Shirley Jackson (1916–1965)
From Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories
In a 1997 appreciation, Jonathan Lethem observes that Shirley Jackson’s “forté was psychology and society, people in other words—people disturbed, dispossessed, misunderstanding or thwarting one another compulsively, people colluding absently in monstrous acts.” Likewise, Joyce Carol Oates in a recent interview describes her as a “literary Gothicist”; Jackson did not write “about the supernatural as an end in itself—only its psychological manifestations.” There is a conspicuous lack of ghosts and ghouls in Jackson’s fiction; instead there are haunted minds.
Although today she is better known for tales of psychological horror (especially The Haunting of Hill House and, of course, “The Lottery”), Jackson also wrote humorous, unsentimental tales of ordinary domestic life. “Charles” is the first of her numerous semi-autobiographical stories of life as a 1940s housewife raising children who sometimes seemed one step outside her ability to control them. Jackson originally published the story in Mademoiselle and included it in the collection The Lottery; or, The Adventures of James Harris, and she later incorporated this episode, stripped of its fictional veneer, in her memoir Life Among the Savages. Alternating between menace and whimsy in its description of Laurie’s impish classmate, the story draws its piquancy less from the outcome than from its humor and its sly winks at the credulity of parents.
Bonus story: Thanks to the generosity of the Jackson estate and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, we are able to make available a second story from the just-published Library of America Shirley Jackson collection to Story of the Week readers. Click here (PDF) to download “Trial by Combat,” about the unsettling showdown between a young woman and the not-quite-menacing widow who is her neighbor.
The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me.
He came home the same way, the front door slamming open, his cap on the floor, and the voice suddenly become raucous shouting, “Isn’t anybody here?”
At lunch he spoke insolently to his father, spilled his baby sister’s milk, and remarked that his teacher said we were not to take the name of the Lord in vain.
“How was school today?” I asked, elaborately casual.
“All right,” he said.
“Did you learn anything?” his father asked.
Laurie regarded his father coldly. “I didn’t learn nothing,” he said. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!