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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Shirley Jackson: Horror as a Slice of Life

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

I am reading The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, and, as I do so, I am struck, again and again, by the strong similarity between her style and that of Flannery O’Connor’s. There is a directness to their sentences, a no-nonsense, straightforward cadence that marches resolutely forward, even as it describes and narrates unlikely stories typically involving grotesque characters. Despite the improbable tales and the fantastic characters, Jackson’s narratives are frequently slice-of-life stories, or narratives that involve mere segments of their characters’ lives without exposition, with little overt action, with minimal conflict, and with an inconclusive denouement. Her stories start in media res, characterizing their protagonists and antagonists as they go, seemingly on the fly. The incongruity, and, often, the irony, that results from this bare-bones approach in which realistic portrayal is juxtaposed to, or is the vehicle for, the grotesque and eccentric, is jarring. To get a sense of the meaning of any of Jackson’s stories, one must reread them, usually several times. The reward for one’s time and effort, however, is well worth the trouble.

Since most of her stories start, progress, and end the same way, an analysis of one is a sufficient introduction to Jackson’s method. I choose to illustrate her approach with an examination of “Trial By Combat,” which originally appeared, in 1944, in The New Yorker.

The plot is deceptively simple. Emily Johnson, a young woman working in New York City, while her husband is away in the Army, possibly at war, lives in a rooming house, where, during the past two weeks of her six-weeks’ residence to date, she begins to notice that someone is pilfering her belongings. Handkerchiefs, costume jewelry, perfume, and “a set of china dogs” have disappeared from her room.


One day, when she is returning to her room from the roof, where she has been sunning herself, she sees “someone come out of her room and go down the stairs,” and Emily recognizes her “visitor” as her downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Allen. (It is “an old house,”wherein the tenants’ skeleton keys fit one another’s, as well as their own, rooms.) Emily goes to Mrs. Allen’s room, where the two women have a cordial conversation about their respective husbands and their fondness for flowers and plants before Emily makes oblique references to someone’s having come repeatedly into her room and pilfered her belongings, declaring that the trespassing and theft “has to stop” or she will be obliged to “do something about it.”


Emily sees that Mrs. Allen’s room is almost identical to her own in its furnishings: “the same narrow bed with the tan cover, the same maple dresser and armchair; the closet. . . on the opposite side of the room, but [with] the window. . . in the same relative position” (42). Although Mrs. Allen is twice her own age, the widow’s late husband, “dead for nearly five years,” was a soldier. The couple was childless, although photographs of “several” children cluster about his photograph, his “nephews and nieces,” Mrs. Allen explains. When Emily expresses her fondness for flowers as a means of brightening her room, lamenting that they “fade so quickly,” Mrs. Allen tells her that she can prolong their color by adding an aspirin to the water so that “they last much longer” and “make a room look. . . friendly.”


Despite her visit to Mrs. Allen’s room, the thefts continue: “The following evening, when Emily came home from work, a pair of cheap earrings was gone, along with two packages of cigarettes which had been in her dresser drawer” (45). Emily responds to these additional thefts by calling in sick to work and biding her time in her room until she hears Mrs. Allen go downstairs, at which point Emily goes to the elderly lady’s room. After looking “for a moment at the picture of Mrs. Allen’s husband,” Emily opens the top drawer of the widow’s dresser and finds her own belongings inside: “Her handkerchiefs were there, in a neat, small pile, and next to them the cigarettes and the earrings. In one corner the little china dog was sitting” (46).


Mrs. Allen returns, catching Emily in the act of rifling her drawers. And Emily tells herself, “now turn around and tell her,” but instead of accusing the widow of having stolen her belongings, Emily says that “I had a terrible headache and I came down to borrow some aspirin. . . . and when I found you were out I thought surely you wouldn’t mind if I borrowed some aspirin” (47). Mrs. Allen accepts Emily’s explanation, gives her the aspirin, and tells her that “I’ll run up later today. . . just to see how you feel” (47).
Much of the meaning of this seemingly simple, six-page story is derived from what is left unsaid rather than from what is directly stated. The similarities between Emily and Mrs. Allen bind them together. The widow is almost an older version of the protagonist, an embodiment of Emily’s own future. They both live in a rooming house, in Spartanly furnished, nearly identical rooms. Their husbands are both away--Emily’s in the Army, Mrs. Allen’s a soldier taken by death, perhaps (the story’s title suggests) as a casualty of war. They seem lonely (Mrs. Allen’s only “companion” is the Woman’s Home Companion she is reading when Emily visits her, and the widow tells the younger woman, “It’s so seldom one meets anyone really. . .nice. . . in a place like this” [42]).

The flowers and plants they purchase to “brighten up” their rooms and make them seem friendlier also suggest the loneliness and barrenness of their lives, as does Mrs. Allen’s (and, indeed, Emily’s own) childlessness, which is emphasized by the children’s photographs clustered around the dead soldier’s photograph, as if his nephews and nieces were his and Mrs. Allen’s surrogate children. As the story’s title indicates, both women have endured a “trial by combat,” and it is the commonality of their experience that appears to draw them to one another.

They lead pitiful lives, but their empathy allows them to pity each other. Moreover, both women are lonely and confide in one another that they have been eager to meet one another, which suggests that, in their misery, they seek company: “I’ve seen you, of course, several times,” Mrs. Allen tells Emily, “and thought how pleasant you looked.” Emily replies, “I’ve wanted to meet you, too” (42). Their common plight allows Emily to overlook Mrs. Allen’s thefts and to conspire with her in pretending that they are nothing more than neighbors, or even friends, not strangers, who are concerned about one another’s health and well being.

There seems to be a darker, somewhat horrific subtext to this story, too. It may be that Mrs. Allen practices a sort of symbolic cannibalism. Her kleptomania seems to be an attempt to secure for herself some of Emily’s “nice” and “pleasant” circumstances. By taking items that belong to Emily, the older widow seems intent upon becoming like Emily, at least in part, by performing a ritual similar to that of ancient and medieval warriors who ate the hearts of their vanquished foes in order to take into themselves their enemies’ courage and military prowess by literally ingesting the presumed seats of their souls. If such an interpretation is accepted (admittedly, it is controversial), the implication of Emily’s observation, addressed to Mrs. Allen, “You’ve made yours [i. e., Mrs. Allen’s room] look much nicer than mine” and Mrs. Allen’s rejoinder, “I’ve been here for three years. . . . You’ve only been here a month or so, haven’t you?” much more significant--and macabre--than this dialogue might seem otherwise. Has Mrs. Allen been stealing from other tenants’ rooms for “three years”? Are her thefts the reason that her room looks “much nicer” than Emily’s, and will Emily, who has already trespassed upon Mrs. Allen’s room, as Mrs. Allen has trespassed upon Emily’s, likewise become a kleptomaniac, whose thefts improve the appearance of her room, making it “nicer,” brighter looking, and friendlier? Will Mrs. Allen’s ways become Emily’s ways? Will the widow become the mentor and Emily the apprentice in cannibalizing the lives of other tenants, as it were, by stealing bits and pieces from their neighbors’ lives?

“Trial By Combat” is a much eerier story than the text which meets the reader’s eye, because its subtext opens itself to unusual, even grotesque, interpretations, largely because of the technique that Jackson employs in writing slice-of-life stories involving mere segments of their characters’ lives, told without exposition, with little overt action, with minimal conflict, and with an inconclusive denouement. Writers, aspiring or professional, can learn a lot by apprenticing themselves to such a master as Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House (which is one of the inspirations for Stephen King’s television miniseries Rose Red), and many other haunting tales.


Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982. Print.

2 comments:

lazlo azavaar said...

Shirley Jackson has the unnerving ability to make short stories that, on their surface events may be almost boring, seem mysterious and chilling. So when she does turn her hand to the weird tale, it produces a megaton wallop (to use Stephen King's term). My personal favorite (aside, of course, from The Lottery) is The Beautiful Stranger, which always chills me to the bone.

Gary L. Pullman said...

She is a true master, no doubt, and unusual, also, for her ability to write both horror stories and domestic comedies such as her novel "Life Among the Savages."

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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