17. ‘Dark Tales’ by Shirley Jackson

Before reading Dark Tales, my only knowledge of Shirley Jackson was that iconic and brilliant story ‘The Lottery’. That one gave me delicious chills, so the opportunity to read a whole collection of Jackson’s creepy stories was a no-brainer! (Thank you, as ever, Bristol Central Library.)

dark tales shirley jackson

Shirley Jackson is a master at writing cosy, neat domestic scenarios with a sinister undercurrent; in fact, many of the stories are set in small towns where everybody knows everybody else’s business, which is an inherently creepy idea anyway. All of the stories in this collection set up neat, middle-class lives that are thrown off balance by some dark force, whether that be a stranger or the protagonist’s own twisted desires. But we rarely see the outcome of these dark impulses – although violence is often implied, it’s rarely seen. Instead, with each story, Jackson winds the reader up to a point of perfect tension… and then the story ends. But this isn’t a disappointing feeling. It’s far scarier for us to fill in the blank ourselves than to see what happens outright.

It’s also quite satisfying to see Jackson’s characters being tormented. They talk past each other, assuming the other person knows what they mean, but crucially failing to listen. Many of the protagonists are in painful situations of their own making, and quite often they are pompous to the point of being laughable, so the reader enjoys seeing them be brought down a peg or two. There’s a strong ‘Be careful what you wish for’ vibe throughout this collection, and for Jackson’s characters, what you wish for is guaranteed to come back to bite you.

I really enjoyed ‘Louisa, Please Come Home’, which is about a girl who runs away from home and eventually returns, but not to the tearful welcome that she was expecting. There’s also the excellent ‘Paranoia’, about a man who is followed home from work, and ‘What A Thought’, where a woman suddenly thinks she might kill her husband and finds herself powerless to resist the idea. Entrapment is another thread that runs through Dark Tales – characters find themselves physically or mentally trapped (or both) and Jackson uses that to build a sense of claustrophobia and panic. Entrapment plus helplessness probably equals madness.

This is an impressive collection. At times the stories can merge into each other because their atmospheres and settings are pretty similar, but it’s well worth a read for that quiet, creeping feeling that Shirley Jackson is so skilled at creating.

“The river knew a way out of the forest, because it moved along sweetly and clearly, over clean stones and, unafraid, among the dark trees.” – The Man in the Woods

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

If you want to read it, you can buy Dark Tales here.