Dark Tales, by Shirley Jackson, is a hugely effective collection of short gothic horror stories written in the fifties and sixties. She died in ’65.
I confess, like many I’ve spoken to about this book, not to have heard of her until a recent review of this collection, many of which were originally published in The New Yorker.
She is roundly lauded by the great and the good, despite being widely forgotten in a way that MR James, for example, isn’t, though her most famous work is indeed famous, The Haunting of Hill House.
As such, I came to this collection fresh and I strongly recommend it. Penguin Classics have issued it as a lovely little hardback, making me wish all hardbacks were paperback sized.
Of course, the stories are to be savoured without spoilers, so I shan’t delve into them here. If also you’d like to read some great horror where most of the protagonists are women you’ll find these stories even more interesting.
With little else to say then but buy this book, I’d like to give one shining example of her quality as a writer. Indeed, she’s so good she’s inspired me to consider trying a short story myself, where I have previously run a mile because I believe they’re the hardest form of writing to undertake well.
She is incredibly good at building a world and a person in a phrase or a paragraph. Here’s an example that knocked me out:
“Margaret sat with her book on her lap and watched her husband digesting, an operation to which he always gave much time and thought.”
This is the second sentence of the story. In this sentence Jackson conveys a colossal amount of information. Margaret and her husband are childless or very old, for what busy mother would have a book on her lap and be sitting idly after dinner. She is distracted, for the book is in her lap, she can’t focus on the pleasure of it. In particular, she is distracted by her husband digesting. This is an incredibly hard-working word. It suggests disgust, for it closely associates with the biological process, invoking an image of the viscera at work. She’s not watching her husband relax after his meal, she is watching him digest it. ‘Watching’ also suggests an obsession, she’s staring, for a period of time, not at him the person, but at a body in the act of digestion. It is impersonal, cold and removed. The comment regarding his taking his time after dinner to enjoy it speaks also to him being comfortable, sure of his position, the old-fashioned head of the household that has been fed and now sits and does nothing.
What follows can be traced back to this sentence, indeed, this single word. It is the marker and the explanation for what follows.
Here’s a lesson for all us writers. Effective word choices can enrich whole stories, deliver lots of information to the reader and do so in fewer words than a more staid rendition of the information. For me, it’s the mark of a great writer.
I’m also open to more brilliant short story collections, so if you’ve got recommendations in any genre do leave a comment.