Shirley Jackson’s Four Novels of the 1940s & 1950s is a collection by the Librart of America of the authors four novels The Road Through the Wall, Hangsaman. the Bird’s Nest, and The Sundial. While these are not Jackson’s best known work, they are as always gripping and fascinating looks into the darknesses of human society. The fact they represent Jackson’s earliest novels also lends to seeing the development of a famed writer, amd that they are novels from a woman remembered for a short story makes them all the more fascinating.
The Road Through The Wall covers less than a year’s time in one small patch of land that considers itself moderately well-to-do. While focusing mainly on the teenagers and children in this area, Jackson gives a detailed accounting of the goings-on amongst various families and chosen groups. By the end of the book almost no one comes out looking particularly sympathetic, although the reader will often find kinship in the small details. Because of this a thoughtful reader might wonder about how many of the more worrying aspect of the community can be found in their own or themselves.
The Sundial, by contrast, is a story started by a single death and dealing with the inner hatreds of a single family. Once again few are sympathetic, although this time there are dreams like omens and a question of the end of the world which come into play. How one will follow on with a goal they hate, soulley because they do not want anyone to be successful without them. The question of if the prophecy might come true or not is muddled, and yet the way people invovled in the conflict interact with one,another proves far more interesting. There is only one child given any degree of attention in this particular book, and only a small number of deaths. Yet both of these serve as unexpectedly corrupting influences.
These early novels may not have the noteriety of “The Lottery” however they are far deeper in characterization and no less bleak. In the face of tragedy some people pull together, yet they never stop sniping and blaming one another for one of a great variety of problems. Indeed as change is adressed in any volume, just how little change there has been is a key. These novels vary greatly in place, character, and timespan, yet all give the hard look at disturbing aspects of humanity that helped “The Lottery” became so well known.
As always excellent timelines and notes accompany the novels in this Library of America volume, and they serve well in reminding the reader of the background for such a renowned literary figure in her time. The notes on the texts will be more appreciated by those of a specific literary bent, however the more biographical information will interest a far wider group.
This volume is easy to recommend. While Shirley Jackson did not write particularly sympathetic characters, those she writes are fascinating, and the dark look she takes at humanity is always a great draw. This collection of early novels is not tobe missed by anyone even vaguely curious about her work.
(Library of America, 2020)