Reviewed in the United States on December 29, 2013
Pulp writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was undoubtedly the most influential horror writer of Twentieth Century America, but novelist and story writer Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) was the most highly esteemed by scholars and literary critics, and thus may be the true heir to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Like Poe, Jackson was fairly obsessed with the lurid, the morbid and the pathological, and, like Poe, but unlike Lovecraft, preferred to keep the outright supernatural elements in her work to a minimum. All three writers died before reaching fifty, with Poe dying earliest at forty years of age.
'Come Along With Me: Classic Short Stories and an Unfinished Novel' was originally compiled in 1968 by Jackson's husband, esteemed critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, after Jackson's sudden death in her sleep at forty-eight. Also included are three short lectures, one of which focuses solely on Jackson's classic short story of 1948, 'The Lottery,' which makes another appearance here.
The "unfinished novel" itself, 'Come Along With Me,' is a crisp twenty-nine page first-person narrative by 'Angela Motorman,' an overweight middle-aged woman who, after her husband's death, sells off all her property and creates an entirely new life and identity for herself. Motorman also resembles author Jackson in several significant ways.
The opinionated Angela, who takes a room in a boarding house and begins awkwardly but pleasurably giving seances, is an oddball (she decides against adopting the name Muriel, for example, "because that just sounds like someone who gets raped and robbed in an alley,") and perhaps a sociopath (when a young boy comments that Motorman is "a funny name," Angela says, "I just made it up," as indeed she has, and when asked, "what do you do, Mrs. Motorman?" Angela responds, "A little shoplifting sometimes...some meddling."). The world will never know what specific trajectory Jackson had planned for Angela, however, since the fragment comes to the expected abrupt stop.
What is particularly interesting is that Angela--the reader never learns her real name--believes she can "see what the cat" sees, and has been able to since childhood, when she lay on her stomach "on the floor watching creatures playing under the dining-room table" and was followed home from school by figures whom the child believes were more than human or less than human---but definitely not human. Reborn into her new life and identity, Angela, presumably alive and human herself, will begin following strangers on the street in her spare time.
In 'Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson' (1988), biographer Judy Oppenheimer reported that, from an early age, Jackson herself believed she experienced a kind of 'second sight' which allowed her to glimpse actual, authentic 'other realities,' and to even be regularly visited by denizens of those realities, including a "funny" bearded man who sounds suspiciously like an elf, gnome, or other kind of 'solitary fairy.' Whether Jackson would have finally fully pursued these 'alternative universes,' their strange denizens and her own experiences of them in 'Come Along With Me' will never be known, which is unfortunate, because the fragment is original, suspenseful and pleasurably weird.
A 'funny little man' also turns up in 'The Rock,' a short story Jackson herself apparently discarded but which Hyman found after her death, titled, and considered "most impressive." Like some of Jackson's other work, 'The Rock' is engrossing but frustrating, and ends without resolution.
A young woman, Paula, accompanies her brother, who is recovering from a serious but unspecified illness, and his wife to grotesque and isolated rocky island, where they seem to be the sole guests of the woman who owns the only house erected upon it. But Paula is shortly introduced to "Mr. Johnson," an "odd little man" who initially seems "excruciatingly shy" before his comments become vaguely threatening, and who only Paula and the housekeeper can see and hear.
Is Mr. Johnson--who later gives his name as Mr. Arnold--a ghost? An elf, fairy or genius loci, a tulpa or psychological projection? There is a suggestion that the little man is a symbol of Paula's repressed attraction for her brother, but if this is so, why was Mr. Johnson in residence on the island before the trio's arrival?
As with some other ultimately unsuccessful Jackson stories, 'The Rock' cannot be understood rationally, but accepting it in all its irrationality is not satisfying either. In some of her work, Jackson tried to include plot elements which were both symbolic and objective, figurative and actual, and of course never succeeded, which is why the famous opening paragraph of 'The Haunting of Hill House' (1959) works so well: it undeniably establishes the objective presence of an unknowable entity stalking the halls of the isolated mansion.
The heavy-handed 'The Summer People' concerns a married couple who unwisely decide to remain behind in their second home when autumn arrives instead of returning to Manhattan; like 'The Lottery,' 'The Summer People' addresses the themes of rigid adherence to tradition and conformative thinking, and is also set in New England. It also reveals how understatement made 'The Lottery' the international success it became, as 'The Summer People' is ruined by Jackson's underscoring of the obvious--twice--as the story nears its climax.
In 'The Beautiful Stranger,' a suburban housewife comes to believe that the husband who has just returned from a business trip is a vastly improved imitation of her spouse, but certainly not the original, while 'Louisa, Please Come Home' has something of a reverse plot: a willful young runaway who has established a new life and identify is no longer recognized as the genuine article by her family when, after three years away, she blithely decides to return home. Jackson once stated that one of her "most basic beliefs in writing" is that "identity is all-important," and indeed, identity is the primary theme in many of the pieces included here.
The central section of 'Island' turns out to be the dreamy escapist ruminations of an elderly woman, while 'I Know Who I Love' concerns an average--and average-looking--young woman who was been treated badly most of her life, a frequent Jackson theme.
Jackson's commentary on 'The Lottery,' 'Biography of a Story,' is interesting and often hilarious, as are the multiple quotes--many of them hostile--excerpted from reader's letters after the story's publication. Since the gathering of rocks by the townspeople is mentioned several times during the sparse nine pages of the narrative, it is difficult to believe that so many readers of The New Yorker, where the story first appeared, missed the tale's ominous foreshadowing; some apparently believed that the lottery winner would receive a dishwasher or other desirable piece of consumer merchandise rather than a painful death by public stoning.
It is worth noting that Jackson's advice in 'Notes For a Young Writer' includes the sentence, "Your story must have surface tension, which can be considerably stretched but not shattered; you cannot break your story into pieces with jagged odds and ends that do not belong," advice Jackson herself did not follow when composing 'The Rock'--which may explain why she put it aside--and her disastrously fragmented second novel, 'Hangaman' (1951).
'Come Along With Me' also includes two "charming humorous essays" about childrearing and parenting, 'Pajama Party' and 'The Night We All Had Grippe,' making this a varied and mildly interesting volume to round out Penguin's reprinting of Jackson's complete oeuvre in the Penguin Classics series.