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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

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.

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