Dark Tales

Shirley Jackson – Penguin Classics Collection published in 2017

The short stories in this collection were, of course, written well before 2017; Shirley Jackson died in 1965. My independent but unoriginal reaction to this collection is that each story reads like a Twilight Zone episode. Twilight Zone fans and Shirley Jackon’s readers all know what to expect: mostly macabre, sometimes ironic dramatic tension that often results in the main character’s demise.

The often ironic scare isn’t the sole feature of Jackson’s stories. I was impressed by her skillful character development in some (not all) of the ‘episodes’ in this collection, and in many (not all) of the stories, the scare is a result of artfully drawn tension between main characters. Of course, I love the midcentury vibe too, as always. Honestly though, many of the stories baffled me, and when I did some online research I found that others were baffled as well.

You know when you open a bag of gourmet cookies? The first cookie is delicious; there are new flavors combined in unexpected ways. The second cookie is still pretty good. If we eat the whole bag in one sitting, the last few cookies have lost their zing. Same with these stories; by the time I got to the end of the final vignette, the fear-tinged irony had repeated itself over and over. I was tired. The plot device was tired.

And that makes sense; Jackson wrote, but did not compile, these stories, and when tale after tale has the same rhythm and mood, the collection is heavy and awkward when read straight through. Still, Jackson’s widely-recognized skill cannot be denied; if you like midcentury fiction and enjoy short stories, these are worth reading – but not all in one sitting. Enjoy one cookie at a time.

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