The New Shirley Jackson?
Every once in a while in this life, and more so since the advent of social media, we find ourselves asked to name our favorites: our favorite color, our favorite food, our favorite book, our favorite movie. The answers we produce are almost always fictions, or rote repetitions, because our likes are malleable.
But your friendly columnist does have a permanent answer for favorite horror story, an outing by a writer who earns several places on his life list of favorite stories, period: “The Renegade,” by Shirley Jackson. Jackson is of course the master best known for the short stories “The Lottery” and “One Ordinary Day with Peanuts,” and for the novel The Haunting, but this particular story is not quite as prominent. It’s the quiet literary tale of a woman who has moved with her family to a nice home in the country, and what she discovers about her neighbors when the beloved family dog gets a reputation for killing the neighbor’s chickens. It seems that everybody around her believes that the only feasible solution is to kill the dog, and that everybody has their malignant, cruel suggestions regarding method. Nothing violent happens to the dog in the actual story—I say that right off because I know that many of you have an aversion to stories where bad things happen to animals, even if you have no trouble with reading stories where human beings are minced and diced in various creative and bloody ways—but the casual nature with which all this cruelty is offered, and ultimately where it comes from, firmly places the story in the category of authentic and relentless nightmare.
For that story and many other, I venerate Shirley Jackson. I love the way she writes the female voice, I love the way she presents big emotions on tiny canvases, I love the domesticity of many of her tales and the way she pits little people against big horror, including many that manifest with the softness of a simple epiphany. I love that she has an ongoing theme, the things that unhappy women keep to themselves. Most of all, I love the way she puts her sentences together, this writer who was equally at home in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and in The New Yorker.
They don’t make many like her anymore.
And yet it seems, sometimes, every once in a great while, they do.
I am now in possession of a slim little collection called Seven Sins: Stories by Karen Runge, from Concord Free Press ($16.00, though the press is also known for giving books away; check out their website at concordfreepress.com; it’s complicated). I know almost nothing at all about the author except that she lives in Johannesburg. On the basis of a handful of the tales from this collection (that could easily have flown under my radar), I am fully prepared to compare her work to that of an author I consider an all-time giant.
Why? Well, for one, there’s “The Philosopher,” the tale of a now-hugely pregnant woman whose husband, the academic of the title, has foolishly taken her on a road trip in a cramped caravan out of what seems the desire to have one last taste of freedom before the baby comes. While he works on his magnum opus, she of course is trapped by her own swelling body in cramped spaces that represent the very opposite of freedom for her, and as the days go on and her delivery date draws nearer, she gradually realizes that she’s a stranger not only the man she married, but to her own life. It is very much a horror story—and if you want to know what ultimately tips it over into category, consider that she is closer to a pack of wild dogs than she is to the scribbling ink-stained wretch she married—but as with Jackson, the troubling emotions are in place long before the terror manifests. Hell, they’re in individual sentences, as in her description of the caravan windows. “They open only a grudging inch at the bottom, a space barely wide enough for you to stick your hand through, and wriggle your fingers in the summer air.” You read that sentence and you know that the story is about denied freedom.
In “The Orphanage,” a woman shattered by a series of tragic miscarriages lives next door to the derelict building of the title. (In a shattering phrase, she refers to her womb as a place that “began sucking in life and spitting out death.”) Supported by her estranged husband, she has little to do in the big house but pickle herself in alcohol, cook herself elaborate meals, and look out upon the big and abandoned structure just outside her window, at which point she begins to observe people taking children in and out. Are they ghosts, manifestations of her growing madness, or evidence of some more mundane, human evil? There is eventually a concrete answer, but the plot isn’t as important as the structures this one sad creature has created for herself, the unhappiness that has deformed her into a caricature of the self she started to be.
“Sweet Old Men” reads for a while like it’s more an essay than a story, one that includes the observation, “Old men know all the worst kinds of jokes and stories. Sexist, racist, sick . . . they pull small children up onto their laps, offering secret sips of whiskey, and with bleary eyes they recite these stories of the sexist, the racist, the sick.” The essay transforms into narrative in its last act, with a deftness that changes everything that came before. Then there’s “My Son, My Son,” about a woman’s troubled relationship with her boy, who is off-putting in different ways as he grows up, how each phase informs the other, and how the monstrousness in plain sight is ultimately revealed to come from an entirely different source.
In these, and the three remaining tales, Karen Runge proves herself to be a storyteller of rare and profound gifts, and a voice so powerful that on the basis of this one thin collection, I am willing to call her heir to a predecessor who can be counted as one of the best there ever was. Don’t expect this kind of thing to happen again, any time soon.
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