Edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt
Random House. 416 pp. $30
Just before I began to read “Let Me Tell You,” the latest posthumous collection of Shirley Jackson’s writing, I drove to Ohio. For the eight hours of that trip, and during several days when I was visiting my mother and sisters, I listened to an audiobook of Jackson’s “The Lottery and Other Stories.” This may have been a mistake.
Not that the recording — featuring the voice work of Cassandra Campbell, Gabrielle de Cuir, Kathe Mazur and Stefan Rudnicki — was other than superb. The problem was that these stories were such breathtaking marvels that they made virtually everything in “Let Me Tell You” seem trivial and inconsequential. While this “new” collection of old fragments, essays and uncollected fiction, edited by two of Jackson’s children, does contain amusing and engaging pages, it is mainly a book for the confirmed Shirley Jackson devotee.
Which, if you’re not one already, it’s easy enough to become. Just buy the handy Library of America volume that comprises the writer’s two greatest novels, “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959) and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” (1962), the entire contents of “The Lottery” collection (1949) and an assortment of other stories, including such favorites as “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts” and “The Summer People.” Editor Joyce Carol Oates even includes two of the best episodes — in their original short-story form — from Jackson’s 1952 family memoir, “Life Among the Savages”: the sly “Charles,” about a kindergarten terror, and “The Night We All Had Grippe,” which the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman dubbed the funniest thing written since James Thurber’s “My Life and Hard Times.”
Of course, being the author’s husband, Hyman wasn’t wholly disinterested in his judgment. In a foreword to “Let Me Tell You,” Ruth Franklin — who is at work on a biography of Jackson — laments that this once-noted reviewer and Bennington College teacher is now sadly unread. Yet there was a time when English majors devoured “The Armed Vision,” Hyman’s strongly opinionated survey of 20th-century criticism, and graduate students carried copies of “The Tangled Bank,” his study of Darwin, Marx, J.G. Frazer and Freud as imaginative writers. While Hyman’s moment may have passed, Franklin asserts that Jackson’s star is “steadily rising.”
This, I think, is only partly true. Since Jackson died of heart failure at 48 in 1965, her work has never lacked for admirers, especially among aficionados of contes cruels and tales of existential disorientation. “The Lottery” itself remains the rare classic that, once read, is never forgotten. Many people, I would guess, can even remember exactly when and where they first experienced this parable about the horror of blind obedience to ancient tradition. I was in eighth grade and still find one particular sentence, near its end, the acme of Jackson’s low-key but pitch-perfect artistry: “The children had stones already, and somebody gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.” When first published in the New Yorker, “The Lottery” elicited more mail than any other story in the magazine’s history.
But then Jackson possessed an almost preternatural gift for evoking uneasiness, that almost indefinable sense that something is badly out of kilter. The first paragraph of “The Haunting of Hill House” builds to a deservedly ominous cap phrase — “whatever walked there, walked alone” — but the opening of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” may be even better:
“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. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
Just copying out those few eerie sentences made me want to reread the whole book, a tour de force of misdirection and mounting dread.
Though consisting largely of bottom-drawer material, much of it dredged from Jackson’s archive at the Library of Congress, “Let Me Tell You” does contain a few memorable stories — notably “Paranoia” and the overly symbolic “The Man in the Woods” — and some mildly entertaining essays and anecdotes about her children and husband. “Still Life With Teapots and Students,” however, proffers a countervailing glimpse of marital infidelity and unhappiness. “The Ghosts of Loiret,” about a collection of postcards of haunted houses, repeats anecdotes used to better purpose in Jackson’s excellent lecture “Experience and Fiction” (included in the first, and best, posthumous collection, “Come Along With Me,” edited by Hyman).
In general, Jackson’s many articles for Good Housekeeping, McCall’s and other women’s magazines are characterized by an easygoing, commercial brightness. In the personal essay “Good Old House,” she talks about the mysterious aspects of her 19th-century Bennington home, including the frequent disappearance — and reappearance — of certain small objects, among several other ghostly happenings. But “none of these things bothered us excessively,” she insists, for “we have always been a family that carries bewilderment like a banner.” In “The Play’s the Thing,” she recalls how she wrote “The Bad Children,” her revisionist take on “Hansel and Gretel,” initially intended for family performance only. Her most serious piece here may be the appreciation of the 18th-century novelist Samuel Richardson and the three qualities his work represents for her: “peace, principle, kindness.” In other essays, she comments on her craft — “A writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing” — or reveals, with tough love, the principal way that beginning authors fail: “Their stories are, far too often, just simply not very interesting.” The rest of that essay, “Garlic in Fiction,” provides pointers on how to capture and keep a reader’s attention.
Notwithstanding its variety and occasional charm, “Let Me Tell You” shouldn’t be anyone’s introduction to Shirley Jackson. Instead, the newbie ought to read everything in “The Lottery and Other Stories,” not just anthology standards such as “The Daemon Lover.” My own current favorite, “Flower Garden,” tracks the gradual destruction of a kindly human soul by racial prejudice, reinforced by small-town proprieties. In some ways, its end is as harrowing as that of “The Lottery” itself. The complementary (but humorous) “After You, My Dear Alphonse” deftly sends up well-intentioned liberal assumptions about African Americans. As for “Elizabeth,” which records a day in the life of an embittered and coldly frightening professional woman, one can only regret that Jackson never completed the larger work from which it was quarried, a novel about the protagonist’s pact with the devil.
More often than not, Jackson’s own artistic witchery comes across as strangely, if despairingly, comic. There are, nonetheless, times in reading her accounts of desperate women in their 30s slowly going crazy that she seems an American Jean Rhys, other times when she rivals even Flannery O’Connor in her cool depictions of inhumanity and insidious cruelty, and still others when she matches Philip K. Dick at his most hallucinatory. At her best, though, she’s just incomparable.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in The Washington Post. His latest collection of essays, “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books,” has just been published.
On Aug. 5 at 7 p.m., Michael Dirda will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
You can find all of The Post’s books coverage at washingtonpost.com/books.