I am an enormous fan of Shirley Jackson’s work, and have been eager to read Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings since its publication in 2015. For various reasons, I hadn’t managed to pick it up, but finally requested a copy from my local library. The volume, which contains a great deal of unseen work of Jackson’s, from early stories to pieces of observation, has been edited by her son and daughter, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt. The foreword to the book has been written by Jackson’s biographer, Ruth Franklin.
The blurb explains that Let Me Tell You ‘brings together a treasure trove of short stories – each a miniature masterpiece of unease – with candid, fascinating essays, lectures, articles and drawings.’ In each of these pieces, ‘strange encounters occur, unwanted visitors arrive, places and objects take on lives of their own.’ They shift between the ‘ordinary and the uncanny, the comic and the horrific.’ Many of the stories collected here are from Jackson’s earliest writing period; they were written in a time of ‘impressive productivity as well as inspiring persistence.’
In her introduction, Franklin talks at length about the importance of Jackson’s posthumous collection. She writes that the real highlight in Let Me Tell You is ‘especially for aspiring writers’, as Jackson shares ‘succinct, specific advice about creating fiction’ in both essays and transcripts of lectures which she gave.
Let Me Tell You has been split into several sections, which are often thematic. Due to the emphasis which Jackson placed on writing about her family and her own life, many of the sections which are not purely made up of her short stories have overlapping content.
Let Me Tell You further demonstrates just how marvellous Jackson was at writing, and how she could so deftly create atmosphere and foreboding. She had an innate ability to know just where to end a story, when all of the reader’s senses are heightened, and the tension which she is built is almost unbearable. Jackson was also wonderful at suggestion, and of making her readers question often quite ordinary things. As with her better known work, her stories contain clever and surprising twists. At first, the situations which she crafts, and the lives which she lets us glimpse, appear ordinary; however, her stories are anything but. Even the shortest of her stories has been meticulously plotted, and strikes just the right balance. A mixture of narrative perspectives has been used throughout, the characters are varied, and there is an unsettling quality to each.
Many of Jackson’s stories are steeped in the domestic, and the everyday: for instance, Mrs Spencer in ‘Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons’, who sets about preparing a party with no help whatsoever from her indifferent husband; and the wife of a professor talking to two of his young female students in ‘Still Life and Students’, one of whom has been having an affair with him. We meet a man who walks around a park fabricating stories to tell to everyone he meets, and a woman who returns to her hometown after many years, and finds that nothing at all is the same, or is as she expected. In this last story, ‘The Lie’, Jackson writes: ‘She felt wary of going too close to her old house, although she had been anxious to see it again; perhaps if she came within its reach it would capture her again, and never let her go this time. Or perhaps it was only because she was embarrassed about being seen by people looking out their windows and telling one another, “There’s Joyce Richards come back. Thought she was doing so well in the city?”‘
The accompanying illustrations, of which there are surprisingly few, are whimsical, and her essays witty and amusing. Throughout, there is a sharpness to Jackson’s writing, perhaps more apparent in her short stories than her non-fiction pieces. She was an extremely perceptive and intelligent author.
For a Jackson fan, Let Me Tell You is a real treat. To those unfamiliar with her work, it could act as a great introduction to both her stories and style. Jackson is quite unlike any other author I have ever come across, and it feels like a real privilege to be able to read these previously unpublished and forgotten pieces. They are polished, written with the hand of a very talented author who already seems at the height of her craft.