The Impressive Range Of Shirley Jackson’s Let Me Tell You

One of America’s foremost proto–mommy bloggers is also one of America’s masters of horror and suspense, and yet many audiences only know Shirley Jackson as one or the other. Readers tend to recognize her either as the author of the short story “The Lottery,” which has become a popular entree for middle school teachers to order off of the accessible but still mind-blowing literature menu (and to which Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games owes a great debt), and of similarly eerie novels such as We Have Always Lived In The Castle; or as the wry, irreverent, easy-to-relate-to mother of four who wrote the parenting memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons

Those, as she called them, “disrespectful” descriptions of everyday catastrophes, originally published to acclaim in the mid-20th century, have been repackaged and rereleased by Penguin/Random House. To accompany them, Random House has also put out a collection of previously unpublished work called Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, which allows everyone at last to experience the full complexity of Shirley Jackson, to admire the breadth of her talent, the dryness of her humor, and the scope of her imagination.

You’ll have to pick your own favorite of the mix. Do you prefer ghost stories like “Showdown,” which makes you feel as though someone is standing behind you, breathing softly against your neck? The deceptively simple stories about small-town life such as “The Lie,” which makes it clear one really cannot, and should not, go home again? Or her more scholarly appreciation of both madcap and revolutionary children’s literature (“A Vroom for Dr. Seuss”)? Or perhaps the domestic essays about moving with her family to Vermont, which send up with wicked yet goodhearted zeal the conformist world of the 1950s? Consider this passage from “Good Old House.”

The painter arrived to do the outside of the house. As always, we were not consulted. The house had always been white with green trim, as were all the other houses on the block, and I suppose all the other houses in New England, and the painter did not for a minute imagine that anything else would be required of him; indeed, I doubt if he owned any other colors of paint.

Jackson’s work often trades in implication and metaphor; she refused to make her work overtly political, though according to her husband, she said she “was always proud that the Union of South Africa banned ‘The Lottery,’ and she felt that they at least understood the story.” The sharpness of her observations can lead readers, as well as governments, to political conclusions. Of course the stifled, pre-Friedan women of her fiction would feel more fulfilled if their lives were less circumscribed. Of course the men, too, would benefit from less constraint. In one hilarious short story, a regular Joe enters his apartment, puts down his briefcase, hangs up his hat, calls a greeting to his wife, sits down for dinner, and only then realizes he is in someone’s else’s home. Yet every detail is identical, so, in a sense, what difference does it make?

One of my favorite pieces is “The Play’s The Thing,” a world-weary piece of nonfiction about trying to write a sendup of a children’s musical for her family’s amusement, only to have her satire taken seriously by educators for miles around, and then further.

I tried to tell everyone that it was a rather callous parody, cynical and full of slang, but all the teachers said the same thing: What a wonderful idea! … Now that it exists, I can’t seem to get rid of it. It is a defiant statement by a pack of children about their world and their acceptance of it. I finally gave in as gracefully as I could: I had the play copyrighted, including the lyrics and music, and gave it to the children. It belongs to them, as it should. I am going to stick to ghosts and bridge games and haunted houses, where I belong.

Thank goodness Jackson did not decide to follow her own advice. We are all the richer for it.

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