Just and Ordinary Day

Stephanie Zacharek reviews Shirley Jackson's collection of short stories, "Just and Ordinary Day".

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published December 13, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Shirley Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery" has been a staple of junior high English classes for years. Deftly written and draped around a creepy premise (each year, a small town holds a lottery, the "winner" of which is stoned to death), the story is usually held up as a fable about the dangers of narrow-mindedness and deeply ingrained habits. Really, though, the very weirdness of the concept is the story's big selling point. "The Lottery" is the most sophisticated example of campfire-storytelling terror, ever.

There are minor flickers of similar weirdness in "Just an Ordinary Day," a new collection of Jackson's short works (more than half of which were recently discovered and have never been published): a picture that swallows two women whole and holds them prisoner; a man who leaves the house in the morning to spend his day doing nothing but kind deeds, while his wife's job is to do the opposite; and numerous pacts with the devil. But if some of these stories are mildly diverting, none of them have the power of Jackson's best work (particularly her chilling novel "The Haunting of Hill House"), and many are slowed down by an annoying deliberateness, an obsession with craft that often undercuts raw feeling. The ugly twist of "Jack the Ripper" is revealed in one short passage: "He put the key on the dresser and the pocketbook beside it, and then, just before blowing out the candle, took out his knife. It had a polished bone handle, and a long and incredibly sharp blade." That should be a scarier sentence than it is: Its almost surgical precision knocks the power out of it. You can almost see the revision marks, the crossing-out, the penciled arrows that were necessary to poke and prod it into its state of gleaming perfection.

In addition to probing the twistedness of the human psyche, the prolific Jackson (who died in 1965 at the age of 48) also wrote stories about families, about the fantasy life of children, about people falling in love. Many of those are included here as well -- mostly, they're perfectly charming and utterly forgettable. They're basically hopscotch jumps between a talented writer's more solid and lasting work. They represent the kind of stuff good writers produce simply to keep going, when they know that stepping on a crack won't mean the end of their world, but stopping altogether just might.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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