Friday, February 7, 2014

Charles (1948) and The Witch (1949) by Shirley Jackson

It’s Shirley Jackson special at Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

“I delight in what I fear.”

Human nature and behaviour is the focal point of many of American writer Shirley Jackson’s stories including Charles and The Witch. Both the stories are about four-year old boys who think, talk, lie, and act like most adults. They are impudent, disrespectful, and even precocious.

"The teacher spanked a boy, though," Laurie said, addressing his bread and butter. "For being fresh," he added, with his mouth full.

In Charles, for instance, Laurie has just started kindergarten and he is already lying to his parents at the dinner table. Every day he returns from school and tells his father and mother about a mysterious classmate who gets into serious trouble with his teacher and the other students. Charles is frequently punished for being bad. If one day he hits his teacher, the next day he whispers an evil word in a little girl’s ear. Laurie’s parents encourage their son to discuss Charles and his antics in class even as you suspect that they know who Charles really is and that they’re merely hiding from the truth.

"I saw a witch," he said to his mother after a minute. "There was a big old ugly old bad old witch outside."

In The Witch, four-year old Johnny is travelling by train with his mother and little sister. He is looking out of the window, bored and making childish talk, like “We're on a river…This is a river and we're on it,” or “We're on a bridge over a river,” or “There's a cow. How far do we have to go?” His mother humours him. And then, just as he is talking about seeing a witch outside the window, an elderly man with white hair and a pleasant face enters the coach and strikes up a conversation with the boy. Among other things, he tells Johnny about how much he loved his own little sister before he cut her head off and put it inside a cage where a bear ate it up. The boy’s mother is shocked and orders the man to get out of the coach. Johnny thinks the man is a witch.

To me, Charles made more sense than The Witch. Both the stories are dystopian in their character. They are about families, not necessarily happy families, even though they may seem like they are. There is a disconnect between Laurie and Johnny on one hand and their parents on the other. I found this line of thought disconcerting. I have never read Shirley Jackson before and therefore I cannot say much except wonder if that is really how she thinks families can be, or really are.

Her writing is best exemplified in an obituary in The New York Times, August 10, 1965: “Shirley Jackson wrote in two styles. She could describe the delights and turmoils of ordinary domestic life with detached hilarity; and she could, with cryptic symbolism, write a tenebrous horror story in the Gothic mold in which abnormal behavior seemed perilously ordinary. In either genre, she wrote with remarkable tautness and economy of style, and her choice of words and phrases was unerring in building a story's mood.”

The two stories number less than 1,600 words each, which appealed to my reading sense. While Charles was first published in Mademoiselle, July 1948, she wrote The Witch in 1949 though I couldn’t trace its original publication. Both the stories are a part of at least two collections that I know of, Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories and The Lottery and Other Stories. The good news is that many of her stories are available online. I'll be reading many of them, especially her non-macabre horror stories.

Sergio Angelini, George Kelley, John Norris, and Todd Mason have more authoritative reviews of Shirley Jackson's work at their excellent blogs. Click on their names to read them. You'll also find more reviews at Patti's blog.

18 comments:

  1. Really enjoyed your take on these stories Prashant having just re-read them too. It's possible THE WITCH was written for the collection in which it first appeared, THE LOTTERY, OR THE ADVENTURES OF JAMES HARRIS (1949) as several of the stories there do not have previous publication copyright notices. Ypu picked a nice pair of twin-themed stories there - she is particularly good when handling children and her female protagonsts.

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    1. Sergio, thank you. It was a coincidence that I read these stories with a common theme. I hope to read some of her other short stories before I get around to her limited number of novels. Perhaps, I'll then get a better understanding of her stories and characters.

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  2. Shirley Jackson wrote one of the few books that actually scared me. The haunting of hill house

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    1. Charles, I still have to read THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. I'm looking forward to reading Shirley Jackson's horror fiction.

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  3. Good choices to discuss, Prashant.

    Laurie from "Charles" gets recycled into "ARCH-CRIMINAL", an unpublished story in the collection I read.Seems he hasn't learned any better. Laurie is now a nine year-old boy who, unknown to his parents, is being indoctrinated into the world of juvenile deliquency by a 13 year old boy aptly named Spike. Jackson seemed to be very attached if not obsessed with her characters' lives.

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    1. John, thank you. From only the two stories I read I thought Jackson had an unusual way of portraying her characters. In "Charles," for instance, Laurie is rude to his father and quite needlessly so. Although it was a fictional tale I couldn't accept his insolent behaviour, for that's not how I know families to be. Maybe, I'm reading too much into it.

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  4. I haven't read The Haunting of Hill House but it was loaded to my Nook a few weeks ago. My buddy Gramlich's comment above will keep me rotating farther down the list for a few more weeks.
    Top reviews, Prashant. Thanks.

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    1. David, thank you. Glad you liked them. I plan to bring THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE to the top of my reading pile though I may not review it. I'll also be reading some of her shorter fiction.

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  5. It is good to see more than just "The Lottery" being read

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    1. Hi Mel, THE LOTTERY is clearly the favourite and I hope to read it soon. Jackson created a stir when she wrote it.

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  6. Great post, Prashant. Haven't been interested in reading Shirley Jackson yet, but you never know. Both of those stories sound interesting but uncomfortable.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. Given your interest in various fiction you might like Shirley Jackson's stories. I found these two stories unsettling too but I can't judge her writing based on them. That said, she wrote very well.

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  7. I tried reading Jackson many years ago and couldn't get a start on her so gave the books away - Castle and Lottery from memory. I'm probably not going to re-visit and try again.

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    1. Col, no problem. Were it not for the Shirley Jackson special at Patti's blog, I probably wouldn't have read any of her fiction either. But I'm glad I did.

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  8. Not my cup of tea either, Prashant. Though I always hear good things about her books. Scary and creepy and all. Maybe it's just that I don't like to be scared. Brings out the chicken in me. :) Still, I enjoyed reading your post.

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    1. Yvette, thank you. Between scary movies and books I'll take books any day. Brave enough to read than watch. I'm curious to read some of her horror fiction.

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  9. I adore both stories, but I'm a huge fan of Shirley Jackson. I love the way she can take a story and slowly twist it into something unrecognizable by the end. I love the journey she brings the reader on without them realizing it.

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    1. Hi Ryan, you put that very well. I'm new to Shirley Jackson's fiction and so far I liked whatever I've read. She writes with intensity that isn't obvious at first.

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