Shirley Jackson’s “Dark Tales” is an Entertaining, Frustrating Mixed-Bag

“Dark Tales” by Shirley Jackson (Penguin Classics 2017)

Gothic fiction is not my go to read but I’m certainly a fan, often taking some inspiration from the style for my own stories.

I haven’t read much of the genre lately though, and thought a voice that was new to me was the best way to jump back in. Shirley Jackson fits that bill, despite being a pretty well-respected name in the gothic canon.

So here are my thoughts on each story as I read them – mostly. I read the first 3 before taking down any thoughts to get a good sense of Jackson’s writing and what to expect. Every other story got my immediate attention, and petty criticism.

I’m not spoiling any plot details, but I will discuss at least the basic conceit of each story, as well as core themes.

“The Possibility of Evil”

This had a lot of promise, but was an odd choice for the opening short story of the collection. There’s no twilight zone-lite, truly eerie element to this story, which seems to be the “Dark Tales” watermark, at least in the first trio of short stories.

What does connect it to the rest of the collection, unfortunately, is that “The Possibility of Evil” is the first of several short stories in this collection that could’ve used just a couple more pages, or a slightly more daring climatic sequence.

The character of Miss Strangeworth, and the perhaps well-intentioned but cruel manipulations of the town she feels she owns all feel under-realized. Strangeworth has an interesting enough backstory that it grounds her slightly cartoonish motivations, making her an entertainingly goofy, yet still imposing puppet master. It’s a refreshing blend for a character.

Unfortunately the story does little beyond establishing her character. I’d love to see her in a more fleshed out story that has something more to say.

“Louisa, Please Come Home”

Halfway through this story, and thus through one and a half stories in this collection, I was worried.

Louisa was not nearly as interesting as Miss Strangeworth, and the scariest thing in the story was the fact that a brand new department store rain coat only cost $6.89 once upon a time.

This one is worth sticking out though. The twist ending is satisfying enough to make you happy you read the story, if not enough to make you go back to look for seeds.

“Paranoia”

I’m going to be honest – I may have undermined this story by picturing the antagonist as Waluigi. Something about the description of his moustache and uncomfortable stare made my brain take a sharp left into meme territory.

That being said, I don’t think I would’ve necessarily been gripped by this story if I’d pictured a more menacing adversary. The premise is so straight forward, and carried out exactly how you expect that I kept waiting for a payoff.

For me at least, it never comes, but the shenanigans are well written and entertaining albeit more in a slapstick sort of way than in a gothic short story way.

“The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith”

Somehow this story is both too subtle and too opaque for its own good.

Once again it’s a story in the collection with underwhelming sinister elements. Yet, the social commentary it offers on the treatment of women in marriage and all that women are expected to give up for the various men in their life – not just husbands/partners – is quite shallow and on the nose.

Still, it’s entertaining. Jackson by this point has shown a clear skill for making characters feel thought-out in very few pages. I believe and invest in Mrs. Smith’s honeymoon, even if it doesn’t give me much back. Ironic.

“The Story We Used to Tell”

This is the first in the collection that leans fully into being a true gothic short story. Unfortunately, it turns out to be one of the biggest disappointments.

It’s a fairly standard premise, but one that leaves a writer with a lot of flexibility to make things interesting. The fact that I can’t tell you the premise because just that is a spoiler tells you just how little that flexibility is utilized.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

Don’t worry when you see the name Krishna – there’s thankfully no good ol’ fashioned 40’s racism to be found here. But don’t make the mistake I made and get excited about the title – it’s just referencing a record. Shirley giveth and she taketh away.

This story felt the most pointless out of all of what “Dark Tales” has to offer so far. Once again, Jackson is quickly able to get you to buy into a realistic character begging to have their layers examined…and just doesn’t do it.

“Jack the Ripper”

“Jack the Ripper” is a bit half baked and the ‘twist’, if you can even call it that, is pretty obvious from the start. This is still one of the better stories early on.

The core idea being explored here has aged better than a lot of these stories. As you may expect from reading the title that’s not a good thing. Still, addressing themes that transcend generations is worthy of praise, as ugly and depressing as they may be.

“The Beautiful Stranger”

This is another story that feels truncated, but it’s the first where that brevity feels like it’s being used to an intended effect.

Jackson uses the unfortunately all too familiar idea of a woman accepting being trapped in an unhappy marriage to cleverly mask the real theme she’s exploring: forming your own identity based on someone else, losing yourself in someone else.

I sympathized with Margaret’s disillusionment with her life, all the way to the end. How she felt she had a new lease on life with something exciting and new entering it. But it wasn’t her own, she was still living for someone else.

Shirley Jackson did a lot in less than 8 pages. My favorite in the collection so far.

“She Only Said Yes”

I’ve praised Jackson’s ability to establish main characters that win the reader over quickly. This time, she’s crafted a narrator that is absolute trash, far more concerned with her vacation to…Maine (no comment) …than the death of her neighbors & their daughter Vicky becoming an orphan.

Vicky’s ability to see the future goes completely unnoticed by the narrator because of her self-obsession. Jackson milks this macabre comedic angle for all it’s worth, creating a sort of inside joke between author and reader that the narrator isn’t in on. It’s an odd, but thoroughly entertaining dynamic.

“She Only Said Yes” is once again on the short side. Jackson easily could’ve kept going with the gag for a couple more pages, maybe even diving a bit deeper into Vicky’s powers. I think things wrapped up at the right time though. The joke never felt stale. Knowing more or having the narrator catch on at all would undermine and overly complicate a fun, simple narrative. Shirley’s on a win streak.

“What A Thought”

At just under 4 pages, this is the shortest story in “Dark Tales”.

The concept is simple: another Margaret, but this time she seems to be in a genuinely loving, healthy marriage of ten years. The conflict? One night after dinner she has an unshakable invasive thought to kill her doting husband.

I’m all for stories of women murdering their husbands – especially set in this time – and at this point in “Dark Tales” was expecting one to come eventually.

That would’ve been too on the nose for Jackson though. Despite the gripes I’ve had with these stories, it’s clear she’s got no interest in playing to expectations, something I appreciate.

As brief as it is, I still found myself invested in “What A Thought”, mostly because Margaret and her husband’s relationship is written with such focus on the little things that make you as a reader believe a marriage is successful.

But is this a meditation on the pseudo-Stockholm syndrome that can happen in a marriage? On self-destructive tendencies?

Who knows? 4 pages is just too short to take this concept anywhere.

“The Bus”

“The Bus” follows the insufferable Miss Harper as she mistakenly gets put off a bus in the middle of nowhere.

I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s another Dark Tale that simply could’ve used a couple more pages, a bit more buy-in to the tidbits of ghoulish behavior we get. As the story is I have little more to say than Miss Harper is the worst, not even in a fun way.

“Family Treasures”

Of all the stories in “Dark Tales” this is the one that had the most potential. The most interesting paths it could’ve gone down.

This is not one of the worst stories here but, unsurprisingly, it does go down the most boring path, squandering its exploration of some quite atypical subject matter.

Living in a girls’ dormitory, the already quiet Anne begins to be treated less like a person and more like a puppy that’s just been kicked following the death of her mother. She’s not quite a pariah, but the other girls no longer interact with her in a genuine way, coddling & speaking politely rather than properly engaging Anne.

In response, Anne becomes a bit of a kleptomaniac, stealing sentimental trinkets from several of her dormmates. The house falls into quiet dissent, as fingers are pointed, theories are concocted, and sides are taken. Poor little Anne is of course never suspected.

“Family Treasures” takes an interesting angle in examining grief. Rather than attacking it head on, Jackson looks at how we treat people who grieve, the statute of limitations on grief, and how the griever is aware of all of this. It’s a refreshing perspective, one which Jackson once again simply doesn’t take very far.

“A Visit”

Easily the longest story in the collection, I’d been looking forward to getting to this one once it became clear most of the short stories in “Dark Tales” were too short for their own good. It is also the most traditionally gothic of all the stories here.

The visitor is another Margaret, spending the summer with her friend Carla & her family at their lavish estate. As is the case with gothic narratives, everything is of course not as idyllic as it may seem, particularly once Carla’s brother returns home for his own visit.

“A Visit”, in true gothic fashion, leaves you with far more questions than answers, reveling in the ambiguity of its ending. I’d be lying if I said I really care to craft my own answers.

Despite being twice as long as most of the other stories in the collection, “A Visit” feels just as frustratingly unfinished, though clearly deliberate in this case. Great gothic horror stories leave behind a satisfying handful of tantalizing loose ends begging to be contemplated and theorized over.

The bones of that are here. “A Visit” is one or two juicy breadcrumbs short of making me care. But the only question I really want an answer to by the end is why Shirley Jackson names so many of her main characters Margaret.

“The Good Wife”

This is another short one, but oof, what an uncomfortable read.

In a good way. Jackson leans more into gothic tendencies, this time around not leaving things nearly as ambiguous but leaving you in thought more.

Mrs. Benjamin has taken to staying in her bedroom for a month, much to the dismay of her husband Mr. Benjamin – at least that’s how it seems at first. The bulk of the story is just one conversation between the couple from the 3rd person perspective of the husband. Details of why Mrs. Benjamin has been banished or perhaps banished herself are peppered into the narration & dialogue.

It’s far from a masterpiece, but I was certainly unsettled upon finishing the story. That’s the goal of these stories, right?

“The Man in the Woods”

First of all, it’s ridiculous it took 15 short stories before we got an animal character considering there’s a cat on the cover of my edition.

The cat is sadly the highlight of this story, for me at least. The oddity of the house that protagonist Christopher stumbles upon is immediately ruined at the introduction of the character Circe early on. If that name means anything to you, it’s impossible to not predict where the story is headed.

If that description doesn’t fit you, maybe you’ll enjoy this story more. It fits me though, so this is probably the only story in “Dark Tales” I would label as generic.

“Home”

Exasperated sigh.

Another story with promise. Another story that feels half-written.

Jackson once again effortlessly established a believable protagonist. This time it’s Ethel Sloane, the wannabe country-girl who’s just moved into the old house in a tiny town. The most interesting and entertaining part of this story is Ethel’s belief she’s become a beloved fixture of the town in 2 days. It’s laughable to everyone but her, even her husband Jim.

I can’t even call the rest of the story a by the numbers ghost story, because it’s not even that. It’s half of a by the numbers ghost story. This is the penultimate short story, and “Dark Tales” is limping across the finish line like a cocky runner cramping because he didn’t pace himself early.

“The Summer People”

In a bit of a change, the final story in “Dark Tales” has an ending that at least attempts to make up for an incredibly mundane lead-up, rather than the other way around as many of its predecessors.

The Allisons are the titular summer people, spending their summers at a small lake town instead of their home in New York City. Only this time around, the empty nesters decide to stay a bit longer, much to the surprise of the so-called ‘natives’ of the town.

“The Summer People” can best be summed up as meandering – far from how you’d expect the final story in a collection like this to carry itself. It’s maybe the only story in “Dark Tales” with paper-thin protagonists, with little effort put into their characterization.

Twist is far too strong a word to use for the ending, but the slight left in the final paragraphs at least tries to make up for this whimper of a final story.

“Dark Tales” is billed as gothic, but most of the stories here feel closer to Twilight Zone scripts rather than the likes of Henry James. That’s to its credit, usually. In 17 stories, Jackson almost never goes down the path of least resistance, instead lightly subverting in subtle ways.

If anything, “Dark Tales” could use more bold moments, and as I’ve said so many times, a couple more pages for each story. There’s nothing truly pointless here but so often I’d finish a story and just think ‘that’s it?’.

Shirley Jackson is undoubtedly a good writer though. I was constantly impressed with her characters, slight adjustments from tropes that felt real and more often than not, sympathetic. I’ll definitely have to pick up one of her novels – maybe allowing herself more room to breath makes for a more satisfying narrative.

“Dark Tales” is a mixed-bag that disappoints more than it impresses, particularly in its final few stories. Despite that, it’s almost always entertaining as Jackson never feels like she’s phoning anything in (except maybe on “The Man In the Woods”). She never swings for the fences, but she doesn’t take the walk either. I’d much rather read something that doesn’t quite land rather than something lazy & formulaic.

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