The Enduring Magic: Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson
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I came to Shirley Jackson’s Let Me Tell You — 400+ pages of stories and essays collected and edited by the author’s children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt — with a deep appreciation for Jackson’s endeavors in literary horror. In addition to reading Jackson’s dark domestic “The Lottery,” which garnered more hate mail than any other story at the time in New Yorker history, I had recently finished her most popular novel, The Haunting of Hill House, a ghost story in which terror lurks around every corner, largely unseen.
Due to these and other works by Jackson, her avowal of the otherworldly has largely defined her career. Some might even say an aura of malevolence surrounds the public perception of Jackson, with her work conjuring up images of wicked children and bewitchery.
But this is also the precise beauty of Jackson’s style, and always has been: That it haunts us. After reading The Haunting of Hill House, for example, oleanders trespassed in my thoughts for weeks. These flowers appear to Eleanor, the novel’s protagonist, upon her arrival at Hill House. A subtle symbol of Eleanor’s innocence, oleanders carry another meaning, one that I discovered in my copy of The Illustrated Language of Flowers.
Oleander … … … Beware.
Even though nowhere in the book does Jackson mention oleanders as symbols of warning, the way in which their presence ribbons through the macabre reality of the story delivers a chilling contrast that remains long after the characters have departed.
In Let Me Tell You, Jackson talks about her use of symbolism in one of her several superb lectures on writing, “Garlic in Fiction.” She explains, “Each of these cumulative symbols dovetails with the others, each belongs absolutely to the journey between reality and unreality, and each must carry the weight of Eleanor’s loneliness and longing for a place where she belongs.”
This is all to say that, in approaching the works in Let Me Tell You, and knowing Jackson’s extensive background with mythology and mysticism (“Shirley was raised on the classics and self-educated in the literature of the supernatural”), I was expecting another series of gripping, terrorizing tales filled with horrors just out of sight. To my surprise and eventual delight, this is not the case in Let Me Tell You. As Ruth Franklin notes in the collection’s foreword, “A notable absence from the fiction in this collection is the interest in the supernatural that would characterize so much of her work.”
Instead, throughout the 22 unpublished stories in Let Me Tell You, Jackson’s many literary influences are readily on display. In step with forefathers of domestic realism like Raymond Carver and John Cheever, Jackson shows her ability to manipulate a setting in which little happens, laying bare the depths of her characters with only a few lines of dialogue or description.
In “The Bridge Game,” for instance, two couples simply discuss whether or not to play bridge. Similarly, in “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons,” a new family who claims to know Mrs. Spencer moves into town. The whole story encircles this bit of knowledge. And yet through just this singular event we become infuriatingly intimate with Mrs. Oberon and her well-meaning, albeit flawed, existence.
No ghosts. No dread-filled oleanders. No terrible unknown waiting just beyond the next page. And yet each of these stories is far from simple. Ripe with imagery all their own, the stories here offer valuable insights on gender and the toll blind conformity can take on personal relationships.
In other stories, Jackson’s signature preoccupation with the uncanny shows itself in new and unexpected ways. Jackson’s “Company for Dinner,” about a man who fails to notice he’s entered the wrong apartment at dinnertime, suspends disbelief to press upon the reader the non-existence that governs unexamined routines. Jackson’s use of magic escalates with “The New Maid.” In this story, an overworked couple in an unhappy marriage hires a new maid whose own brand of magic transforms the couple into children for an entire day.
“In the kitchen, the new maid, her pocket full of candy and her eyes twinkling wickedly at some secret knowledge, listened first to the voices of the children as they drifted down from the open window of their room; when there was silence upstairs, she was forced to listen to the monotony of the argument going on between Mr. and Mrs. Morgan.”
This blending of the mundane and the bizarre is Shirley Jackson at her finest. The stories in which Jackson twists reality ever so slightly — foraying briefly into myth, fairy tale, or science fiction — insist that the reader look again. Look closely, Jackson implores, at the day-to-day actions that corroborate our existence.
While reading Let Me Tell You, I also became deeply aware of Jackson’s range of knowledge and respect for form. In “The Man in the Woods” — a tale whose loveliness and staying power parallels that of “The Lottery” — Jackson reveals her reverence for the intuitive strangeness of fairy-tale logic. When Christopher, a scholar compelled to the forest for reasons he doesn’t understand, visits a cabin in the woods, his hosts recognize a shift in their structural makeup. Jackson foreshadows this shift with a fight between Christopher’s and his host’s cats:
“I’m terribly sorry,” Christopher said, with a fleeting fear that his irrational cat might have deprived them both of a bed. “Shall I go and find Grimalkin outside?”
Mr. Oakes laughed. “He was fairly beaten,” he said, “and has no right to come back.”
“Now,” Phyllis said softly, “now we can call your cat Grimalkin. Now we have a name, Grimalkin, and no cat, so we can give the name to your cat.”
Here, Jackson embeds in the reader the notion that positions within the household can be supplanted — regardless of the wishes of the rest of the family. In a haunting turn of events, Grimalkin’s fate befalls Mr. Oakes, and his only request of Christopher is to remember the roses: “They must be tied up in the spring if they mean to grow at all,” Mr. Oakes says. In signature Jackson style, the contrasting images of the dark and imminent forest and the flamboyant rose bushes create a horrific atmosphere that perfectly compliments Jackson’s examination of masculinity, purpose, and violence in this story.
In another of the essays contained here, “How I Write,” Jackson says the following about her penchant for the uncanny: “What I am trying to say is that with the small addition of the one element of fantasy, or unreality, or imagination, all the things that happen are fun to write about.” However subtly, the supernatural lurks on each page, in all these stories, whether or not magic makes a physical appearance.
More than anything, the vast range of styles contained in Let Me Tell You, not to mention the range of genres, offer the reader an invigorating and unprecedented peek into the multifarious interests and intellect of one of the greatest writers in American literature. The collection also reminds us just how far Jackson’s influence and legacy extends. Remnants can be seen in contemporary authors ranging from Kelly Link (whose story “The Summer People” shares much in common with Jackson’s story of the same name) to Stephen King (Jackson fans have long drawn parallels between The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House) to Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games relies on the society’s own twisted form of lottery).
Like Mr. Oakes in “The Man in the Woods,” this collection as a whole gently impels us to remember the dark forces that helped love to grow. Remember who planted the roses — symbols of grace and secrecy, love and horror, domestic and wild — which have since overgrown the literary establishment. Remember we have Shirley Jackson to thank for engineering those dark and good-humored seeds.
by Shirley Jackson