Very rarely does one find a short story collection where all stories are above average. Kudos to Ms. Jackson for producing a collection where all are excellent, and some really outstanding. I wonder whether it is possible to fall in love with a lady who passed away when one was scarcely two years old? If so, I’m in love with Shirley.
The title story needs no introduction: in fact, this is the one which first led me to Shirley Jackson (and The Haunting of Hill House, which so far I’ve not been able to read). It must be one of the most discussed stories in American literature, and one of the most devastating.
It can be called a horror story, in the true “shocker” tradition of E C Comics stories – the last panel hits you like a sledgehammer. But it’s much more than that. In its apparently nonsensical setting and unrealistic storyline, a great historical truth is encapsulated: once you are past the shock of the first reading, if you read it once again, you will get it.
Also, I loved the way the story was crafted. The horrible ending is foreshadowed very early – but you won’t get it until you have gone past the final revelation. Then, many of the apparently innocent actions and statements by the characters suddenly take on sinister meanings. And the banality of the whole thing – the casual attitude of the people to finish a task and get back to their lives – is the most chilling aspect of the story.A true classic.
However, The Lottery is an exception in this collection – none of the other stories are actual shockers, though the suggestion of violence in some of them is really disturbing. In The Renegade, various methods to “cure” a dog of her chicken-killing tendencies are discussed, some of them right out of a medieval torturer’s manual. In The Witch, a casual story told to a boy by a stranger takes an ugly turn. Always, the humdrum suddenly metamorphoses into the bizarre – never quite letting go of strong undercurrent of black humour.
Shirley never lets us forget that behind the mask of civilisation, the caveman is still very much present – even though the mask is removed fully only in The Lottery. However, it leads to a permanent undercurrent of tension which would be unbearable had it also not been so humorous. People are always at loggerheads, arms akimbo, ready to draw and shoot – though they never actually do. We can see this tension among social situations most palpably in Trial by Combat, Afternoon in Linen, Like Mother Used to Make, Men with Their Big Shoes and The Intoxicated, and also in stories where the antagonism is not so evident. In some stories, this results in the total emotional domination of one human being by another, leading to virtual slavery (Like Mother Used to Make, Men with Their Big Shoes). Perhaps not surprisingly, children in Ms. Jackson’s fictional universe take it in their stride.
In Kerala, we have a movement called “Pennezhuthu” (Woman-writing). It is coined by feminists to indicate the deconstructed language they use to subvert traditional masculine bias in literature. I have never been able to understand what they mean by this, but it cannot be denied that talented women bring a certain individual touch to language, themes and narrative. Shirley’s female protagonists, lost in the labyrinthine city jungles, are a case in point.
In Pillar of Salt, New York becomes a virtual trap for a country woman who is reduced to a wreck who cannot cross the street by the end of the tale. In Flower Garden, the younger Mrs. Winning of Vermont Manor House becomes a prisoner of her own snobbish values. In Elizabeth, a lonely woman stuck in a stagnating business dreams of a demon lover in a sunlit garden and waits for him. In the The Tooth, a woman in the grip of a bad tooth has a dreamlike bus trip with a mysterious stranger.
But it is in The Daemon Lover that this mysterious male, a representation of the female animus perhaps, is taken to its logical extreme. A woman on the search for her lover who has stood her up on her wedding morning, runs him to earth in an apartment where he is apparently holed up. However, all her efforts to smoke him out are vain.
She knew there was someone inside the other apartment, because she was sure she could hear low voices and sometimes laughter. She came back many times, every day for the first week. She came on her way to work, in the mornings; in the evenings, on her way to dinner alone, but no matter how often or how firmly she knocked, no one ever came to the door.
It is not coincidence that all these elusive men are named Jim Harris. James Harris is the daemon lover of Scottish ballad, the Devil himself in the guise of a man who comes to seduce a carpenter’s wife and ultimately lures her to her death in a burning ship: the ballad is quoted as epilogue to this collection. However, it seems that Jackson’s heroines go to their devils willingly – like the cow-maid who sees death as Lord Krishna in Sugathakumari’s famous Malayalam poem, Abhisarika (“The Wanton”). Maybe this was a form of liebestod they craved unknowingly all their lives.