Black and white photo of author Shirley Jackson

Weird #34: “The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson (1950)

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.

A 1940s cover from The Women’s Home Companion. “The Summer People” was originally published in Charm.

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.

Shirley Jackson, author of “The Summer People”

Next week, I will be writing about Margaret St. Clair’s “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” (1951).

The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges – Source:
https://ilo.wikipedia.org/wiki

A new essay of mine has just been published with Graphite Publications! It builds off some ideas I express in my Master’s thesis, Fantasy as a Peripheral Modernism, specifically the concept of critical irrealism.

As you may have guessed, the title is “The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.” You may already be familiar with Jorge Luis Borges’s famous short story, “The Aleph.” If you aren’t, do yourself a favour and read it: it’s a phantasmagorical vision told in sophisticated prose and you won’t be disappointed.

Back yet? Good. Now, you might be wondering what critical irrealism is. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple.

Critical irrealism is basically a stance a writer takes towards reality. Instead of assuming that literature can represent reality objectively, as all realist fiction does at least implicitly, the critical irrealist demonstrates the ways reality cannot be trusted. Often, critical irrealists do this through the devices of fantasy, gothic fiction, and surrealism.

I’m fascinated with Borges because he seems to encapsulate the concept of critical irrealism so well. In “The Aleph,” he describes a point in space in which all other points are visible simultaneously. This object, which he calls the Aleph, is a vision into the totality of the worlds in the universe. However, there’s a catch.

While it appears to present a perfect representation of the universe, Borges’s narrator comes to distrust it. He calls it a false Aleph, suggesting the way human beings sometimes deny what they know to be true. I explain the reason for this in my article, which you can read here. For now, suffice it to say that Borges throws doubt on the very ability of language to represent reality, let alone infinity.

https://graphitepublications.com/the-critical-irrealism-of-jorge-luis-borgess-aleph/

The Aleph also reminded me of a similar artefact mentioned in Usman T. Malik’s award-winning novella “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn.” It’s an interesting coincidence, and probably more than a coincidence, because as it turns out, “The Aleph” and “Pauper Prince” are linked by a common legend.

The hero of Malik’s novella travels to Pakistan to unravel some mysteries that lie in his family’s history. On this quest, he comes across an ancient artefact that grants him knowledge of the whole universe, including the realm of the jinn. It is the Cup of Jamshid of Islamic legend, also known as the Cup of Kai Khosru.

It turns out that legends of this famous cup may have partly inspired Borges’s Aleph. In his story, Borges explicitly compares the Aleph to “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khorsu,” one of the artifices described in a forgotten manuscript written by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer and translator of the One Thousand and One Nights. One might conclude that stories of this cup, a sort of Islamic Holy Grail, were percolating at the back of Borges’s highly intertextual mind.

Both Malik and Borges use the vision of infinity contained in the Aleph/Cup of Jamshid to present an image of totality–and to subtly critique the possibility of representing that totality. In my article on Malik published in Harf: A Journal of South Asian Studies, I argue that “Pauper Prince” adopts a critical irrealist aesthetic, just as Borges does in his story.

However, whereas Borges must maintain a plausible denial of the fantastic, Malik does not fear dipping fully into fantasy. Indeed, Malik presents us with a real Aleph, similar to the one Borges describes: the seven-ringed Cup of Jamshed.

Underworld as Otherworld: Combined and Uneven Development in Charles de Lint’s Urban Fantasy Fiction

Today I will be presenting on urban fantasy and how it relates to the conditions of combined and uneven development.

Modern fantasy as a literary form has diversified since The Lord of the Rings (1954) and its subsequent paperback imitators. Stereotypically set in medieval or pseudomedieval kingdoms with dragons, elves, and faeries, these paperbacks were rarely set in cities, but usually in the countryside or in a sublime, pre-Raphaelite wilderness. As a form, what provided the historical impetus to the rise of modern fantasy, as early as the late nineteenth century, was the rise of literary realism and the modern novel, the techniques of which authors began to apply to older, or residual forms, such as chivalric romance and epic. Fantasy is therefore a quintessentially modern form even though its settings might be throwbacks to medieval forms. With urban fantasy, a subgenre that originated in the 1980s, fantasy continues to employ residual literary forms such as fairy tale, folktale, romance, and epic, but places the fantastic content within a modern milieu—the contemporary, usually North American, city.

Moonheart            Charles de Lint, a Canadian author resident in Ottawa, has been called the Father of Urban Fantasy. Fantasy novels set in the modern world have older antecedents, such as the supernatural detective stories of Charles Williams, but ‘urban fantasy’ per se, as a market category, emerged during the 1980s, when de Lint wrote many of his classic works, including Moonheart (1984). De Lint’s fiction sets fairy tales, myths, and folktales derived from Celtic, Romany, and Native American traditions—as well as urban legends—within urban space, with novelistic, modern protagonists who interact with mythical, otherworldly figures. Instead of imposing the plot of a conventional fantasy novel onto urban space, de Lint is interested in how ordinary people interact with the fantastic and the numinous on their own terms, and he does so with a social conscience.

Urban fantasy lends itself to an analysis framed by the concept of combined and uneven development because it can claim to represent an uneven modernity in its content as well as its form. But first we must ask, “What is combined and uneven development?” The Warwick Research Collective, referring to Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, describes combined and uneven development as “a situation in which capitalist forms and relations exist alongside ‘archaic forms of economic life’ and pre-existing social and class relations” (WReC 11). Uneven development rears its head whenever you see a high-rise financial district skyline within close proximity to seemingly ‘backwards’ and impoverished slums, or when agrarian farmers are wrenched from the cotton fields they have tilled for generations right into the disorienting presence of advanced industrial machinery. Capitalism must be understood as a world system that encompasses the whole globe under a single, though uneven, modernity—not just as a European development that has spread outward across the globe, bringing modernity with it. This understanding refutes the idea that some societies, especially former colonies, are somehow ‘backwards,’ or behind modernity. Although societies across the globe experience the modern age differently, they are all irreducibly modern, part of one combined system. Neocolonialism may establish hierarchies between one singular modernity and another, but this simply makes it an uneven, combined system, rather than two distinct systems.

How does all this tie in to urban fantasy? Just like the world-system, the form of all modern fantasy is itself combined and uneven, since it joins residual forms that originated in pre-modern periods with the modern novel. In a sense, this is true of all novels, even in realism, where displaced romance forms the novel’s deep structure. But modern fantasy differs from realism because it displays this structure upfront, often as a self-conscious imitation of pre-modern forms, the magical content of which, however, it retains. These disjunctures deepen in urban fantasy, which blends the pre-modern and the modern on the level of content as well as form. The disjuncture between elves, mermaids, fairies, spirits, and goblins coexisting with a modern, urban setting becomes explicitly represented and narrativized in urban fantasy. We can read this disjuncture as an allegory of the combined and uneven system.

This system also describes the dynamic in the hierarchy between the city and the country that urban fantasy mediates. The city dominates the countryside but this relationship nonetheless joins the two spaces. In a similar way, urban fantasy appropriates the pastoralist content of fairy tales and folktales, joining residual, rural culture with the dominant urban culture. This combination of disjunctive content allegorizes the hierarchical relationship of the city over the country. However, urban fantasy does not simply reflect urban dominance as much as it appropriates the natural and the rural to awaken a utopian desire for a less alienated existence within the urban.

Western culture, as Cat Asthon describes in her essay on de Lint in The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, traditionally treats the idea of nature and wilderness as a cure for alienated modernity. However, de Lint’s fiction recognizes the truth that an escape to pure nature is an escape from history and responsibility. Nature is, after all, a cultural construct produced by humans, an aspect of modernity even though it describes a non-human world. Instead, de Lint adopts an urban environmentalism in which his fiction seeks what spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre would call a “renewed right to urban life” (“Right to the City”).

Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city, which counters urban alienation, finds common cause with the politics of de Lint’s urban fantasy. “The right to the city is like a cry and demand,” Lefebvre writes, a revolution of space that places “appropriation over domination, demand over command, and use over exchange” (“Space as a Social Social Product”). Since the city dominates space and nature by transforming it into exchange value—for example, by exploiting natural resources for export and by constructing vast condo projects—Lefebvre calls for the production of socialist space, in which the working classes will use, or appropriate, space for themselves. Nature is the source of all use value, and asks for nothing in return. The city will become a healthier environment if people can use it, rather than it using them.

In the remainder of my presentation, I will demonstrate how two of de Lint’s books—the novel Mulengro (1985) and the short story collection Dreams Underfoot (1993)—respond to the call for the right to the city while also representing the conditions of combined and uneven development in North American cities, specifically Ottawa and de Lint’s fictional city of Newford.

20160308_162556-1Mulengro is a ghost story about the community of Rom living in Ottawa, mixed with a police procedural subplot. A series of gruesome “Gypsy” murders around Ottawa has the cops lost for any plausible explanation. Janfri, a Romani fiddler, watches his home burn down with the Rom symbol for marhime, meaning unclean, painted on his house. Since the Romani are nomad, owning a home is a sign of defilement, an unacceptable adoption of Gaje, or non-Rom, ways—or at least this is what the arsonist’s gesture implies. As the criminal murders more Rom, the elders decide to flee the Ottawa. They know the culprit to be a ghost named Mulengro, a survivor of the Nazi persecutions who has come back to cleanse the Rom from their Gaje ways. Ola, a Rom who practices draba, or magic, flees her house after being attacked by local ruffians, and Mulengro targets her. She hides out with Zach, a hippy living off the land in cabin country. Eventually Janfri makes a final stand with her and the police against Mulengro and his feral wolf minions.

Mulengro denies the Rom the right to the city. His reasoning for committing the murders is that he sees the Rom’s impoverishment as a result of their being marhime, owing to their adoption of Gaje ways—in a word, because of their modernizing. However, the novel’s resolution makes clear that cultural identities are not so clear-cut, that it is possible and even favourable to partake of modernity and retain connection to traditional ways of life, including magic. The Rom are a non-modern culture living a quintessentially modern life. Furthermore they are subjected, like the native peoples of North America, to a settler culture that seeks to manage and even criminalize difference.

What are we to make of the role Mulengro himself plays, a revenant who consumes the souls of doomed Rom? The imagery of consumption calls upon vampire lore—and the Gothic vocabulary in Marx that references vampiric capitalists who extract surplus value from the working class. Mulengro harasses those Rom who own real estate and thus live between the worlds of capitalism and the Rom pre-capitalist, handicrafts mode of production. In other words, he consumes the souls of those most aware of the unevenness of modernity. As the Rom become incorporated into the capitalist economy, most importantly through the real estate market, they experience sudden change. The replacement of use value with exchange value in their increasingly commodity-filled lives leads the Rom to feel cognitive dissonance between the capitalist system they inhabit and their traditions, where a belief in ghosts and the law of marhime still holds sway. Mulengro’s horror represents a structure of feeling among the Rom, a social formation in the process of developing. The ghost is an allegorization of how their society experiences the turmoil of poverty while living on the margins of modernity.

20160308_162621-1            I now turn to Dreams Underfoot, which is more centrally focused on urban experience. Here the urban underworld becomes a faerie Otherworld unnoticed by most denizens of Newford, although occasionally glimpsed by the bohemian artists, street kids, and homeless men that distinguish de Lint’s fiction. The Tombs, for instance, used to be a developer’s dream for a sprawling yuppie paradise, but when this late capitalist urban planning venture failed, the ruins of the city blocks that were demolished remained behind—now a refuge for winos, bag ladies, and the homeless. The Tombs, abandoned by the city government after the attempt to produce exchange value from its space, has now fallen into a state of nature or wilderness and become appropriated by the underclass. Although it is a dangerous area of the city, the Tombs is where the underprivileged can tactically appropriate their right to urban space.

A space they share with colourful characters derived from fairy tales and urban myths. In one short story, “That Explains Poland,” a young photographer finds Bigfoot in the Tombs, which is not so unusual a discovery, because of the various disenfranchised people who live in this wilderness-like area. In another story, “Winter was Hard,” the presence of certain genii loci, or spirits of a place, in the Tombs contributes to making the city a tolerable place to live, while their departure signals the moment the city takes on a more haunted, less homelike character. The right to the city is thus tied directly to the presence of these pre-modern fairy-like creatures. They are pieces of agrarian European folklore transplanted to a North American city and they directly oppose alienation. If we believe in them hard enough, they might come back and restore the city.

The story that concludes Dreams Underfoot strongly suggests that de Lint sees his own fiction as a way to counter urban alienation and foster a sense of community. The fictional urban fantasy writer Christy Riddell, a stand-in for de Lint, finds his muse in Tallullah, the spirit of Newford itself. But Tallullah must leave Christy because of the rise of urban crime and a loss of connectivity among people, which drives her away. In the end, Christy holds the hope that his story collections might restore a sense of community to city dwellers and bring her back.

Dreams Underfoot and Mulengro both use fantasy to question the Enlightenment epistemology and to assert that if this epistemology does not extend to everyone, everywhere, equally—if, for example, it is still possible for people to believe in ghosts and fairies—then modernity itself cannot be evenly developed. While a text asking you to believe in fairies and spirits might seem flaky, seeing as this gives us no solid program to reclaim the city, such faith does awaken the desire to see the postmodern, uneven city restored from its ruins. It implies that there is more to modernity, and that the residual survives and coexists with the modern. De Lint’s fiction arouses our desire to become instruments of social progress. This is the utopian imagination and the power of fantasy.

This concludes my presentation, which could not have been possible without the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I thank them, and I thank you for listening.

The following has been a transcript of a talk given at the English Department of McGill University’s MA colloquium on 10 March 2016 in Montreal.

 

Did you like this article? You might also like:

Part 1: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

Part 2: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint

World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part II: My Interview with Charles de Lint