Shirley Jackson’s The Summer People

On this episode of Strange & Scary Story Talk, I discuss one of Shirley Jackson’s lesser-known works, The Summer People. This story is classic Jackson, complete with angry villagers, outsiders and a house that just may be a couple’s undoing.

Of course, it’s impossible discuss Shirley Jackson’s work without talking about the author herself. Her relationship with her mother, her troubled marriage, her insecurities and addictions, her internal conflict over her dual roles as both homemaker and dark fiction writer-she channeled these struggles into the characters and themes that drive her narratives.

Jackson wrote in a style that, on the surface, is rather simple; her prose is clear and concise, yet at times disarmingly poetic. Until recently she was underrated as a writer in part because much of her work was classified as horror, a less esteemed genre than literary fiction. Jackson’s brilliance, however, is most evident in her ability to shed light on the darkness and frailty that lie within us all. Her protagonists are as disturbed as her angry villagers. Her settings are far less haunted than the people who inhabit them. Her characters behave in alarming and, at times, wicked ways, and yet you can’t help but hope they will be okay in the end…and usually they are not. In fact, in Jackson’s world, nothing is okay. It is a hostile place that is inhabited by lonely people who stand on the precipice of madness or death. She holds a mirror to her readers, reflecting our fears about ourselves and the communities in which we live. Despite this, her work is immensely entertaining to read. Jackson has fun placing her characters in peril, and you can be sure it gave her great pleasure to shake up her readers and make us uncomfortable. I would argue that if you don’t feel unsettled after reading Jackson, you haven’t enjoyed the full experience.

Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock

 

On this episode of Strange & Scary Story Talk I discuss Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock. The story begins on Valentine’s Day, 1900. Students of Appleyard College for Young Ladies are going on an outing to Hanging Rock, an ancient volcanic rock formation and popular picnic site. During the trip, three of the girls and a teacher disappear. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a mystery, but is also a work rich in themes, addressing colonialism, repression and the spiritual and natural forces that cannot be controlled by man. This work is eerie and disturbing, and it’s backstory is as strange as the novel itself.

In this video, I explore how Lindsay’s interest in Spiritualism-she is said to have been a mystic herself-informed her writing of Picnic at Hanging Rock and how Lindsay’s training as a painter is evident in her use throughout the text of light and shadow which not only function symbolically but also create the hazy, dreamlike sense of place, one of the most powerful aspects of the novel.  I also talk about the decision to omit the book’s final chapter and Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation of the novel.

I hope you enjoy this video. If you do, please like and subscribe to Strange & Scary Story Talk. Also, please leave comments. Let me know what you think about the novel, the film, the ambiguous endings of both….

Thank you for watching!

Clarice Lispector’s The Fifth Story

On this episode of Strange & Scary Story Talk I discuss Clarice Lispector’s The Fifth Story. Although Lispector, one of Brazil’s most famous twentieth century literary figures, wrote mainly short fiction and novels, her work is deeply poetic, her manipulation of language and form a testament to her ingenuity and brilliance. Lispector’s work is dark and disconcerting. Most of her stories are about women engaged in mundane daily tasks; however, her writing is not about plot but the internal worlds of her characters – worlds that, when exposed by Lispector, reveal disturbing truths. The Fifth Story is no different. Ostensibly, it is about a woman killing cockroaches in her apartment, but it is so much more. Within the frame of seven paragraphs, Lispector retells the same story five times, ending  in two sentences and the understanding that the story could continue. As for Lispector herself, she is as fascinating as her writing. Her brilliance, her glamour, her enigmatic personality created a mystique which endures today.

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One final note: Towards the end of the video I say that Gottfried Leibniz  was a mathematician and philosopher of the eighteen hundreds. I meant to say sixteen hundreds (sixteen and seventeen hundreds to be precise). It was out of my mouth before I realized and there was no going back! The perils of recording! Wondering what Leibniz has to do with Lispector’s story? You’ll have to read it to find out!

The Altar of the Dead by Henry James

Tonight on Strange & Scary Story Talk I discuss Henry James’s exquisite short story, The Altar of the Dead. This beautiful and haunting tale is not only a meditation on death, betrayal, forgiveness and unconditional love, it is also a reflection of what haunted James himself at the time he wrote it. The Altar of the Dead demands careful reading, not because it is unnecessarily complex but because James was so generous in his crafting of the tale that you do not want to miss all he offers.

*Please note that James’s 1904 masterpiece was The Golden Bowl, not The Glass Bowl. Unfortunately by the time “glass” stumbled out of my mouth, it was too late to turn back.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story

Are you tired of saccharin-sweet made-for-TV Christmas movies? If so, do as the Victorians did and invite a few ghosts to your next holiday gathering, or at least fix yourself a cocktail or cup of tea and read a classic ghost tale where winter is bleak and death is serious business. This week on Strange & Scary Story Talk I discuss Elizabeth Gaskell’s THE OLD NURSE’S STORY, a gothic tale of jealousy, betrayal and terror.

The Victorian Tradition of Telling Ghost Stories at Christmas

Let’s resurrect the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. On this episode of STRANGE & SCARY STORY TALK, I discuss the long history of this tradition and explain why the Victorians took a particular interest in the dead and their relationship with the living. I also talk about why Christmas is the perfect time to welcome ghosts to our holiday celebrations.

The Moon and the Yew Tree by Sylvia Plath

I didn’t plan to discuss poetry on the show, but two weeks ago I listened to a reading of Sylvia Plath’s The Moon and the Yew Tree, a work that is startlingly haunting and beautiful, and I just couldn’t let go of it. This week I talk about not only the poem but the importance of broadening the lens by which we view Plath.

E. Nesbit’s IN THE DARK

This week on STRANGE & SCARY STORY TALK I discuss E. Nesbit’s ghost story-or should I say corpse story-In the Dark. Nesbit is best known as a British writer of children’s fiction. She channeled her darkness into her lesser known stories for adults. In this episode we also explore Nesbit’s demons, the infantilizing power of fear and the importance of the ghost story in helping us grapple with what most terrorizes us.

 

Marghanita Laski’s THE TOWER

It’s Devil’s Night, Mischief Night, Halloween Eve, the perfect time to discuss one of the greatest scary, short stories ever written-Marghanita Laski’s THE TOWER! I do not understand why this story is not included in the short literary fiction canon  along with Shirley Jackson’s THE LOTTERY and Flannery O’Connor’s A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND. Please check out the latest episode of STRANGE & SCARY STORY TALK, my YouTube channel where I discuss dark and twisted short fiction, and share your thoughts. Is this story as great as I think it is? Also, if you like what you see, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.

Happy Halloween!

Halloween Reading

Its a dank, gray Sunday here in New England, the perfect time to curl up with a collection of dark and twisted tales. If you want to set the mood for Halloween, The Cat in the Wall, my small book of short stories, is available in both ebook and paperback formats.