Stories Where the Ordinary Belies the Bizarre
Just an Ordinary Day
By Shirley Jackson
Edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart
388 pp., $23.95
First published in the New Yorker in 1948, Shirley Jackson's chilling and powerful short story "The Lottery" almost overnight became a classic midcentury parable about the perils of unthinking conformity.
In it, a seemingly ordinary small town, filled with blandly ordinary men and women, follow the dull rhymes of unvarying routines, day in and day out, year after year.
And every year, in much the way that people celebrate other holidays, like the Fourth of July, the people of this particular town observe a custom that involves choosing one of their number by lottery, then gathering in the village center to stone said person to death.
A prolific story writer, Jackson was also the author of six novels, including "Hangsman" (1951), "The Sundial" (1958), "The Haunting of Hill House" (1959), and "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" (1962). The bizarre and macabre were her trademark themes. But in many of her stories - as well as two of her nonfiction books - she dealt with wry humor about the very ordinary "horrors" of being a housewife and mother coping with everything from Cub Scout meetings to returning defective merchandise to department stores.
Although several dozen of Jackson's short stories have been published in book form (in her first story collection, "The Lottery" (1949), and in two posthumous collections, "The Magic of Shirley Jackson" (1966) and "Come Along With Me," both edited by her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman), she wrote many more. Now, two of her children have selected 56 stories (30 of which have never previously appeared in print) for "Just an Ordinary Day."
Most of the stories are very short indeed. Some of the unpublished ones seem like sketches - blueprints for projects that were never completed or germs of ideas that may have found their way into other stories or novels.
But many are taut, controlled, tightly woven little shockers, whose eeriness comes from the laconic juxtaposition of sunlit ordinariness and quietly menacing shades of irrationality or evil.
The couple in "What a Thought," for example, have been married for 10 years: "Margaret found herself thinking with pride that unlike many men she had heard about, her husband did not fall asleep after a particularly good dinner.... She knew that if she asked her husband to take her to a movie, or out for a ride ... he would smile at her and agree; he was always willing to do things to please her.... An odd thought crossed her mind: She would pick up the heavy glass ashtray and smash her husband over the head with it."
Evil, in Jackson's fictional world, generally takes the form of murder rather than, say, fraud or adultery, and it is almost always irrational.
In "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith," of which there are two versions, neighbors and tradespeople try to warn a newly married woman that the man she married may be a serial killer. In the first version, Mrs. Smith is exasperatingly obtuse; in the second, she actually suspects what may happen to her but does not seem to care.
In other stories, the weird and supernatural have a benign effect. In "Family Magician," which was published in the Women's Home Companion, a young widow and her two children get unexpected household help from a mysterious old woman able to conjure a tasty dinner out of a handful of gravel and a stuffed bird that once adorned a hat.
While Jackson never stopped exploring the bizarre and the uncanny, her fiction almost never focuses on the gory details. She was a master at finding ways of making the reader's skin crawl without having to resort to anything gruesome. The stories in this collection illustrate her understated yet remarkably effective technique at evoking silent horror. And a number of them represent another side of her character as a writer: her wry sense of humor.
She has a keen ear for the comically trivial and a mischievous sense of the ridiculous, both of which shine in a story like "Mrs. Melville Makes a Purchase," a sly portrait of a lady who manages to alienate a sizable cross-section of the staff of a department store.
For readers in the 1950s and '60s, Jackson's name was a byword for the bizarre. Reading her work, particularly these stories, some four decades later, what most struck me was not its creepiness or shock effects, but Jackson's deft portraits of a bland, orderly, slightly fussy - and now vanished - midcentury US that serves as the backdrop for the weirdly unexpected.
Mrs. Melville shopping for a pink or chartreuse blouse, two little girls circumnavigating the block on which they live, Cub Scouts, friendly grocers, cherry pies: Jackson was a master at evoking the ordinary, which may well turn out to be as much of a myth as the eeriest tall tale.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.