I knew I could depend on Shirley Jackson. I love my short story reading, and last week's installment by Joyce Carol Oates was good, but lately I've been feeling a little 'meh' about some of them. "The Daemon Lover" by Jackson, which appears in Night Shadows: Twentieth-Century Stories of the Uncanny edited by Joan Kessler is a page turner. It's nicely ambiguous and you can probably interpret things more than one way. Finishing it leaves a nice feeling of uncertainty in mind--a story to mull over and leave you just a little unsettled. Just how a good ghost story should be. In my mind this is vintage Shirley Jackson. She never fails to please it seems.
In the brief introduction to the story the editor notes that Jackson has a genius for storytelling and isn't that the truth? She notes that her stories are "masterpieces of psychological horror, in which the supernatural and the shadowy recesses of the psyche are inextricably intertwined." She shows that so adeptly in this story. I don't know that there is much of the supernatural in this story. If so, it is so subtly done as to not even notice it, but there is certainly a downward spiral into the unknown, a loosening of reality.
The story was first published in 1949 and a first impression is that things for the narrator are quite ordinary despite a night of restless sleep and too many cups of coffee and not enough sustaining food. Is it just the lack of sustenance that sets her on edge as the story progresses? This is her wedding day. It's to be a small and simple affair from the preparations she is undertaking. No white dress, no bridesmaids, no family. Just she and Jamie, her fiancé, who is to come pick her up at her apartment at 10:00. She's thirty-four and Jamie just a few years younger, though maybe he doesn't know as she lied about her age on the license. Simple as the ceremony is to be, she has taken care in cleaning and getting the apartment ready. Each time she uses a towel she replaces it with a new one and won't eat any of the food she has bought for the two to begin their lives together.
Ten o'clock comes and goes. And then eleven o'clock. A half hour later and she knows she must get some food from the drugstore downstairs. Surely he'll be there by the time she gets back.
"Now, suddenly, she was frightened. Waking without preparation into the room of waiting and readiness, everything clean and untouched since ten o'clock, she was frightened, and felt an urgent need to hurry. She got up from the chair and almost ran across the room to the bathroom, dashed cold water on her face, and used a clean towel; this time she put the towel carelessly back on the rack without changing it; time enough for that later. Hatless, still in the print dress with a coat thrown over it, the wrong blue pocketbook with the aspirin inside in her hand, she locked the apartment door behind her, no note this time, and ran down the stairs. She caught a taxi on the corner and gave the driver Jamie's address."
And it is the strangest thing. His apartment has no identifying name. His name doesn't appear by the bell or the mail box. As it turns out the place he was staying was lent by a couple who have only just got back in town. Stranger, there is a feeling that they didn't even know him very well. What has he down? Why is she here? You know how you catch movement out of the corner of your eye, certain there was someone there a minute ago? That's the sense you get as the narrator begins her search for Jamie. He's just on the periphery. Someone saw him here and maybe he bought flowers there. Yes, indeed. The uncanny. Did someone see him? Was that really him who bought flowers this morning ...?
Well, you really must look for this story and read it. Then come and tell me what you think, please? Gosh, even now thinking back on the story I get goosebumps. It was a very creepy and unsettling read. I loved it. I love Shirley Jackson and maybe I will revisit the idea of not picking up any new RIP books and introducing them to my reading pile at this point. It doesn't have to be a RIP read per se. I will only say that I think Shirley Jackson is brilliant.
It's definitely a story to reread. In this same collection is Elizabeth Bowen's story, "The Demon Lover" (published only a few years prior to Jackson's). The two are not similar in plot, structure or tone, but they both take their titles from the same ballad. The editor does note that the two use the "uncanny force (in the form of shadowy, unpredictable male) which preys on a woman's vulnerability, ultimately shattering all that is reliable in her existence." Perhaps that will be next week's story.
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I'm feeling sort of ambivalent about this week's New Yorker short story, "Story, With Bird" by Kevin Canty. The last few New Yorker stories seem to have been about, or somehow has been featured fairly prominently in the stories--people's addictions. First meth, and then cocaine and now alcohol. It's a bit unfair to lump the stories under that description, however. This story is really about those last days of a relationship. It's about those moments where the two have almost already moved on yet are still together. The pair in this story are together, the drinking is almost incidental, and you wonder whether the drinking on the part of the man (though the two have both given up alcohol in the start of the story) is what drives the two apart or has kept them together so far. Curiously there is this bird who manages to get in to the apartment disrupting their lives. The story is very short and quite melancholic. You can read the Q&A with the author here, which I always find illuminating!