(The Lottery and Other Stories, Shirley Jackson, Penguin Modern Classics, 1949, RRP 9.99, Gothic Tales, Elizabeth Gaskell, Penguin Classics 2004, RRP 10.99 & The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter, Vintage Classics 2006, RRP 7.99)
If, like me, you dragged yourself out of bed this morning and were greeted by a scene not entirely un-reminiscent of the Arctic tundra, you’re probably feeling a little wintry right now. Personally, I’m only trudging in to work everyday just so I can one day bore my grandchildren with tales of how I not only survived the great blizzard of 2010, but totally conquered it (that, and they said they wouldn’t pay me unless I make it in). Tonight, however, I will go home, chip the ice off my extremities, and curl up in front of the radiator with a good book.
I am very much a seasonal reader, and in this weather I usually reach for Dickens. However, Dickens requires a certain level of concentration that does not allow for my regular reading breaks to run to the window shouting ‘oh-my-god-is-it-snowing-again?’ Therefore, dear reader, I have settled on the short story, perfect for short bursts of reading in between making cups of tea and discussing the perilous weather conditions with a frost-covered house-mate who just spent six hours stuck on the M1.
I don’t, however, mean that just any short story will do. I’m thinking of deliciously dark, Gothic, tales that perfectly suit long dark evenings and -7 nights. While a good novel is perfection, sometimes a thoughtful, well crafted short story really hits the spot. American writer Shirley Jackson is perhaps best known for her story ‘The Lottery’, first published in June 1948 in The New Yorker. This tale, based on the idea of a yearly harvest sacrifice, and set in a small, rural American town, is laced with menace. The reader’s horror grows as they gradually realise that the townspeople have assembled to draw lots, in order to decide which of them will be sacrificed. They chat uneasily amongst themselves, until Tessie Hutchinson draws the marked slip. She complains about the unfairness of the lottery as her neighbours prepare to stone her to death. The story received an extremely negative reaction from readers, and Jackson continued to receive hate mail throughout that summer.
When pressed to provide an explanation of the story, Jackson responded a month later in The San Francisco Chronicle, ‘Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.’ This idea of ‘general inhumanity’ in everyday lives is strongly evident throughout the other stories that accompany ‘The Lottery’ in the volume I read. The stories offer snapshots of life and small disappointments that hint greater failures, the loss of potential and wasted lives. Jackson’s female characters are usually in their early thirties, still clinging on to the edges of their youth, still attractive women, but with the flower of their lives behind them, stuck in mundane jobs and any chance to do great and exciting things fading. In ‘The Daemon Lover’, a woman spends her wedding day hunting for her betrothed, wearing a dress that she feels is too young for her, and aware of the pathetic figure she cuts in the eyes of the people she meets. My favourite story, ‘Elizabeth’ is a day in the life of the troubled, unhappy protagonist, a working woman of just over thirty, who’s New York city dreams haven’t quite panned out the way she imagined. The day is grey and rainy, and and a run in with a woman on a crowded bus who calls her a ‘Dried-up old maid’, sets the tone for Elizabeth’s day. In the evening she is left in her miserable one-room apartment dreaming of green grass and bright sunlight, and a better life. In Shirley Jackson’s world, life is made of half forgotten dreams and failures as much as success and happiness.
Another female writer who’s work is fixated on the dark side of human nature is Angela Carter. I can’t think of another writer who would have been able to rewrite classic fairytales with such a gloriously macabre bite to them, and The Bloody Chamber would have been my dream book even if she had not in fact written it. But she did- Hurrah! Carter did not see her stories as re-tellings, but more as an attempt to extract latent content from the originals, and in fact it does take a bit of thought to work out which story she is alluding to. ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ is based on Beauty and the Beast, and is a fairly straightforward retelling, Angela Carter style. At the end, the Beast is transformed by Beauty’s love. ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ is a reversal of that idea, and the beast turns out to be a tiger, and this time it is the heroine who changes into a magnificent tiger and is able to embrace her true, passionate animalistic nature. Carter’s tales resound with repressed sexuality, and where Shirley Jackson writes about mature women, Angela Carter’s heroines are young girls exploding into womanhood, and threatened by rapacious masculine figures. Where Jackson focuses on small, everyday moments, Carter writes bloody, violent tales of rape, death and imprisonment.
Stepping away, back to the 19th Century, and Elizabeth Gaskell finds gothic horror in the most domestic of settings in her Gothic Tales. In these tales women are threatened by men, and the women are powerless. Gaskell often aimed to expose injustice and oppression through her writing, and these tales show a tension between trying to show a factorial representation of women’s lives, and the Other. It is the Other that makes these stories Gothic. ‘Louis the Witch’ is Gaskell’s fictionalised account of the Salem witch trials, in which Lois, a young English girl who has travelled across the Atlantic to stay with distant family. In what is a psychological journey as much as a physical one, Lois finds herself defenceless and caught up in an intricate web of poisonous jealousy and unrequited love. She ultimately pays for her youth and beauty with her life.
This tale contrasts with the amusing curiosity ‘Curious if True,’ which depicts the fate of popular fairy tale characters once their story has ended, and reveal that much of what is known about them is malicious gossip. Cinderella has grown lame and plump, and Blackbeard’s widow mourns his death, lamenting that the popular image of him is cruel misinterpretation. As an avid reader of Gaskell’s more socially conscious fiction, it is interesting to try her darkly surreal side.
So, I can only hope that I’ve persuaded you to spend your snow day with some short stories. Novels are fine, but my books of short stories are the ones I often find myself dipping into and again and again. Keep warm kids, and try to stave off the false jollity and Christmas spirit that is often a hideous side effect of too much snow and too many hot beverages by reading some dispiriting tales of despair.