cigar is the stranger’s crucial feature, hence his remark that his father smokes cigars, too. Sure he does, the stranger says, because all men do. So will Johnny too, one day.

Uh oh. I detect the start of a spiritual seduction here. My suspicion deepens when the stranger asks Johnny his name and Johnny answers “Mr. Jesus.”

Mom chastises Johnny for his presumption, but Johnny correctly recognizes his role in the unfolding drama: Innocence Tempted. Tempted and (unlike Jesus in the desert) quickly going down for the count. Johnny is only momentarily shocked when the stranger’s tale of his own brotherly devotion turns to one of brutal murder and mutilation. His dark imagination (foreshadowed in his earlier story of a child-eating witch) kicks into gear, and he not only hangs on the stranger’s unrepentant confession, he eggs him on—did Stranger cut his sister all in pieces? Did the bear really eat her whole head?

By now Mom’s outraged; only Baby’s unfortunately timed fall has kept her from confronting the stranger more quickly. Outrage turns to horror when Johnny laughs at the stranger’s query, “Did I frighten you?” Johnny’s not frightened. He’s on the old man’s team and tries sportingly to outdo him: Wait, wait, listen, that supposed keeper of the peace the conductor will respond to Mom’s complaint by eating Mom. And then he and Johnny (or Johnny and the stranger, or all three) will chop Mom’s head off. No, no, wait! Mom will hilariously eat Stranger!

The stranger joins in Johnny’s mirth until, as suddenly as he appeared, he politely quits the coach. He might as well leave, because he’s done his job. Normality only seems to return with Johnny’s repeated question about how much longer the trip will take. Mom is shaken, realizing she should counsel Johnny without knowing what she can say to neutralize the stranger’s poisonous words. As Johnny shows no upset, she has an excuse to dismiss the incident and shelter in the new pseudo-normality. She snatches at the excuse, only telling Johnny to be a good boy and offering a lollipop bribe.

Johnny slips easily into good-boy mode. All might have been well if he hadn’t ruined their game of It-Never-Happened by asking if Mom thinks the stranger really cut up his sister. Mom is no longer in auto-response mode; she realizes the situation is urgent, requiring her urgent repetition that the stranger was just teasing.

Probably, Johnny allows, but his last words betray that he doesn’t entirely believe her. Looking out his window on the world again, he says that probably the stranger was a witch.

A witch, hence capable of infanticide.

A witch, a word of which the etymology is complex, but one of its origins may be the Low German wikker or wicker, meaning soothsayer. A soothsayer, in present usage, is one who can predict the future. In more archaic usage, it was one who tells the truth.

Either of those usages is unsettling where Jackson’s witch is concerned. More unsettling still: Jackson’s a witch—as, see above, she tells us herself. Therefore she is a wise woman and a teller of truths, however unsavory or outright terrifying.

 

Next week, we round off our collection of scary kids with Ray Bradbury’s “The Small Assassin.”

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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