I stumbled across this one fairly recently and was unprepared for the sucker punch it delivered. I admire the queasiness of its atmosphere and the coolness with which the violence is handled. Like the Kafka and the O’Connor stories, this one made me gasp out loud. As a reader I am drawn to tenderness and restraint in a writer’s prose style. If a story can make me gasp out loud with shock at an action or a turn of events that is surprising yet inevitable and even signalled from the start, all the better.
First published in The New Yorker in June 1948 and available online to subscribers here. Widely collected, including in The Lottery and Other Stories, Penguin 2009
Back to the violence of children: Shirley Jackson is another writer who knew how wicked people, and especially children can be. Her work is deeply entrenched in American Gothic but found within the domestic, the horror of a loveless marriage say or children who can’t wait to punish their bad dog as in this story. It contains all the hallmarks of Jackson’s longer work: mistrustful neighbours, small-town gossip, children who revel in the punishment of others a little too much, a propensity towards cruelness and a killer last line.
First published in Harper’s Magazine, November 1948, and available to subscribers here. Collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1949, republished by Penguin Classics in 2009
Plaintive and haunting in a quieter, more heartbreaking way than the rest of her formidable oeuvre, Jackson takes the trope of the missing woman on the lam and turns it into an exploration of family dynamics, public mourning, and the erosion – and precariousness – of identity.
First published in Ladies’ Home Journal, 1960. Collected in Come Along with Me, Viking, 1968 and, more recently, in Dark Tales, Penguin Classics, 2016
“Look up,” he said to his father. “What?” his father said, looking up.“Look down,” Laurie said. “Look at my thumb. Gee, you’re dumb.” He began to laugh insanely.’
This is a story about a boy called Laurie who starts school. Most of his stories revolve around ‘Charles’, another, much naughtier boy in his class. His parents are keen to find out more about ‘Charles’, to meet his parents, and to offer the teacher some moral support. It is only when Laurie’s mother attends a parent-teacher evening that we realise the truth about ‘Charles’.
I tend to teach this story alongside Jekyll & Hyde, for fairly obvious reasons. Why does Laurie invent Charles? Do you think Laurie will continue to talk about Charles now he has been found out? Has Laurie changed as a result of starting school, or was he always like this really?
First published in Mademoiselle in 1948. Collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, FSG, 1949