To celebrate National Short Story Week I’ve written a piece on one of my favourite short stories by one of my favourite writers, Shirley Jackson. I would love to know who your favourite short story writer is, so please leave me a comment – it’s always wonderful to discover new writers.
Shirley Jackson’s The Witch
Jackson is famous for The Lottery, a short story which at time of publication in 1948 was tellingly controversial. It’s a powerful piece about the dangers of conformity, and modern antecedents include The Running Man, Battle Royale, and The Hunger Games. The Lottery and The Witch can be considered companion pieces, approaching the same subject in a very different way, but The Witch is more subtle and difficult, and has to be my favourite Jackson short story.
The story begins with a mother on a train with her young son and baby girl. The boy, Johnny, entertains himself by telling stories. “I saw a witch. There was a big old ugly old bad old witch outside,” he says to his mother, but she doesn’t encourage his flights of fancy. She is immured in the ordinary, and won’t shift from this worldview, even to engage the boy’s imagination.
A stranger joins them, a seemingly innocuous elderly man with “a pleasant face under white hair.” As an initially genial exchange between Johnny and the man escalates into something potentially threatening, the reader fluctuates between a feeling of safety in the ordinary and mounting trepidation. Unease builds, creeping under your skin as Jackson plays with your feelings and alliances. You’re shocked, worried; what will the man do? What is he capable of? Yet you’re also in alliance with this stranger, and with the little boy who takes delight in the violence this trickster brings.
It would be easy to interpret the stranger as simply representing the evil of humanity, as someone who enters their lives and corrupts the boy, but the character isn’t so much evil as disruptive: a troublemaker, a devil, a trickster, a witch. The stranger shocks the mother out of her complacency, siding with the boy. He is an adult engaged with imagination, taking away the censorship of the ‘proper’ adult world. Conventions are overturned, but the mother cannot bare it, and she attempts to return to normality.
The Witch is an exposure of adult hypocrisy, a recognition of children as human beings and not overly romanticised visions of innocence. Instead, the boy is simultaneously innocent and savage (also reflected in Jackson’s biographical book about her life with four children, aptly titled Life Among The Savages, a humorous look at the trials of parenthood). The Witch is akin to a fairytale – where an amoral trickster-like character disrupts the protagonist’s life, prompting a profound change. However, Jackson arrests the fairytale outcome; the mother sinks back into the security of the ordinary, and the boy simply goes back to daydreaming and sucking on a lollipop.
Writers are disruptors, Jackson certainly so – a maverick living in a small town community, or lost in the overwhelming hordes of New York City. Many of her stories are about lonely protagonists who don’t fit in, who are out of kilter with traditional conventions. What do we think of when we hear the word ‘witch’? We think of someone dark and evil, someone to be feared. We think of witch trials, of ordinary communities turning on innocent people (often women). And here we return to the parallel with The Lottery; the potential evil here isn’t the old man. It’s us. The reader. The ordinary person in an ordinary community. If Jackson the writer is the trickster, do we want to hear her unnerving message? Do we want to look into the mirror she is holding up to us?
The Witch could have degenerated into shock for shock’s sake, a silly horror/thriller where the creeping unease is sold out for cheap thrills*. In this case, actual violence would have closed off the opportunity for a complex reaction from the reader. Instead, Jackson leaves us with the power of words, a deep unease, and a mischievous pleasure in the breaking of norms. The mother doesn’t understand what has occurred and doesn’t want to. “My mommy will eat you,” the boy tells the stranger; she will devour him, neutralising the threat, enveloping him into her norms and order. She ejects the stranger from her safe world, and turns to her son: “You sit still and be a good boy. You may have another lollipop.”
Comparable to one of my favourite Directors, Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden), Jackson imbues the ordinary with unease and dread, and punctures the security of a commonplace experience with violence, accomplishing this with a deft hand. Jackson’s stories often simply suggest the risk of violence rather than actual violence, showcasing the power of words to unnerve and unhinge through both the subject and her writing. Danger isn’t elsewhere; it’s here, in the domestic, in the ordinary, in the people around us. It’s Jackson’s finely crafted writing and the invasion of everyday experience with violence that results in such effective and powerful horror.
* I am, of course, all for silly horror and cheap thrills.