Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson



  SHIRLEY JACKSON (1916–1965) received wide critical acclaim for her short story “The Lottery,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 1948. Her works available from Penguin Classics include We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House, Come Along With Me, Hangsaman, The Bird’s Nest, and The Sundial, as well as Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons available from Penguin Books.

  OTTESSA MOESHFEGH is a fiction writer from New England. Her first book, McGlue, a novella, won the Fence Modern Prize in Prose and the Believer Book Award. Her short stories have been published in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Granta, and have earned her a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Award, the Plimpton Prize for Fiction, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her short story collection, Homesick for Another World, was published in January 2017. Eileen, her first novel, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.


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  First published in Penguin Books (UK) 2016

  Published in Penguin Books (USA) 2017

  Foreword copyright © 2017 by Ottessa Moshfegh

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  The stories in this volume were selected from earlier collections of Shirley Jackson’s writings as follows:

  “Louisa, Please Come Home,” “The Beautiful Stranger,” “The Bus,” “A Visit,” and “The Summer People” appeared in Come Along With Me, edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman (The Viking Press, 1968).

  “Louisa, Please Come Home” (as “Louisa, Please”) was first published in The Ladies’ Home Journal; “The Bus” in The Saturday Evening Post; “The Visit” (as “The Lovely House”) in New World Writing; and “The Summer People” in Charm.

  Copyright © 1960 by Shirley Jackson

  Copyright © 1950, 1965, 1968 by Stanley Edgar Hyman

  “The Possibility of Evil,” “The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith,” “The Story We Used to Tell,” “Jack the Ripper,” “All She Said Was Yes,” “What a Thought,” “The Good Wife,” and “Home” appeared in Just an Ordinary Day, edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt (Bantam Books, 1996).

  “The Possibility of Evil” was first published in The Saturday Evening Post; “All She Said Was Yes” in Vogue; and “Home” in The Ladies’ Home Journal.

  Copyright © 1996 by Laurence Jackson Hyman, J. S. Holly, Sarah Hyman DeWitt, and Barry Hyman

  “Paranoia,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “Family Treasures,” and “The Man in the Woods” appeared in Let Me Tell You, edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt (Random House, 2015)

  “Paranoia” and “The Man in the Woods” were first published in The New Yorker and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in McSweeney’s.

  Copyright © 2015 by Laurence Jackson Hyman, J. S. Holly, Sarah Hyman DeWitt, and Barry Hyman


  Names: Jackson, Shirley, 1916-1965, author. | Moshfegh, Ottessa, writer of foreword.

  Title: Dark tales / Shirley Jackson ; foreword by Ottessa Moshfegh.

  Description: New York : Penguin Books, 2017. | Series: Penguin classics

  Identifiers: LCCN 2017022205 (print) | LCCN 2017032531 (ebook) | ISBN 9780525503798 (ebook) | ISBN 9780143132004 (softcover)

  Subjects: | BISAC: FICTION / Horror. | FICTION / Romance / Gothic. | GSAFD: Horror fiction. | Gothic fiction.

  Classification: LCC PS3519.A392 (ebook) | LCC PS3519.A392 A6 2017 (print) | DDC 813/.54—dc23

  LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017022205

  Cover art: Brianna Harden



  About the Authors

  Title Page




  The Possibility of Evil

  Louisa, Please Come Home


  The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith

  The Story We Used to Tell

  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

  Jack the Ripper

  The Beautiful Stranger

  All She Said Was Yes

  What a Thought

  The Bus

  Family Treasures

  A Visit

  The Good Wife

  The Man in the Woods


  The Summer People


  On three separate occasions, I stood within feet of people I knew intimately—one a best friend since adolescence, one a former lover, and one a member of my family—and I did not recognize them. Rosie who lives in Massachusetts suddenly appeared at a reading I was giving in California, and I thought, “Why is that girl staring at me like that?” A man I had lived with once in Brooklyn sat across from me in a coffee shop in LA, and all I could think was, “He’s strangely attractive.” A green-eyed woman in a silk scarf approached me at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and said my name, smiling. I looked at her and thought, “My mother is at least two inches taller than that woman,” then turned and kept searching for her face in the crowd. There is a peculiar malfunction in the brain, I think, when something deeply familiar appears in a strange context. And in fiction, this malfunction can turn into a ride through a new dimension of possibility. A character’s misperceptions can actually transform her world: paranoia is no longer a state of mind. The conspiracy is real: the girl at my reading isn’t Rosie at all, but a doppelgänger sent to make me lose my mind in a public forum; the man in the coffee shop and I fall in love again, and all the while I’m afraid to let on that I think I know him from before—he looks just like Jeremy, talks just like him, but says his name is Andrew. Maybe I’m crazy, and some evil spirit has taken the place of my mother—swapped bodies with her on the Greyhound bus, perhaps. Here she comes, this strange lady in a scarf, to taunt and beguile me, and to steal my soul.

  After reading Dark Tales, I think of these occasions of failed recognition as Shirley Jackson moments. In each story in this collection, the everyday world becomes tinted with an odd sheen of terror. My faith in the consistency of day-to-day life wanes as I read. Though Jackson often starts off rather benignly—her characters are never panicked from the get-go, but snake their way into states of dismay—she has a mystifying knack for illustrating the horrifying uncertainties around the basic laws of reality. Am I alone in doubting that things aren’t always what they seem? Upon awakening, I often ask myself, “Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing here?” and from time to time, I’ve felt that the answers were merely memorized responses, and that my reality might be an arbitrary dash of the imagination—believable, sure, but not entirely trustworthy. This specific vulnerability—of the conscious, willful mind—is precisely what Jackson titillates and exacerbates in her stories. Identity, in particular, becomes flimsy and uncertain in her hands. In “The Beautiful Stranger,” for example, a man returns from a business trip, but is not quite sly enough to convince his wife that he’s the same person he was before he left. Similarly, in “Loui
sa, Please Come Home,” a runaway returns to her family after years living under an assumed name, but her parents have been so disabused by the fantasy of her return that they don’t recognize her. “What is your name, dear?” her mother asks her. It’s not quite a case of mistaken identity, but the cruel perversion of perception and memory under duress. Don’t be hypnotized by the sanctity of the superficial rhythm of humdrum life, Jackson warns, for under the surface of things, people change, sometimes irrevocably, and yet they may appear unaltered.

  At other times, Jackson seems to be writing about the illusory trick of fiction itself. In “The Bus,” a woman’s complaint to her bus driver prompts him to leave her stranded at night on an empty road. Her misadventures in search of safety and sanity take the reader on a surreal exploration of what might be just a slip of dark reverie, a bad dream as she’s dozing off in her seat—she did take a sleeping pill before she boarded the bus, after all. Or, we wonder, is she actually trapped on a circuitous passage around the hell of her own grumpy psyche? Is the story real, or a parable for her frailty as an aging curmudgeon riding toward death? It’s often unclear in these stories whether the eerie peaks and turns are happening in the mind or in actuality. Either way, the experience of existential insecurity is very exciting as a reader. And it seems, too, that Jackson’s characters are in on the game—one’s mind always operates in the hypothetical. Fiction and fact are only delineated in the present moment. In “What a Thought,” a housewife sits reading a boring book and fantasizes bashing in her husband’s head with a glass ashtray. Shocked by her own violent vision, she reels into reasons to not kill him, as though to convince herself not to do it: “What would I do without him? she wondered. How would I live, who would ever marry me, where would I go?” And the next moment, Jackson delivers this bit of fascinating science from the would-be murderer’s point of view:

  They say if you soak a cigarette in water overnight the water will be almost pure nicotine by morning, and deadly poisonous. You can put it in coffee and it won’t taste.

  “Shall I make you some coffee?”

  Jackson’s narrators are not freaks or psychopaths, but actually very sane people—self-possessed, observant, and highly logical. In “Family Treasures,” for instance, an orphaned young woman in a college dormitory systematically pilfers cherished objects from her housemates, then uses her status as a heartbroken stray to manipulate the search for the thief in every misdirection. There’s a lavishness of reason in that story—I don’t think it’s any coincidence: clarity is truly terrifying—but there is also a perversion of sense through the narrator’s self-talk and doubt and analysis. The mind runs, and its course is often rife with pitfalls. In “Paranoia,” a man leaving his office for the day debates with himself about what method of transportation he ought to take to get home in time to have dinner with his wife for her birthday. The mundane anxiety over his commute mounts. As his mind swirls, his senses betray him, and he comes to believe that he is being followed by a stranger in a light hat all around the city. He evades the man in fumbling swoops via bus, taxi, subway, and on foot through the bustling streets of Manhattan, a menace on every corner. But is it the same man in a light hat that he keeps running into? It seems impossible. The protagonist has clearly lost his mind. But by the end of the story, his delusion has superseded his suspicion and becomes the truth in the fiction: the man gets home and his wife is in on the conspiracy to capture him—why? We don’t know. She pretends to go to the next room to make him a drink and calls someone on the phone—the man in the light hat, we suppose. “I’ve got him,” she says. It’s terrifying.


  And so Jackson asks: Dear reader, have you, too, lost your mind? Can you ever be sure you had one to lose in the first place? Have you ever mistaken the mew of a cat in heat for someone being murdered? Have you ever thought you saw your own self waiting at the crosswalk as you drive past in your car? Do you trust your own perceptions? And how far will you walk down a road at night before the wind at your back feels like the hands of a madman pushing you forward? Will you run? How fast? And whose door will you knock on? Everything looks perfectly normal as you rush up the front steps, and maybe you’ve just been spooked, maybe you’re just being silly. In Jackson’s world, the safe house is a trap. Enter it, and you might get lost in the dark.


  The Possibility of Evil

  Miss Adela Strangeworth stepped daintily along Main Street on her way to the grocery. The sun was shining, the air was fresh and clear after the night’s heavy rain, and everything in Miss Strangeworth’s little town looked washed and bright. Miss Strangeworth took deep breaths, and thought that there was nothing in the world like a fragrant summer day.

  She knew everyone in town, of course; she was fond of telling strangers—tourists who sometimes passed through the town and stopped to admire Miss Strangeworth’s roses—that she had never spent more than a day outside this town in all her long life. She was seventy-one, Miss Strangeworth told the tourists, with a pretty little dimple showing by her lip, and she sometimes found herself thinking that the town belonged to her. “My grandfather built the first house on Pleasant Street,” she would say, opening her blue eyes wide with the wonder of it. “This house, right here. My family has lived here for better than a hundred years. My grandmother planted these roses, and my mother tended them, just as I do. I’ve watched my town grow; I can remember when Mr. Lewis, Senior, opened the grocery store, and the year the river flooded out the shanties on the low road, and the excitement when some young folks wanted to move the park over to the space in front of where the new post office is today. They wanted to put up a statue of Ethan Allen”—Miss Strangeworth would frown a little and sound stern—“but it should have been a statue of my grandfather. There wouldn’t have been a town here at all if it hadn’t been for my grandfather and the lumber mill.”

  Miss Strangeworth never gave away any of her roses, although the tourists often asked her. The roses belonged on Pleasant Street, and it bothered Miss Strangeworth to think of people wanting to carry them away, to take them into strange towns and down strange streets. When the new minister came, and the ladies were gathering flowers to decorate the church, Miss Strangeworth sent over a great basket of gladioli; when she picked the roses at all, she set them in bowls and vases around the inside of the house her grandfather had built.

  Walking down Main Street on a summer morning, Miss Strangeworth had to stop every minute or so to say good morning to someone or to ask after someone’s health. When she came into the grocery, half a dozen people turned away from the shelves and the counters to wave at her or call out good morning.

  “And good morning to you, too, Mr. Lewis,” Miss Strangeworth said at last. The Lewis family had been in the town almost as long as the Strangeworths; but the day young Lewis left high school and went to work in the grocery, Miss Strangeworth had stopped calling him Tommy and started calling him Mr. Lewis, and he had stopped calling her Addie and started calling her Miss Strangeworth. They had been in high school together, and had gone to picnics together, and to high school dances and basketball games; but now Mr. Lewis was behind the counter in the grocery, and Miss Strangeworth was living alone in the Strangeworth House on Pleasant Street.

  “Good morning,” Mr. Lewis said, and added politely, “lovely day.”

  “It is a very nice day,” Miss Strangeworth said as though she had only just decided that it would do after all. “I would like a chop, please, Mr. Lewis, a small, lean veal chop. Are those strawberries from Arthur Parker’s garden? They’re early this year.”

  “He brought them in this morning,” Mr. Lewis said.

  “I shall have a box,” Miss Strangeworth said. Mr. Lewis looked worried, she thought, and for a minute she hesitated, but then she decided that he surely could not be worried over the strawberries. He looked very tired indeed. He was usually so chipper, Miss Strangeworth thought, and almost commented, but it was fa
r too personal a subject to be introduced to Mr. Lewis, the grocer, so she only said, “And a can of cat food and, I think, a tomato.”

  Silently, Mr. Lewis assembled her order on the counter and waited. Miss Strangeworth looked at him curiously and then said, “It’s Tuesday, Mr. Lewis. You forgot to remind me.”

  “Did I? Sorry.”

  “Imagine your forgetting that I always buy my tea on Tuesday,” Miss Strangeworth said gently. “A quarter-pound of tea, please, Mr. Lewis.”

  “Is that all, Miss Strangeworth?”

  “Yes, thank you, Mr. Lewis. Such a lovely day, isn’t it?”

  “Lovely,” Mr. Lewis said.

  Miss Strangeworth moved slightly to make room for Mrs. Harper at the counter. “Morning, Adela,” Mrs. Harper said, and Miss Strangeworth said, “Good morning, Martha.”

  “Lovely day,” Mrs. Harper said, and Miss Strangeworth said, “Yes, lovely,” and Mr. Lewis, under Mrs. Harper’s glance, nodded.

  “Ran out of sugar for my cake frosting,” Mrs. Harper explained. Her hand shook slightly as she opened her pocketbook. Miss Strangeworth wondered, glancing at her quickly, if she had been taking proper care of herself. Martha Harper was not as young as she used to be, Miss Strangeworth thought. She probably could use a good, strong tonic.

  “Martha,” she said, “you don’t look well.”

  “I’m perfectly all right,” Mrs. Harper said shortly. She handed her money to Mr. Lewis, took her change and her sugar, and went out without speaking again. Looking after her, Miss Strangeworth shook her head slightly. Martha definitely did not look well.

  Carrying her little bag of groceries, Miss Strangeworth came out of the store into the bright sunlight and stopped to smile down on the Crane baby. Don and Helen Crane were really the two most infatuated young parents she had ever known, she thought indulgently, looking at the delicately embroidered baby cap and the lace-edged carriage cover.

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