Friday, February 7, 2014

FFB: Just an Ordinary Day - Shirley Jackson

The introduction to Just an Ordinary Day (1997) written by two of Shirley Jackson's grown children tells how they received a box of manuscripts, carbon copies and typewritten sheets of unpublished stories as well as the original manuscript for The Haunting of Hill House and character notes for that novel. The two siblings began to think about putting together a volume of their mother's unpublished work.  In doing research they uncovered even more published work that had never been reprinted in book form.

Just An Ordinary Day brings together thirty vignettes and stories that were never published in Jackson's lifetime in the first half of the book. A second section reprints an additional twenty-two stories that originally appeared in a variety of magazines between 1943 and 1968. Though mostly women's magazines bought Jackson's stories I was surprised to see among the list of publications Harper's, Vogue, Gentleman's Quarterly, and Playboy. Three stories were purchased by Fantasy and Science Fiction but I have to say the fantasy content is very slight and none of them would I classify as science fiction by the widest leap of imagination. I can't believe they made it to that revered magazine. Clearly, Jackson was able to appeal to a wide audience even if her themes and topics seemed to be very similar as I moved along from story to story.

I'll admit I did not read this volume cover to cover. I randomly selected stories based on the titles or by the magazine in which the story was originally published. Admittedly this was not a very good way to discover what I wanted to read -- Jackson's darker fiction dealing with crime, the supernatural or domestic suspense tales. I hit gold with only three stories. "Nightmare" tells a story of surreal paranoia when a woman feels she is the subject of a bizarre advertising gimmick that seems to have taken over the city. An eerily evocative supernatural tale of people trapped in a painting ("The Story We Used to Tell") is a brief but chilling example of Jackson's gift for making the flesh creep. "The Possibility of Evil" about an anonymous letter writer was my favorite story of the batch I selected.

While perusing the other stories I learned that the bulk of Jackson's fiction was about suburban life, married couples and troublesome children ("Arch Criminal" and "I.O.U."), the problem with gossip in small towns ("The Very Strange House Next Door"), the malaise of housewifery and the desire to escape ("Maybe It Was the Car"), the dependence on neighbors for help and advice ("When Things Get Dark" and "I.O.U." again) and other similar themes. But in all of them Jackson managed to undercut the mundane and the superficial with an uneasiness and a cruelty that was often disturbing.

One of the most interesting things that Laurence Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart have done with this material is to point out the way Jackson liked to recycle plot ideas and even characters from story to story. The most fascinating juxtaposition is of two versions of the same story called "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith" in one version and "The Mystery of the Murdered Bride" in the other. In the former the story is more fleshed out, more direct with little ambiguity except for perhaps the very last line. In the second, and probably the first version, the story is vague and hazy. It seems unpolished. There's too much left to suggestion and the final sequence is just muddled. Jackson is trying to plant the idea that Mrs. Smith is oblivious that her new husband might be a wife killer with a couple of bodies buried in his past. I think the version called "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith" is the more successful of the two. Similarly, the entire plot of "Nightmare" was lifted and inserted as a minor incident in "The Omen", one of her stories published in Fantasy and Science Fiction that to my mind is representative of neither genre.

Her darker fiction is not well represented in this hefty volume. There is an ambiguous ghost story that has traces of crime fiction in "The Missing Girl" and "The Friends" is a nasty story of busybody Ellen who decides to put an end to the adulterous affair of her friend Marjorie by commandeering Marjorie's free time. But it is "The Possibility of Evil" where I found Jackson to be at her shining best. Published in the December 18, 1965 issue of The Saturday Evening Post (mistakenly noted as 1968 in this book) we get to know the inner workings of superficially kindly old woman Miss Strangeworth who in her spare time writes poison pen letters to the neighbors she is smiling to on a daily basis. When she has a mishap mailing a batch of those letters and some children help her by hand delivering a letter she dropped Miss Strangeworth gets a bitter taste of her own "good intentions". Deservedly, in 1966 "The Possibility of Evil" won Jackson the Edgar for "Best Short Story". This is the kind of story I've always felt was Jackson's strength. Though she may show traces of the underbelly of apparently peaceful suburban life in her more lighthearted domestic tales it is this kind of portrait of Adela Strangeworth that is her hallmark in American fiction.

11 comments:

  1. I will definitely have to get this volume John - fascinating to see how she re-used the same material and to get a sense of the more popular publications she was also appearing in - thanks very much.

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  2. A great review of a book I haven't read yet. Thanks!

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  3. As might be guessed by some of Jackson's fiction, her kids could still be snots...at least some of the magazine stories in JUST had often been reprinted in various anthologies, just hadn't been collected in a Jackson volume. Which was strange in and of itself, that it took them so long (she, at least, had multiple reasons to take her time).

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    1. Hmm... I didn't bother to check up on the two siblings' claims that this collection was the first book reprint for the magazine stories. But you would know better than I, Todd. None of them were familiar to me, but I only knew of the contents of the collection that contained "The Lottery."

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  4. I've never read any Shirley Jackson, John. Don't plan to. Not my cup of tea. But I still enjoyed reading your review and thinking that maybe I've missed something. But maybe not.

    By the way, I finished reading THE FASHION IN SHROUDS by Margery Allingham (I think you wrote about it at some point.) just last night. It was one of those books that I despised but kept reading anyway just to say that I'd finished at least one Allingham book. I'd never liked her work and this book more than any proves the reason why. One reason: Lugg. Ugh.

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    1. It wasn't my review of you read, Yvette. I still haven't read any Allingham. Hmm... I've avoided her for years and your opinion of FASHION... may keep me away from her even longer.

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  5. I prefer Shirley Jackson's darker stories, but she was a versatile writer and produced a wide range of fiction.

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  6. John, you have absolutely convinced me to read more fiction by Shirley Jackson, especially her "darker fiction." I don't acquaint myself entirely with every author I read but writers like SJ are the exception. Thanks for the background to her work.

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  7. I was looking forward to reading this, having seen your comments at Sergio's post. Some of these stories sound interesting, but I will probably pass on her writings for now. Too dark for me. You have certainly introduced me to a different aspect of her writing.

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  8. I'm a big fan of Jackson's darker work, and especially appreciate her way of making suspense out of the ordinary. You hit it on the head when you mentioned that she undercuts the mundane with an "uneasiness." That's an apt word for Jackson's vibe.

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  9. I'm another Jackson fan, and like the sound of this book...very good review, as ever.

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