Mad Women

Imagine, if you will, a junior high English class in a small Midwestern town. The students are relieved that the grammar books have been put away and it is time for a film. The lights dim and an ancient 16mm projector displays a story of children gathering rocks, parents choosing slips of paper, and concludes with the stoning of an innocent woman. The lights go up and most of the students are stunned. A few of them though, especially those who have just lived through the unit of dodgeball in gym class, are mightily impressed that such a subversive idea could have made it into the classroom.

This, via the Encyclopedia Britannica’s dramatization of the short story “The Lottery,” was my first introduction to the works of Shirley Jackson. Despite the strong impression it left, in the years since I had never read any of her other stories. Recently though, while perusing the new fiction stacks, I came upon a Modern Library Edition of Shirley Jackson’s collected works, Novels and Stories, and decided to properly introduce myself to her work.

I confess to having been a bit worried that my now older, though not necessarily wiser, self would be disappointed. Instead, I was just as impressed and disturbed as at my first exposure. The collection was selected by Joyce Carol Oates and includes Jackson’s major novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But as a lover of short fiction, I went straight for the large number of short stories.

Very few of the stories are as directly shocking as “The Lottery.” Instead Jackson is a master at creating an unsettling atmosphere from the world of everyday post-war living. Three examples should give you a feel for them:

In “The Tooth” Clara is sent by her husband to the city, since the suburban dentists are “butchers,” to find a qualified dentist to pull her tooth. Is it the pain, codeine or something else that makes her see a mysterious figure on the bus and start to unravel?

In “The Renegade” Mrs. Walpole, her family having recently moved to the country, finds out that her new neighbors have accused the family pet of being a chicken killer. Disturbingly, her children heartily agree with the punishment that the new community demands.

In “Summer People” the Allisons decide to break with local tradition and stay beyond Labor Day at their summer cottage in New England. As all the services they need are cut off one by one, they begin to question their decision.

The growing material prosperity and suburbanization of America in the 1950s and 60s, plus the background dread of the Cold War, loom large in her stories. This collection would be an excellent companion piece for the short stories of John Cheever, or if you are more visually inclined, the popular exploits of Don Draper and company. Whatever you do, don’t take as long as I did to discover her work.