From the Books: “Come Along With Me”, by Shirley Jackson

This book is a collection of stories and essays by Shirley Jackson, the great writer of often dark fiction, if not outright horror, from the middle of the last century. Jackson’s life seems to have been generally free of drama, which surely disappoints anyone looking for demons and skeletons in her personal closet to account for the apparent darkness her imagination often generated.

Jackson’s most famous works are likely the novel The Haunting of Hill House, one of the definitive horror novels of all time (particularly in the “haunted house” subgenre), and the short story “The Lottery”. This particular tale may not be as shocking today as it was when it first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker in 1948, but even so, I remember when I first read it, the mounting sense of dread in the brief tale, the disbelief of what it looked like the people in this little town were about to do. “They’re not going through with it,” I remember thinking. “Surely they’re not. They’ll turn back. They’ll stop before it gets to that.”

Reaction to the story was stunning and, often, angry: angry that someone out there might write such a thing, angry that so august a magazine as The New Yorker would print it. The reaction made its way to Jackson’s own mailbox, and she describes those reactions in an essay that is, in its way, maybe as disturbing as the original story itself. Here is part of “Biography of a Story”.

On the morning of June 28, 1948, I walked down to the post office in our little Vermont town to pick up the mail. I was quite casual about it, as I recall – I opened the box, took out a couple of bills and a letter or two, talked to the postmaster for a few minutes, and left, never supposing that it was the last time for months that I was able to pick up the mail with an active feeling of panic. By the next week I had had to change my mailbox to the largest one in the post office, and casual conversation with the postmaster was out of the question, because he wasn’t speaking to me. June 28, 1948 was the day The New Yorker came out with a story of mine in it. It was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.

I had written the story three weeks before, on a bright June morning when summer seemed to have come at last, with blue skies and warm sun and no heavenly signs to warn me that my morning’s work was anything but just another story. The idea had come to me while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller – it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day’s groceries – and perhaps the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story; at any rate, I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator, and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. As a matter of fact, when I read it over later I decided that except for one or two minor corrections, it needed no changes, and the story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories can tell you, is not a usual thing. All I know is that when I came to read the story over I felt strongly that I didn’t want to fuss with it. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I didn’t want to fuss with it. It was, I thought, a serious, straightforward story, and I was pleased and a little surprised at the ease with which it had been written; I was reasonably proud of it, and hoped that my agent would sell it to some magazine and I would have the gratification of seeing it in print.

My agent did not care for the story, but – as she said in her note at the time – her job was to sell it, not to like it. She sent it at once to The New Yorker, and about a week after the story had been written I received a telephone call from the fiction editor of The New Yorker; it was quite clear that he did not really care for the story, either, but The New Yorker was going to buy it. He asked for one change – that the date mentioned in the story be changed to coincide with the date of the issue of the magazine in which the story would appear, and I said of course. He then asked, hesitantly, if I had any particular interpretation of my own for the story; Mr. Harold Ross, then the editor of The New Yorker, was not altogether sure he understood the story, and wondered if I cared to enlarge upon its meaning. I said no. Mr. Ross, he said, thought that the story might be puzzling to some people, and in case anyone telephoned the magazine, as sometimes happened, or wrote in asking about the story, was there anything in particular I wanted them to say? No, I said, nothing in particular; it was just a story I wrote.

I had no more preparation than that. I went on picking up the mail every morning, pushing my daughter up and down the hill in her stroller, anticipating pleasurably the check from The New Yorker, and shopping for groceries. The weather stayed nice and it looked as though it was going to be a good summer. Then, on June 28, The New Yorker came out with my story.

The letters, as Jackson reports, are almost entirely full of either confusion, distaste, or outright vitriol. Jackson rather drolly notes that one of the most terrifying aspects of writing is “the realization that they [stories] are going to be read, and read by strangers.” The people most moved to comment, in that day by mail, are almost always those most incensed by the tale, and Jackson also notes her relief that the volumes of mail she received, though large, likely did not constitute a reasonable survey of the opinion of the reading public. Small consolation, I suppose, when you’re the one whose mail is overflowing and whose own mailman isn’t speaking to you. But at least Shirley Jackson kept on writing. Her best work was likely still to come.

Oh, and if you haven’t read “The Lottery”, please do. If nothing else, it shows how effective a horror tale you can craft without one single hint of the supernatural. That’s quite a statement about human behavior and human nature – and maybe that’s what Jackson intended all along, when she tossed off this little tale which occurred to her while pushing her kid in the stroller.

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