“Did I frighten you?”

The problem, I’ve noticed, with Shirley Jackson month, is not that I haven’t the time for it (#parenting); by taking quotes from her short stories, I had hoped to generate interest in her writing. Yes, I wanted to focus on the more unsettling qualities of her voice to match the eerie atmosphere of October, but by focusing on only a sentence or two, her stories are taken completely out of context.

So when I posted a quote from “The Witch” (a misleading title) where an old man talks about how much he loved her sister that eventually he strangled her, it’s no wonder than my mother, bless her, commented that the story must certainly be one of Shirley’s “more morbid pieces.” To her credit, my mom was one of those people who was completely mistaught Jackson in high school, so no wonder she is inclined to think the worst of her.

On the contrary, I can’t think of one thing that I’ve read of Shirley’s that I would consider “morbid.” Yes, strangulation is not particularly pleasant, and no, stoning someone from the village in an annual ritual isn’t exactly cheerful. But when I think “morbid,” I think gruesome. And Shirley never gets gruesome. She leaves the gruesome up to the imagination of her readers, always giving them a taste of panic and then cutting them off. I can say with a great amount of certainty that she always believed it was her readers who were the morbid ones to imagine such violence. She just wrote what she saw. 

Case in point: “The Witch” is not morbid at all. It takes place in a train car. And old man has an inappropriate conversation with a little boy while his mom tends to her baby. No one gets killed or tortured or mutilated. It’s all just talk.

The little boy is just as guilty at being outrageous as the old man, insisting that his mother’s name is “Mr. Jesus” and his baby sister is 12 and a half years old. He tells the old man he’s looking out the window to look for witches. 

It’s important talk, all the same. One interpretation of the story could be that it unveils patriarchal themes, that the boy, even though he is only 4, is not at all dismayed by the man’s story of violence against his sister, because violence towards females is something our society normalizes with males, no matter the age. In fact, it seems the little boy respects the man more than he respects his mother, since he laughs happily with the man when his mother tries to intervene in their conversation.

Or it could just be a realistic story of a weird old man and an imaginative bored little boy on a train.

Shirley Jackson’s writing is scary, certainly, but not because she’s morbid. No, it’s scary because it shows the shocking reality of American society.

(Read the whole story here.)