Of course, I’ve been reading “The Lottery” since high school, and I recently listened to “The Haunting of Hill House” on audiobook, and I used to teach “The Lovely House,” but these past couple weeks I have been listening to a collection of Shirley Jackson’s other stories and sort of puzzling over them in my mind.
Initially I was surprised that they are mostly so far not truly “genre” stories – I’ve come to think of Jackson as primarily writing horror stories, but I see that that was because of carefully cherry-picked exposure to certain stories and not others. The stories I’ve been listening to lately seem very realistic, very gentle, and very unflinching. They seem to explore identity and more specifically the ways that identity can fade and shift. These are stories mostly about women, living women’s experiences in a world without cell phones. One follows a young woman who expects to marry today, but can’t find her fiancee; she goes on this Odyssean treck through town asking shopkeepers if they have seen him, etc. Ultimately, as in several of these stories, she loses herself in the search, with the strong implication that the apartment she tracks him to (where he is not present and at which he never arrives) may be the apartment she woke up in that morning.
Her identity merges into this lonely apartment in a way that reminds me of “Hill House” and “The Lovely House” as well, but this story is very much not a ghost story. I think right now I am fascinated by the way that Jackson uses the fundamental trope of the haunted house story – that habitation is somehow the same as self – and weaves it into these stories that otherwise read as mainstream, non-genre.
Many of these stories could almost be a conversation between a woman of some age and herself at a much younger or much older age. In one, a young woman living in a boarding house discovers that an older woman has been filching her possessions when she’s not home, and she very gently and politely and indirectly and hintingly sort of confronts the woman. Later, she sneaks into the older woman’s rooms and finds them just like her own, and she meditates on that until in the end the two women seem to merge. Again, the similarity of the apartments reflects the similarity of the women, and the story sort of drifts off with this haunting idea that the two women are only one, really.
In structure, in that tendency to drift off on a theme or an image, most of these stories remind me of Raymond Carver. Both authors in my mind make simplicity and matter of factness their primary building blocks. I’ll have to check the dates for them both, see if they were contemporaries, or if one of them owes influence to the other.