Collection Tells True Story of Her Range JUST AN ORDINARY DAY by Shirley Jackson; Bantam $23.95, 400 pages
A generation ago, almost every anthology of notable American short stories included Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” It was the kind of story that established its own genre--in this case, anthropological horror. It was set in a small town where, 364 days a year, life ambles on as it does anywhere else. On the 365th day, however, a resident is selected by lot and stoned to death.
“The Lottery” appealed to readers for several reasons. It strikingly juxtaposed the surface of modern life with the persistence of bloody and primitive superstition. It could be interpreted in any number of ways. Mostly, though, it succeeded as a shocker. Jackson made us believe so much in the ordinariness of the town that we refused to accept the mounting evidence to the contrary until the very end.
Most literary careers are like icebergs or Hawaiian islands: The great bulk of them lie out of sight. Jackson (1919-1965) is an extreme example. In her short life, she wrote 12 books and published prolifically in magazines, but today she is remembered almost exclusively for “The Lottery” and her novel “The Haunting of Hill House.”
As a result, when the name Shirley Jackson is mentioned, we think of scary stuff, of evil lurking in bucolic surroundings. This is accurate as far as it goes, but, as this collection of 52 of her stories shows, horror wasn’t the only mode of Jackson’s writing, or even the dominant one.
The first 30 of these stories were never published. Jackson’s kin recently found some of them in cobwebbed files in a Vermont barn. They are not dated, which is unfortunate, because--except for the assumption that they are early work--we don’t know quite how to fit them into the picture of her artistic development that we assemble from the other 22 stories, which appeared from 1943 to 1968 in such magazines as the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Mademoiselle and Playboy.
It’s clear, though, that Jackson, unlike Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King, didn’t immediately hit on the vocation of scaring her readers. The “typical” stories, in fact, come late. Before that, we see her experimenting with a variety of genres--and not, it seems, just because she was a professional catering to the demands of the market.
What the early Jackson did best was comedy. In stories such as “Party of Boys,” “Arch-Criminal,” “Journey With a Lady” and “I.O.U.,” she displays a particular gift for portraying boys age 9 to 12--an insight that owes something to Mark Twain and Booth Tarkington but also must have been grounded in her own experience.
And if Jackson, in her formative years, now and then wrote a story in which malign spirits appear (“Lord of the Castle,” “My Uncle in the Garden,” “Devil of a Tale”), she was just as likely to write one, at least as deeply felt, about magic of the feel-good kind (“Family Magician,” “The Wishing Dime,” “Come to the Fair”).
The only real clue to the direction Jackson’s career would take was the sharp opposition of her visions of good and evil, the purity of her blacks and whites. She began to combine the two--at first occasionally, then with consistent purpose--into Manichean parables.
In an early story, “Jack the Ripper,” a man who picks up a drunken teenage girl outside a bar and takes her home seems for all the world like her rescuer until he pulls out his knife. In two versions of the same story, “The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith,” the bride of a serial killer either blithely disregards neighbors’ warnings or, with chilling passivity, accepts her fate.
In “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts,” a benign spirit who goes around cheering people up and doing good all day turns out to have a spouse who has spent the same day doing bad things. Bored, they decide to switch roles.
In “The Missing Girl,” a girl who disappears from a New England summer camp has such a tenuous claim on reality that in the end the other characters doubt she existed at all. In “The Possibility of Evil,” the canker in the heart of another small town is a 71-year-old woman who grows beautiful roses and sends anonymous letters that poison her neighbors’ lives.
These stories, we are tempted to feel, lead up to “The Lottery” and express the real Shirley Jackson. But it’s far from certain that Jackson would have felt the same.