‘Pillar of Salt’ by Shirley Jackson

In my early twenties I made a bad decision: I followed a boyfriend to New York, a city where I had no job and almost no friends, from London, where things had sort of started happening for me. I assumed, at 22, that things happen everywhere, so the plan seemed faultless. What followed was a time so bad that I developed a sort of cottonmouth when I tried to articulate the pain. In ‘Pillar of Salt’ a couple visit Manhattan from their quiet New Hampshire town, and wife Margaret begins to experience bouts of hallucinatory anxiety as she clashes with the city, seeing danger  and collapse (sometimes real, sometimes imagined) atop balconies, on shorelines, and in the throes of chic parties. Of course, her husband experiences none of this. 

It’s got Jackson’s trademark grotesquerie, and her unmooring of characters from the realities in which they’ve become comfortable. But it’s also a fuck you to the idea that a place’s inherent ‘badness’ requires explanation. There are notes of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in it, but also something more terrifying: that the claustrophobia and madness of a locked room like Gilman’s might bleed into the vastness of The Greatest City In The World™.

I wish I’d read ‘Pillar Of Salt’ two weeks into my time in New York, rather than many years after I’d started the exhausting process of re-emigrating to the UK. But the way in which fiction can step in for you, to unburden you of the responsibility to rationalise your interiority, is something timeless. And that’s nice. 

First published in Mademoiselle, 1948, collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, Penguin 1967

‘The Witch’ by Shirley Jackson

I have a very strange and uncomfortable relationship with Jackson, mainly because I think she’s excellent, but I do not want to deal with what she is revealing about human nature. I like ‘The Witch’ so much because it is, on the surface, a very funny story, but of course it reveals something more about human nature and our childlike glee for horror and our fascination with gore and ghost stories, and our capability for great cruelty. In it a little boy meets a man on the train who tells him a horrible story, to the little boy’s delight, and his distracted mother’s annoyance. It is very short, and Jackson writes with such a deft touch you do not notice that the dark has crept in.

First published in 1948 and collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, Penguin 1967. Also available as a Penguin Modern Classic for Kindle, 2014

‘The Daemon Lover’ by Shirley Jackson

A story for October
 
For All Hallow’s Eve and the shift to the darker side of the year, I choose Shirley Jackson. Her work is always unsettling, with the edges of this world blurred with the supernatural. In ‘The Daemon Lover,’ a woman searches the city for her fiancé, and can’t find him anywhere. It’s the day of their wedding, and as she grows more frantic and isolated, the story turns nightmarish: she travels to his apartment and finds his name on none of the mailboxes, the ones that may know him don’t remember him leaving, various shop owners’ faces rise up, their voices circling her. I’ve subsequently read that this story has in it Jackson’s comment about society’s expectation on women to marry but what I love in it is the invisible figure haunting every page, barely glimpsed, then eventually lost. 

Collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1949, republished by Penguin Classics in 2009. The story can be read here

‘One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts’ by Shirley Jackson

Now there’s even a biopic about her (haven’t seen it), and I think Shirley Jackson is pretty widely recognised as a brilliant, major writer. But for a long time, it seemed like she was ‘The Lottery’ and that was about it. Of course, ‘The Lottery’ is a great, great story and deserves all the huzzahs it gets. I could have included that one here, too, and been stoned to death a happy man. But just to be interesting (“Too late!” you moan) may I offer for your consideration ‘One Ordinary Day…’.

It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s clever, it’s funny, it’s profound and just a little bit disturbing… all the things that Jackson was so good at stirring together. It’s only about the origin of good and evil in the world – kind of. Read ‘The Lottery’ if you’ve never done so, by all means (and drop a copy of The Haunting of Hill House into your shopping basket while you’re at it.) But sit back and enjoy the Jacksonian whimsy of ‘One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts’.

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1955, and collected in Jackson’s (posthumous) Just an Ordinary Day, Bantam, 1996

‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson

Published in the New Yorker in 1948, The Lottery has long been considered the best short story of all time. A small American town performs an annual ritual of running a lottery, where its inhabitants draw lots to see which one will be sacrificed to a death by stoning. Jackson is so skilful in placing the unimaginable firmly in realism, that when first published, some readers were utterly convinced and consequently horrified that this was an actual event in a real town. Truly one of the best short stories I have ever read it makes for tense and deeply unnerving read.  

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

‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson

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

‘Renegade’ by Shirley Jackson

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

‘Louisa, Please Come Home’ by Shirley Jackson

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

‘Charles’ by Shirley Jackson

“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