Thursday, August 13, 2015

Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson

I'm ashamed. The last and only time I read Shirley Jackson was in high school. "The Lottery" was prominently featured in one of our textbooks (the concept of English/"Language Arts" textbooks blows me away. It's weird, right?). I remember liking the story, finding it dark and subversive in all the ways I normally fawn over, but something just seemed off. It didn't fit in with the rest of the lesson. It didn't resonate with me the way it probably should have. No one offered any context, any background on Jackson, or really any analysis on the story itself. We just said, "Yeah, that was creepy," and continued on. It was one of the only pieces in high school that I felt was read just to satisfy a syllabus requirement. So, by default, I resented it.

Perhaps because of this dismissive reading of her most prominent work, I always thought of Shirley Jackson as a literary "one hit wonder." I once saw a copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle at a bookstore and disregarded it as a posthumous, half-baked melodrama.

What the hell was wrong with me!? Why did no one tell me!?

Shirley Jackson is a goddess.

I figured I'd give Let Me Tell You, a collection of essays, short stories, lectures, and other writings, a try. The cover was pretty, there seemed to be a bit of buzz about it, and there was an ARC available. Why not? I am so, so glad. I feel like I have found a kindred spirit in Jackson, and this is what reading is all about for me - finding those few souls who, though filtered through time, culture, and the calcified shells of self-perception and identity, make me feel like me.

So it is no surprise that in addition to enjoying the short stories in this collection, I was fascinated by her personal essays.

I got a sick joy out of "A Garland of Garlands," her tongue-in-cheek commentary about the follies of professional book reviewers. "Book reviewing is just nothing for a healthy young women to be married to," Shirley says of her literary critic husband. I recognized some of my own bad reviewing habits in the section on "The Earmarked Pen," which is a trend for reviewers to cling to a set of cherished words (see: heartrending). Jackson's comments on "The Development of the Theory of the Universality of Art" were also interesting - reviewers and critics do tend to believe themselves to be artists, but why? I, at least, see my reviews as holding their own in the literary world because of the emotion, honesty, and eloquence with which I attempt to imbue them. But of course I feel this way - I wrote them. If I find meaning in art and communicate it to you in a relatable, heartfelt (heartrending?) way, does that make me an artist too? Maybe not always, but I like to try.

I was also very excited to find that Shirley Jackson has an affinity for the strange. Ghosts, demons, synchronicities, and prophetic dreams are not things to be ignored in Shirley's world. She addresses these topics with a graceful, humble humor without shirking their wonder. Jackson's writing is decorated with no-nonsense mysticism (which sounds like an oxymoron, but isn't, I promise). In "How I Write," Jackson says, "What I am trying to say is that with the small addition of the one element of fantasy, or unreality, or imagination, all the things that happen are fun to write about." I couldn't agree more.

I feel kind of silly just now discovering these things about Jackson - I read a few other reviews and it seems like what I'm pointing out is what she's known best for - but I don't mind too much. Her immense talent is exciting no matter who points it out, or how often they do it.

There were times when I was bored with Let Me Tell You. I didn't care too much about the fork she cooked with; I got frustrated when I couldn't remember her children's names. But maybe, after reading the rest of the Jackson canon, as I surely (resisting every urge to make a horrendous pun here) will now, I'll come back and savor every character of those drier passages.

Let Me Tell You, edited by Jackson's children, is an insightful look into the world of an intriguing, brilliant woman. I was quick to learn that you don't need to be a long-time Jackson fan to appreciate the anthology - I can't imagine the joy a dedicated follower would find in this book.

4.5 stars: Like writing an essay about a ghost puking into a glass bowl that sits on the piano, which you dusted and polished this morning. The essay is pretty smart, if you say so yourself, and so is the piano.


  1. I COULD HAVE TOLD YOU!!!! Okay, next, you need to read The Haunting of Hill House. Follow that with Hangsaman. Both super fucking creepy in the best and most subtle way. These are not ghosts leaping out and chopping off heads type stories, but more like something is amiss, and you don't know what it is, but you really, really, REALLY don't like it. AWESOME!!! The Road Through The Wall felt unfinished to me, though there are plenty of small creepy moments in there. I'm going to have to read this book that you reviewed. I want to know more about her thoughts on reviewing and writing.

    1. Oh my god these sound amazing. I am going to read them ASAP. I feel so sheltered and adrift. I think you would really enjoy this! There are a few creepier short stories, but mostly they are kind of cute. Her essays were great, though.