Friday 21 April 2017

Dark Tales

(April 2017)

A new collection of short stories from Shirley Jackson, most of which have previously been printed in other collections, and I think all of them first appeared in various periodicals during the 1950’s. Annoyingly, I think the latter form of publishing does more for them than anthologizing them together like this, as en mass it becomes clear that the writing, or more specifically the plotting, can be fairly formulaic. In many ways the biggest weakness of this collection is the collection.

Taken individually, some of the pieces are excellent: nervy, discomfiting works that showcase just how adept Jackson was at manipulating tone and voice. I don’t know whether it says more about me or the book that some of my favouite stories were the more openly fantastical, nor that they cleaved fairly closely to certain traditional archetypes. The Story We Used to Tell is a ghost story featuring a haunted painting; Home is an urban legend transported to the country, in which some newly arrived city folk learn the hard way just why the locals don’t use the Sanderson road when it rains; and A Visit (the longest story in the book) is a nicely done twist on the Bluebeard story.

The trouble is, the quality of the stories as a whole is quite variable, and structural similarities between many of them means that the weaker ones drag down the stronger by making that formulaic quality apparent. Something is a little wrong, the protagonist dismisses it, it continues getting wronger, and then at the last there’s a “twist” which reveals it’s very wrong indeed. For example, Paranoia (which as we all know isn’t so if they really are all out to get you) give us the story of Mr Beresford, who becomes convinced that he is being followed by a random yet terrifying cabal, but unfortunately the smothering claustrophobia is laid on so thick that by the time you get to the twist in the final paragraph, you’ve really stopped caring about him much at all.

While none of the other stories are quite as heavy handed, there are as many misses as there are hits, and I suspect that the misses wouldn’t have seemed quite so off-target if they weren’t all juxtaposed with each other. That said, there’s enough quality here to make it a worthwhile collection, but it’s one better experienced by dipping in and out piecemeal, rather than ploughing straight through from start to finish.

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