Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Tooth by Shirley Jackson Review

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House masterfully merged the traditional haunted house story with the psychological breakdown of her protagonist to create something unique and terrifying that made readers question whether Hill House really was haunted, was it all in the heroine’s mind or – both?

The Tooth sees Jackson return to the fertile realm of impressionistic narrative to tell the story of Clara, a woman with toothache who dreams of and possibly escapes her abusive marriage as she sets off to the big city to have a rotten tooth removed. Jackson seamlessly weaves the unreal into the real as Clara’s night journey on the bus sees her encounter the mysterious stranger Jim as he murmurs oddly ad-like descriptions of tropical lands and she slips in and out of a prescription drug-induced stupor. Is he real? Is any of this journey real? And why does her tooth hurt?

The title story has an unnerving edge to it as you feel Clara’s instability, pain and confusion in an increasingly more-hostile seeming world. Jackson’s skill as a horror maestro is finding the terror in the everyday and catching the reader off guard in an instant, so I won’t give away the moment that really chills in this review but it’s an image that’s incredibly clear and shocking – I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it every time I look in a mirror!

The other stories in the collection are more straightforward stories but no less compelling. In Charles, a young boy talks about a very rude and violent boy called Charles at his nursery who keeps getting into trouble – but who is Charles really? In The Intoxicated, a party goer stumbles across the hosts’ young daughter who shares with them a frightening vision of a future where past generations’ carelessness means their descendants suffer for their selfishness. In The Witch, a young boy on the bus spies a “witch” outside the window – and then the bus stops and an elderly man steps aboard, with quite the story to tell him…

The Lottery rounds out this small collection of five short stories. Chances are, you’ve either already read this or know the story as it’s quite famous but if you don’t, I won’t say anything about it except that if you read nothing else by Shirley Jackson, read this. It’s 11 pages long and it’s something every reader should experience at least once, preferably knowing as little about it as possible. Simply put, it is a literary masterpiece.

This Penguin Mini Modern Classic edition is the perfect taster for readers wanting to experience Jackson’s writing. Hopefully it will encourage you to pick up the larger collection of her stories – which includes some even better stories than the ones here – as well as her novels, particularly We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The 20th century saw some masters of horror fiction emerge like MR James, HP Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, and the unstoppable Stephen King, to name just a few. But the greatest of them all? Shirley Jackson. Read these stories to find out why.

The Tooth (Penguin Mini Modern Classics)

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