Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

The American writer Shirley Jackson is perhaps best known for her short story, The Lottery (The New Yorker, 1948), a piece that highlights the cruelty and violence that can stem from mob psychology. Dark Tales (published by Penguin Classics in 2016) is a collection of seventeen of Jackson’s later short stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. The stories themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society.

In The Possibility of Evil – the opening story in the collection – the seemingly upstanding Miss Strangeworth takes it upon herself to be the guardian of decency in her home town, the place where her family has lived for generations. However, our protagonist goes about her mission in the most underhand of ways, sending poison-pen letters to various residents, warning them of the evil that dwells within their midst.

Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion. Mr Lewis would never have imagined for a minute that his grandson might be lifting petty cash from the store register if he had not had one of Miss Strangeworth’s letters. Miss Chandler, the librarian, and Linda Stewart’s parents would have gone unsuspectingly ahead with their lives, never aware of possible evil lurking nearby, if Miss Strangeworth had not sent letters to open their eyes. Miss Strangeworth would have been genuinely shocked if there had been anything between Linda Stewart and the Harris boy, but, as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to do it. It was far more sensible for Miss Chandler to wonder what Mr Shelley’s first wife had really died of than to take a chance on not knowing. (pp. 6–7) 

Jackson excels at creating characters and situations that seem perfectly normal and respectable at first sight, only to reveal themselves to be somewhat off-kilter as the narrative unfolds. In What a Thought, one of the most striking pieces in this collection, a seemingly blissful domestic scenario takes an alarming turn when the protagonist, Margaret, is gripped by a sudden urge to lash out at her husband.

She flipped the pages of her book idly; it was not interesting. She knew that if she asked her husband to take her to a movie, or out for a ride, or to play gin rummy, he would smile at her and agree; he was always willing to do things to please her, still, after ten years of marriage. An odd thought crossed her mind: she would pick up the heavy glass ashtray and smash her husband over the head with it. (p. 94)

In the minutes that follow, Margaret must wrestle with two competing influences over her actions: an insatiable desire to murder her husband, and the notion that she is being ridiculous and irrational. After all, Margaret loves her husband; what on earth would she do without him?

Several of these stories explore themes of confinement and entrapment, from the explicit physical state of being trapped in a room to the more subtle psychological sense of being constrained within the limits of domesticity.

In The Good Wife, an overbearing husband keeps his wife locked away in her bedroom following a suspected affair – something his wife denies. Moreover, the husband opens and reads all his wife’s letters, frequently replying to them on his partner’s behalf.

In The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith, a newlywed becomes the subject of curiosity amongst her new neighbours following her recent marriage. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Mr Smith may be hiding something sinister from his past. Do the neighbours warn Mrs Smith of the speculation surrounding her husband or abandon the young woman to a potentially dangerous fate? You’ll have to read the story for yourself to find out.

Running through these stories, there is a sense that Jackson is highlighting the relatively limited roles woman are allowed to play in society – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. In The Beautiful Stranger, a dutiful wife is worried about the return of her husband from a business trip, fearing his dissatisfaction and anger following an earlier quarrel. However, the man who appears is not John, the woman’s husband, but a beautiful stranger full of warmth and generosity. Like many others in the collection, this is a creepy little story, underscored with a sense of eeriness and unease.

In other stories – often those containing elements of fantasy – characters appear to be trapped in houses (The Visit), paintings (The Story We Used to Tell) or recurring scenarios (Paranoia). In the latter, a man becomes increasingly convinced he is being followed by a stranger in a light-coloured hat on the way home from work – a journey of some importance as it is his wife’s birthday. As the action plays out, Jackson ratchets up the sense of unease, culminating in a twist that I didn’t see coming. This is an unnerving story with a sting in its tail, a very effective little piece.

The Visit is another highlight in the collection – quite Gothic in style, it features a young ingenue with a curious mind, a large house replete with an imposing tower, and at least one character who may or may not be a ghost. (As is the case with many of the best short stories, Jackson leaves enough scope for the reader to bring their own sense of imagination into play; and The Visit is a great example of where this can work so effectively.)

Before wrapping up, there are two final stories I would like to mention. In The Bus, an elderly woman is abandoned at night in the middle of nowhere by a bus driver who claims to have arrived at her stop. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) for our protagonist, she is picked up by a couple of passing truckers and dropped at a nearby inn. What starts as the journey from hell turns even more sinister once the woman steps into the building – it appears oddly familiar in many ways, almost like a remodelled version of her old home, complete with recognisable touches. This is another nightmarish story where the central character seems locked in a loop, desperately seeking the safety of home.

Also deeply unsettling is The Summer House, in which a couple decide to stay at their holiday home beyond the traditional end of season, much to the surprise of the locals. All too soon, the couple find themselves running out of vital supplies – food, kerosene, a functioning car – while the permanent residents seem very reluctant to help. Once again, Jackson proves herself adept at developing a growing sense of anxiety as the story plays out.

Overall, Dark Tales is a very good collection of stories, one that showcases Jackson’s eye for the twisted and off-kilter in seemingly everyday situations. A deliciously disquieting read for a dark winter’s night.

33 thoughts on “Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

  1. A Life in Books

    This one’s going straight on my list, Jacqui. I read The Haunting of Hill House last year and at first couldn’t grasp what the fuss was about but by the end of it I was a Jackson convert – twisted and off-kilter, indeed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great! I think this would be perfect for you as your next taste of Jackson, partly because the stories in the collection give a flavour of some of her key themes. Her fiction speaks so strongly of society’s treatment of women, trapped in the confines of domesticity — likewise outsiders and individuals on the margins of society. All in all, there’s so much to discover.

      Reply
  2. Caroline

    These sound so creepy. I think there is a connection between these takes and her life as I seem to remember. Both The Bus and The Summer House sound particularly good. I haven’t read her but your descriptions remind me of the shorter fiction of Patricia Highsmith.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t know enough about Jackson’s life to say whether she’s drawn on it here, but it would surprise me (especially given the focus on the constraints surrounding women in some of the stories). Highsmith is a great comparison, definitely in terms of the darkness lurking in the midst of suburban society.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    These stories sound terrific. The plot descriptions make me think of old Twilight Zone episodes. I have yet to read Jackson. I will likely start with The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Both great starting points. I started with Castle and haven’t look back since. There’s definitely something of The Twilight Zone about a few of these stories, especially Paranoia and The Bus.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    These sound absolutely wonderful. Shirley Jackson is such a good writer of these kinds of tales. A few years ago I read a large co of Jackson’s stories and essays called Let me Tell you. It was pretty big so I ended up writing two blog posts about it. I am trying to remember if any of the stories you mention were in it, I think they must have been. I’m sure Paranoia was. I wish I had a list of the contents of both books to compare. They are definitely the kind of stories I would re-read so it probably doesn’t matter.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would love these. Very much in the style of some of Highsmith’s fiction, perhaps Daphne du Maurier’s too. I suspect you may well have read some of them before; but as you say, that almost doesn’t matter when the quality of the writing is as good as this. They’re probably the sort of stories where you would notice different things on a second reading, more subtleties and hints so to speak.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great post Jacqui – sounds like unnerving is the word for Jackson. i’ve only read a limited number of her stories, but once I got over The Lottery I enjoyed her work, and I certainly think I’ll look out for these.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Lottery is quite something, isn’t it. Very thought-provoking, and rather brave of Jackson to have written something so arresting back then. I think this collection would be a great next step.

      Reply
  6. lizipaulk

    I’ll be on the hunt for this now… Currently on a book-buying ban (until May – what was I thinking?), but this has been added to my list of potential purchases. Thanks!

    Reply
  7. Bianca

    I’ve been curious about this collection! We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my all-time favorite novels. It wasn’t until two years ago that I read The Haunting of Hill House. There is an underwhelming, but not terrible, adaptation of the former — on Netflix. I think that novel, along with Jane Eyre, will never be adapted to my liking. I look forward to reading Dark Tales. Thank you for posting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! And you’ve confirmed my worst fears about that recent adaptation on Netflix. As you say, it’s probably a book that will prove nigh on impossible to adapt successfully as so much of the power stems from what’s going on in Merricat’s head. I absolutely loved her narrative voice, so distinctive!

      Reply
      1. Bianca

        “…much of the power stems from what’s going on in Merricat’s head.” Precisely! While I have you here, have you read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne? I did last summer and loved it dearly. Judith is another insular character who may not translate well on the screen. I know there’s an adaptation starring Maggie Smith, but I’ve been hesitant to watch.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I have read Judith Hearne! And, as you may well have guessed, I absolutely adored it. What a tremendous achievement on the part of Brian Moore to have created such a believable, complex, tortured character in Judith. It’s one of most convincing examples of a male author writing about the inner life of a woman that I can think of. Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster is the other one that spring to mind here. I’m not sure if you’ve read Nora; but if not, it’s well worth considering.

          Reply
  8. Lory

    I’m not usually one for creepy stories but I love Shirley Jackson. I think it’s because she doesn’t write to manipulate us as some in the genre do, but delivers true psychological insight and incisive social commentary by pushing us beyond the comfortable but limiting facade of everyday life. As you point out, so often the tales are about the entrapment and oppression of women – but the very fact that she, a woman, is able to create them can give us courage to wake up to the “off-kilter” factors in our own lives, and maybe rewrite them.

    If you haven’t read it already I highly recommend the recent biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (I think I’ve got that right.) I really appreciated this window into her life and work.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that’s a really good point about Jackson’s ability to make us more attuned to the subtle forms of oppression or prejudices that might be present in our own lives. Take the Honeymoon of Mrs Smith, for example. While the setting is rooted in the mid-20th-century, the scenario itself is completely plausible even today. I’m sure there are several instances where a wife or girlfriend remains blissfully ignorant of their partner’s potentially sinister past. Reading the story made me think about what I would do if I was the neighbour’s position. Would I have the courage to speak out and try and talk to the woman concerned or leave well alone for fear of being seen as interfering? It’s hard to tell. I guess it would depend on how well I knew the people concerned, if they were relatively good friends of mine or acquaintances…Food for thought, for sure.

      Reply
  9. gertloveday

    I’m a great Shirley Jackson fan but I haven’t read these. You’re right about her interest in the restricted lives of women and what that can do to the imagination – as in her own case!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I’d like to read a biography of Jackson at some point, just to get a better feel for what happened in her life. As you say, there might well be some parallels between the fiction and some of Jackson’s own personal experiences, as disturbing as that may seem…

      Reply
  10. Julé Cunningham

    ‘The Lottery’ has haunted me my whole life after being required reading in school. Shirley Jackson could teach David Lynch a thing or two. Or perhaps she did. You’ve caught the unsettled feeling I have in reading her work really well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thank you. That’s kind of you to say about the unsettling feeling. It’s such an important aspect of the emotional impact of her work, so I’m glad to hear you think I’ve caught that in the review even if it did stir up some disturbing memories about The Lottery. I can imagine how frightening it must have been to read that story as a child or teenager, especially at a time when everything is changing and you’re trying to figure our your relationships with classmates and other peers. I hope it didn’t give you too many nightmares or sleepless nights…

      Reply
      1. Julé Cunningham

        No, it wasn’t quite that bad. Just very different from anything we’d read in class before with an effective teacher to ask probing questions. I’ve admired Jackson’s writing ever since, unsettling feeling and all.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s good to hear. A great teacher can make all the difference to a pupil’s level of engagement with a book. It sounds as if you had an excellent one, even if their questions did raise some uncomfortable points to consider.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great. I’m glad you like the sound of it. The quotes speak for themselves, don’t they? Especially the second one. That sudden lurch into violence comes right out of nowhere…

      Reply
  11. Andrew Blackman

    Oh yes, I remember The Lottery, but I’ve never read anything else by Jackson. These stories sound wonderful. I love the sudden appearance of the heavy glass ashtray in the middle of such a mundane scene.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That scene is so chilling, especially as the idea of the wife wielding that ashtray comes right out of nowhere. It make one wonder about the kind of marriage Jackson had herself, whether any of her own experiences served as inspiration for these stories. I guess I’ll have to read up on her to find out…

      Reply
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  13. Max Cairnduff

    I’m getting very little time to read presently due to work during lockdown. I think I’ll pick this up – they seem reasonably manageable and the two previous Jacksons you’ve directed me to were both excellent.

    Howcome you picked this collection? She has some others also doesn’t she? Was this just the one you happened to have or was there something about it that drew you?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think this collection would fit the bill as the individual stories are short, sharp and satisfying – probably manageable enough to fit alongside other things, especially if time and/or ability to concentrate are somewhat constrained.

      Oddly enough, I didn’t actually pick this collection myself. Our contact at Penguin during the Jean Rhys reading week sent me a copy of it at the end of the project, just as a little thank you for helping to raise the author’s profile amongst readers. It was very kind of her, a really lovely gesture. There may well be other (possibly stronger) collections of Jackson’s stories out there, but I think this must have been published in h/b around the time of the Rhys thing, hence the choice. I do think you’d like it, though. Like many collections, some stories feel somewhat stronger than others, but the very best of them are top-notch.

      Reply
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