There have now been three collections of Shirley Jackson’s short work published since her death in 1965: Come Along With Me — short stories, lectures, and part of an unfinished novel edited by her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman; Just an Ordinary Day — short stories edited by her children Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt; and now Let Me Tell You, which includes short stories, essays, lectures, and some of Jackson’s humorous writing, again edited by Laurence Hyman and Sarah DeWitt. These come alongside the one collection published during Jackson’s lifetime: The Lottery and Other Stories. (Not to mention, of course, her six novels and two memoirs, along with some other works.)
On the one hand, you may be thinking (as I am) that by this time, there aren’t many more gems to be uncovered in the Jackson archive; that we are probably, not to put too fine a point on it, scraping the bottom of an excellent, well-crafted, and bounteous barrel. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that there’s a significant difference between the stories you’ll read in The Lottery (or even Just an Ordinary Day) and the ones you’ll read in Let Me Tell You. These stories are less polished, less sneaky, less powerful. There are ups and downs to the collection, but overall it feels a little unfinished, as if a rewrite or two would have made the stories into some of the Shirley Jackson material we know best: the kind that leaves us feeling a little paranoid, a little unsettled — and unsure exactly why.
On the other hand, some of the material is very good indeed. Most of these stories stay in the realm of the natural, like “Still Life with Teapot and Students,” in which a professor’s wife confronts the students who have been flirting with her husband; the setting (living room, tea, cookies, gracious living) provide the boundaries that keep the vicious conversation from becoming, perhaps, fatal. This, like the stories that take place in wartime (“Homecoming,” “4-F Party,”) are sharp depictions of their time; they are satirical, biting. A few of the stories are more typical Jackson material, as they stray just barely over the boundary between the real and the unreal, leaving the reader to decide what has happened. In “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons,” for instance (my favorite story in this collection), a housewife obsessed with neatness and good breeding is tormented by the popularity of a new family that’s moved to town. Their messiness, their spontaneity, and their ability to win hearts is an affront to Mrs. Spencer, whose refrain — “I spend my whole life keeping things nice for them, and this is the thanks I get” — becomes more urgent and plaintive as the story’s pace quickens.
It’s like everyone back home, she was thinking, picnics and last-minute invitations, and everything confused and grimy and noisy, taking people away from their homes and their dinners without ever stopping to think how inconvenient it might be for the orderly routine of their houses. Mrs. Spencer remembered, with a little shiver of fury, the troops of laughing friends her sister was always apt to bring home, always, somehow, when the house was freshly cleaned and things put in order.
The title gives the story’s essential clue: the Oberons are not ordinary; they are enchanters. Or are they? The reader is left to pore over the details, and to wonder. The story “The Man in the Woods,” in which mythology steps into an ordinary person’s life, is also very interesting. It reminded me strongly of one of Robert Aickman’s strange stories, though perhaps a little less ambiguous than those are — all of which is to say that there are some excellent things here.
The essays are also mostly pretty good. Shirley Jackson was a humorist, in the days when the New Yorker and Good Housekeeping often considered the same authors for publication. Her essays on family life, her lightly-haunted house, and the craft of writing are sharply written in a distinctive voice — one that’s completely different from her voice in fiction writing. To tell you the truth, I’d give up all her nonfiction for another story as good as “The Daemon Lover” or “The Witch” (both stories about James Harris, now that I think about it; that’s an essay for another day.) But I’ll take what I can get, and these are a real pleasure to read.
This may be the last collection of Shirley Jackson’s work that we get; after this, it’s probably all grocery lists and train tickets. But to come along with Jackson one more time, with work that’s never been published before, is a joy. If you’ve never read Shirley Jackson before, I would suggest starting with a different collection, or with one of her novels (We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House are both excellent.) But if you’re already a fan and have read most of what she’s written, this is a good way to get even more of that taste in your mouth: dark, bitter, perilous.