Book review

Let Me Tell You (Shirley Jackson)

I have had the most pleasant voice in my head for the past couple of weeks — the great writer Shirley Jackson has been spinning tales, doling out advice, and wryly commenting on waffle irons plotting against toasters.

I have loved Shirley Jackson since reading her fantastic story “The Witch” in my childhood, on my father’s advice. I remember that the bio at the top of the story noted that of all the writers featured in this particular horror story anthology, she was the only one who professed to being a practicing witch. That was irresistible enough, but the story — the writing — was staggering. I have written elsewhere of Jackson’s unerring and inimitable ability to shift mood on a dime; that story demonstrates this gift in a single savage sentence.

While Let Me Tell You features no such singular story (which might not be the collection’s fault, so much as the intervening near fifty years on the part of the reader), it leaves an eminently satisfying cumulative effect as the force of its fifty-six essays, lectures, reviews, and short stories sink in, revealing a prodigious and profound talent. In these writings, her wit (“…she got on a commuter train every morning before the weather had rightly settled itself for the day…”) and whimsy (“The green glasses from the five-and-ten love their bath; they roll luxuriously in the soapy water and seem almost to stretch”) are displayed alongside her merciless and unflinching ability to expose and lacerate the pompous, the petty, the predictable:

an inexpensive black pen-and-pencil set, which…had been awarded to Cheryl…by members of her class, whom, as class president, she had inspired to be exactly the same as every other class graduated from that academy.

Taken together, the various pieces form a clear and cohesive whole, both showing and explicating how her keen observational skills were tempered and complemented by her free-flowing imagination.

And there are very strong works in the book, both fiction and nonfiction. These include the very funny “Company for Dinner”; the puckish “The New Maid,” with its whiff of Mary Poppins magic; the plaintively unsettling “Showdown”; the portentous “The Man in the Woods”; the passionate defense of Samuel Richardson in “Notes on an Unfashionable Novelist” (the fulsome opening rhetorical paragraph of which is so brilliantly undercut by the first sentence of the next: a triumph of literary writing); and, my favorite, the nonfiction “Good Old House,” with its uniquely Jacksonian blend of domesticity and implicit dread as she describes life in her haunted house:

Laurie went off pleasantly from the house to nursery school, where he played happily in the yard and through the attics, but there was a corner of the hall where a wolf lived, and he would not go near it alone.

She then tells a tale (true? I hope so) of an old lady who comes to visit one afternoon. It is, like the best Jackson, set firmly on the border between disturbing and reassuring. A similarly off-kilter occurrence is described in “The Ghosts of Loiret,” where Jackson details the postcards of various homes her husband has bought her, and remarks on the people on the balcony of one, who aren’t there the next day. A similar chill goes up the spine in “How I Write,” where she explains just how she got the name for her secondary female character in The Haunting of Hill House.

Delightful as many of the stories were, what I loved best was sharing with her what she loved: books, words, writing. And I loved hearing her talk about these, as here, when she discusses cleaning off her children’s bookshelves of the

adventures of numerous bluebirds, airplanes, toy engines, clowns, rabbits, and walking-talking dolls, all of whom got into trouble by not obeying, or not conforming, or not going to bed on time.

After this purge, “The real books remained, the ones that packed a sense of excitement and enchantment, that were read rather than skimmed…”

Jackson thrived on writing, telling herself stories throughout the day as she cared for house, home, and family — well, in a fashion: “…trying to get the living room looking decent without actually cleaning it…” But all, all, was fodder for the tales she told, for

a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees; always noticing…and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.

And thank heaven she did not. She is a master, and this book a treasure.

5 thoughts on “Let Me Tell You (Shirley Jackson)”

  1. “Merricat, Merricat, would you like a cup of tea?” I loved reading this review, Nita! It’s a treat to read a review by someone who loves SJ and has read more of her work than I and knows just how to lure us into reading more. If you’re building a castle of Shirley Jackson books, I have dibs on the west wing. Thanks for reviewing this!

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