Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” may be the subtlest weird tale in the VanderMeer anthology yet. It reads like a low-stakes story about an older couple, the Allisons, deciding to stay on after Labour Day at their summer home in the country. However, it develops a subtle undercurrent of dread that sharpens into horror.
Most readers know Jackson from “The Lottery,” a mainstay of high school curriculums, or The Haunting of Hill House, which is considered “one of the most important horror novels of the twentieth century” (311) and was loosely adapted into a Netflix special.
Jackson is a master of horror, but it’s also worth noting that she was equally skilled at writing women’s fiction–two aspects of her style that are related.
These stories, many of which are about friendships between women, use precise details of domestic life that add material realism to her fiction. Her dialogue captures the way women and men spoke in the 1950s, while her subtext often reveals the social and psychological pressures to which women were often subjected. Even in stories that have no trace of horror in them, her interest in the fears that many women experience is apparent.
These stories appeared in the New Yorker and the New Republic but also in venues such as The Women’s Home Companion and Mademoiselle. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the Women’s Home Companion became more focused on lifestyle articles than short stories after the war, perhaps reflecting a broader cultural shift away from short stories–something also seen in the failure of genre fiction pulp magazines around this time–in favour of more marketable (and less thoughtful) nonfiction lifestyle articles for baby boomers.
Honing her skill for realism in these literary markets, Jackson would use her talents to craft the uncanny effects in the horror fiction for which she is known.
For Freud, the word “uncanny” is “unheimlich” or un-homely. It is a feeling of anxiety that emerges when something strange appears in a familiar setting, or when something familiar appears in a strange setting. To borrow an example that Nino Cipri used in a horror workshop last year, think of a staircase in the middle of a forest–where does it lead? The familiarity of the staircase is incongruous in the strangeness of a forest. Such decontextualized objects allow us to project our own fears and fantasies onto them.
It is also possible for strange things to happen in a familiar setting, which is why haunted houses can be so disturbing. The very familiarity of a house is what makes it so shocking that something bizarre or subtly menacing can happen inside it. Broadly, this tension between familiar and strange is where the power of Jackson’s horror fiction lies. And this is as true of The Haunting of Hill House as it is of “The Summer People.”
The Allisons are an older couple, New Yorkers who summer in the country and “invariably [leave] their summer cottage the Tuesday after Labor Day” (311). However, this year they break routine, deciding to stay at their cottage past Labour Day to take advantage of the good weather in October.
It’s an innocent enough start. But as in so many other weird tales and horror stories, it’s this break in habit, this violation of a taboo, this modest display of nonconformity that will result in punishment.
When the Allisons announce their plans to stay and go about procuring kerosene and other essential goods for their cottage, the country folk they encounter express surprise that “nobody ever stayed at the lake past Labor Day before” (312). The phrase is repeated several times throughout the story, a refrain used by the villagers that adds ominousness to this particular holiday, this threshold of the seasons that must not be crossed.
Mrs. Allison optimistically says they’re going to “give it a try” but one local, Mr. Babcock, grimly replies, “Never known til you try” (312). The grave tone he use gives the statement a sense of warning.
John Clute in The Darkening Garden says that “horror is that category of stories set in worlds that are false until the tale is told.” The raw, undisguised truth of the world’s horror is revealed at the story’s end. Babcock is suggesting that if the couple stays, then they will see this terrible truth for themselves.
However, since the couple does not take Babcock’s words as a warning, the Allisons decide to remain in the country. Trouble begins to upset the Allisons when their kerosene supplier says he won’t be able to deliver to their house after Labour Day because his son, who usually does the deliveries, has to go back to school. “You never been here after Labor Day before, so’s you wouldn’t know, of course,” he says (315).
But minor inconveniences like these become bigger frustrations when Mr. Allison’s car breaks down. Also, to add atmosphere to the creeping sense of dread, a thunderstorm begins to slowly move in, the sky “smiling indifferently down on the Allison’s summer cottage” (317). There’s almost a sense of cosmic horror in the image–a thin mask of benevolence covers up the essential indifference of natural world towards human kind. It’s a quick, quiet image, but it arguably draws on a similar alienating vision of humankind’s small place in the cosmos as Lovecraft draws in his fiction.
One moment of uncanniness occurs when the couple receives a long-awaited, dutiful letter from their son. The couple are very familiar with his handwriting and letter writing style, but when Mrs. Allison reads the letter, she says it reads strangely: it just doesn’t sound like her son’s writing. She can’t explain why, but she just feels that it was not written by him. “Did some kind of doppelganger write it?”, the reader is left to ask.
Soon, the couple find themselves truly isolated, when their cottage’s wall-mounted phone goes dead. The storm delays its arrival “as though in loving anticipation of the moment it would break over the summer cottage” (317). The Allisons huddle up together in their house listening to a New York station on their radio: “Even the announcer, speaking glowingly of the virtues of razor blades, was no more than an inhuman voice sounding out from the Allison’s cottage and echoing back, as though the lake and the hills and the trees were returning it unwanted” (317). The familiar, modern sounds of radio are rendered strange and alien in the natural landscape of the country. The passage suggests that there are two worlds, the country and the city, and that the country is indifferent to the aspects of the city that the Allisons have brought with them.
Finally, Jackson masterfully reveals a subtext that readers were not aware existed before, when Mr. Allison says, “The car had been tampered with, you know. Even I can see that” (317). Mrs. Allison is quick to realize the phone line must’ve been cut as well (317). The realization that these apparently accidental failures have human intention behind them is the Truth that announces the end of the story. Mrs. Allison realizes she’d known the villagers were out to get them ever since she “saw the light down at the Hall place last night,” referring to their closest neighbours (318).
The story ends with the old couple huddling close together against the storm, unable to act, only waiting for the unspeakable to happen.
The open ending permits several readings. First, it is still possible that the couple only imagined that the car and phone lined had been intentionally tampered with. In this case, the threat is only in their mind, triggered by the anxiety and friction that follows their decision to break from their familiar routine. Second, the villagers could have only been playing pranks on the city folk–tampering with their car and phone line but not exactly conspiring to commit murder. Third, the villagers may be out to kill the Allisons. Possibly, their house will be lit on fire using the kerosene that the kerosene man refused to sell them. Or maybe the Halls will stone them while they’re lying in bed, in a callback to “The Lottery.”
However, in a sense, these endings are irrelevant to the story itself–that’s why Jackson leaves the ending open. The story ends before any one of these possibilities happens because (in keeping with Clute), once the Allisons realize the truth, it is no longer possible for the story to continue because the full horror of their reality has already been recognized. The horror is not in what might physically happen to them (if they are destined to meet a violent death) but about their gradual realization of the truth.
the beauty of this story is in its understatement. It’s a story that invites you to imagine the ending in your own way. It also lends itself to several re-readings, to searching the story multiple times for any missed subtext. It may be a quiet story, but the dread nonetheless leads to a shocking end.
Next week, I will be writing about Margaret St. Clair’s “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” (1951).