Horla Late Review (June 2020)

HORROR WITHOUT THE ‘GROSS OUT’

GRAHAM ARMITAGE offers an appreciation of

DARK TALES

by Shirley Jackson

I HAVE been reading horror fiction for over fifty years and the only Shirley Jackson I had ever previously read was the renowned The Haunting of Hill House. Clearly I have been missing out massively.

One of my favourite observations about writing horror is from Stephen King (who has done quite well at it) who said that horror writing is best done with subtlety and suggestion but that you should not hesitate to go for the “gross out” if need be.

As a piece of general advice, I’m sure this is fine. But I suspect Ms. Jackson would have rather drunk poison than go for a “gross out”.

Subtlety, suggestion and, above all elegance are the watchwords with her fiction.

In a way it’s unfortunate that she has largely been allocated solely to the horror genre because her mastery of language easily equals that of most mainstream writers and is well ahead of many.

With one or two of the stories in this collection she is so subtle that I was left unsure exactly what had happened. Mostly though she is a master of gradually introducing the disquieting element.

In the first story “The Possibility of Evil” we see an apparently respectable southern matron gradually revealed as something altogether different.

Later, in “All She Said Was Yes”, we have a masterclass in “show don’t tell” as a first person narrator inadvertently reveals her character limitations in a tale which is also about a precognitive child.

Not for the only time Ms.Jackson gives us a darkly humorous ending, which I will not spoil for anyone by revealing.

Interestingly, we only occasionally venture into the world of the genuinely supernatural – most of the stories concern the evil that people do to each other.

Only in “Home” do we get anything resembling a classic ghost story and even here we end with a fascinating insight into human nature when a character is willing to pretend that something which is utterly terrifying has not actually happened in order to fit into a community.

There were also times when I thought of Franz Kafka.

In the story “Paranoia” we see a perfect illustration of the principle “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” as a man is chased around a city by mysterious individuals.

As the reader you believe that he must be imagining it all, only to discover that he is not.

In true Kafka style, no explanation is given as to who the people are or why they are doing what they are doing.

Likewise in “The Beautiful Stranger” a woman becomes convinced that the man who has come home to her after a short trip away is not her husband but a much kinder man. The idyll is shattered though when, after a taxi ride home, she finds herself stranded before rows upon rows of identical houses with no idea which is hers. A little social comment? Weird, anyway.

In the blurb attached to the book we are informed that Shirley Jackson had some mental health issues. Having suffered in this way myself I would not wish such things on anyone but they can provide insights into the world that are denied to more “normal ” people.

This “off the wall ” vision is apparent in many of the stories where characters seem to behave in a manner which is slightly off (more scary than an outright psychopathic character in my view).

In particular, I wonder if Ms.Jackson was familiar with the concept of “automatic thoughts”. If so this might account for the wife in “What a thought”, who suddenly, for no obvious reason, begins to have thoughts of murdering her husband. Again, the story is not without humour, albeit of the dark variety.

I could go on – there are a couple of stories that are fairly classic examples of the “southern gothic” genre, but if there is one reason why everyone should read these stories (whether a horror fan or not) is that they are so immaculately and beautifully written.

They are genuinely memorable and, in particular, I would suggest that they be required reading for anyone aspiring to write and do so with style.

 

 

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Graham Armitage was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, England, and studied Law at Leeds University. He worked in the private sector for a number of years before moving to the voluntary sector with the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, prior to retiring a few years ago. He reads voraciously in all kinds of fields but has been a fan of horror and the supernatural since he can recall.’ The Horla’ by Guy de Maupassant is a favourite story, and if he has a favourite horror novel it is probably Dracula.