Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, by Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell YouI often tell people how much I love Shirley Jackson, what with having read and enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House and having read and LOVED We Have Always Lived in the Castle and, of course, The Lottery. Shirley Jackson! She’s so great! She writes the creepiest things!

If you had told me before I started this new collection of her work that the pieces I would enjoy most would be the ones about her everyday life as a parent and housewife, I would have thought you’d had the wrong Shirley Jackson, is what I’m saying.

Not that there aren’t creepy stories. The book opens with a story called “Paranoia”, in which one Mr. Halloran Beresford is just trying to get home, but he keeps running into and being followed by some weird guy in a hat. Another story, called “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons”, involves a woman who receives a weird letter, ignores it, and then reaps the consequences. Even some of Jackson’s biographical essays have a spooky sort of slant to them.

But primarily the short stories in this collection are teeny vignettes (a page or two at most) of mundane life, brief peeks into a household or a relationship that require the reader to fill in some of the meaning and importance. Many of these I just did not understand, others I could kind of figure out but wasn’t thrilled with.

The humorous essays are where Jackson shines, especially, as I said before, talking about family and home life. “In Praise of Dinner Table Silence”, “Questions I Wish I’d Never Asked”, “How to Enjoy a Family Quarrel”, “The Pleasures and Perils of Dining Out With Children”… these are all stories I could see being written today, except that they’d be gif-filled BuzzFeed lists and not nearly as hilarious.

Second place in the awesome category, behind those essays, is the title story of the collection, which is only in second place because it’s not actually finished. When I saw the editor’s note that it was only a partial story, I was like, uh, okay, but after reading it I completely understand why it was included. It is the start of a longer story, and is much longer than possibly everything else in the book, and it is kind of beautiful. It’s almost unfair to include it in this book because a) it stands out like a sore thumb as a well-developed longer story amongst a sea of super-short stories and b) all that development comes to naught when the story ends abruptly in the middle of some nice exposition. But I still managed to enjoy it immensely, so I guess it works out?

I highly recommend this collection for fans like me, who have read just a couple wonderful things and haven’t gotten the full spectrum of Jackson’s writings, and for Jackson completists. If you’re a Jackson newbie you should probably stick with her previous story collections or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is the best ever.

Rating: 8/10

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

So, I read this for RIP two years ago and found it pretty fantastic, if easily spoil-able. And then a while back I found it on OverDrive as an audiobook and plopped it on my “for future reference list” and then I had disappointing times with the audio for The Turn of the Screw and I put off listening to it for fear of a repeat.

But I should have feared not! For this audio version is everything that The Turn of the Screw was not, with the narrator all suspenseful and whispery and actually way more creepy than I had previously thought Merricat to be. Excellence!

And so, yes. There’s a Merricat, and her family is about half dead, including one person who is basically half-dead himself, and her sister Constance doesn’t leave the house on account of the town doesn’t care if Constance was acquitted of murdering her family, they’re still jerk-pantses who like to sing songs about murder. And they sing them at Merricat when she goes into town, but she just imagines them all falling dead and she feels better.

That’s pretty much how the whole book goes. Also: the town is full of mean people, Merricat’s house is a refuge, a relative comes to call who starts to combine the two, hell breaks loose. Don’t let townies into your house, is the moral of this story. Also beware the power of people in large groups (this is from the woman who wrote The Lottery, after all), the power of very aggressive people, and the power of superstition. And arsenic. Arsenic is bad stuff, guys.

I would tell you more specific things, but part of the charm of the story is in how Jackson sets everything up to be revealed, although even knowing the “secrets” of the book I still found a lot to love in it. So you should just go ahead and read it twice in a row. It’s a short book. No problem.

Recommendation: For people who are or like to be creeped out by children and/or mobs. Also people who like poisonous mushrooms.

Rating: 9/10
(RIP Challenge)

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson certainly knows how to do creepy well. I read her short novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle for last year’s RIP Challenge, so grabbing another book by her seemed very smart for this year’s!

The premise of the book is that there is a fellow, Dr. Montague, who is conducting some experiments at a place called Hill House. Basically, he’s heard some stories about the house being haunted and basically uninhabitable, and he’s hoping to make some notes on any phenomena he might come across. He takes on a couple of assistants, including Eleanor Vance, our protagonist. Eleanor and the others spend several nights in the house, observing some interesting things like something banging on doors, a very cold spot where no draft could come through, and the same or another something writing messages on walls. But even with all of the house’s oddities, Eleanor finds herself starting to really love the house… perhaps too much?

Because that’s what the book is really about. Eleanor has been essentially a shut-in for 11 years, taking care of her mother, and her sister doesn’t respect her, and Eleanor has no friends or self-confidence until she shows up at Hill House. And then she tries a little too hard to be BFF(aeae)s with everyone, and of course it doesn’t work quite that well, and so she makes friends with the only thing left to be friends with — the creepy house. Which goes about as well as you might expect.

I’ll admit I was hoping for something a little scarier when I picked this up, but I am perfectly content with the psychological creep factor — I certainly understand the feeling of being shut in and having no one to hang out with, though I hope that my friends who have to love me through the Internet would keep me from getting eaten by a haunted house. You would, right? Please?

Ahem. So Jackson hits the interpersonal relations right on the nose, with the “lets be best friends!” attitude of strangers living together that slowly erodes into a “lets avoid each other like the plague!” when the people realize they don’t actually like each other all that much, and with the clingy “wait let’s still be frieeeeends” Eleanor, and especially with the pitch-perfect passive-aggressive Theo. Jackson also nails the creepy-haunted-house bit with the banging on the walls and the spinning room and the “oh, that’s really creepy” moment between Eleanor and Theo. And THEN she offers up an excellent person going slowly and inexorably insane.

Basically I’m going to have to marry Shirley Jackson. Don’t tell Scott.

Recommendation: For those who like a bit of psychological creepiness in their cereal, and who don’t mind if that’s the only kind of creepiness. Not for those who are looking for people popping out from behind doors, wielding knives and severed heads.

Rating: 9/10
(RIP Challenge, A to Z Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
books i done read
Reading matters
things mean a lot
A Striped Armchair
Well-Mannered Frivolity

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (8 September — 10 September)

What a delightfully creepy book! The book is narrated by our protagonist, Mary Katherine Blackwood, who opens the book with the statement that everyone in her family but herself and her sister Constance is dead. That’s no fun. Mary Katherine also remarks on some library books sitting on a shelf: “I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf.” What?? What has happened? Mary Katherine will tell you.

The story jumps back five months to explain just how those ended up being the last books, and also why the Blackwoods are nearly all dead, and there’s some good story in between those two stories and it’s all just wonderful. I don’t want to say anything else lest I spoil this short, entertaining book!

Suffice it to say that even when I had the story figured out, or thought I did, Jackson managed to keep me on my toes, and everything in the story just has this strange, creepy vibe to it that makes you wonder just what is really going on in this house. I’m going to have to find some more Shirley Jackson stories, stat!

Rating: 9/10
(RIP Challenge)

See also:
BooksPlease
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?
things mean a lot
books i done read
A Striped Armchair

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.