Saturday, 17 March 2018

The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson Review

Penguin seems to release a new range of dinky paperbacks every year now for one flimsy reason or another. This Penguin Modern series is to celebrate Penguin Modern Classics’ 50th Anniversary or something - meh. I guess these tiny books do serve as fairly decent amuse-bouches of a writer’s style but, as someone familiar with her books, Shirley Jackson’s The Missing Girl isn’t the best representative of her excellent craft.

This book contains three short stories: The Missing Girl, Journey with a Lady and Nightmare, all previously published in the Just An Ordinary Day collection. The Missing Girl is the best of the three. A teenage girl goes missing from a summer camp and no-one can find her. The characters have unusually fanciful names like Woodsprite, Hook and Will Scarlett, adding to an increasing sense of unreality, and after a time you even begin wondering if the missing girl existed in the first place. That powerful sense of unease and weirdness is characteristic of Jackson’s style, which I love. The ending though is a bit weak. 

Journey with a Lady is about a young boy who goes on a train journey alone to his grandpa’s place and meets a strange lady onboard who turns out to be more interesting than she first appears. It’s the most accessible story of the three and unusually straightforward for Jackson. I think that’s why I was unimpressed with it as I expect more invention and creepiness from her than what is a rather bland and unmemorable story. 

Nightmare has the most compelling premise of the three but Jackson’s laborious treatment makes it the dullest story here. A woman sets out to deliver her employer’s parcel on foot across town. A truck with a loudspeaker then starts blaring out “Find Miss X! Win a prize!” and describes “Miss X” exactly as our protagonist. She slowly realises that “Miss X” is her – but why? Who’s set all of this up? What’s going on?! 

The story lives up to its title and features several of Jackson’s common themes of instability, confusion and a hostile world. It’s just such a boring, repetitive read that, like that song by Journey, goes on and on and on and on… Besides being unsatisfying, the ending is somewhat artless too, underscoring what’s fairly obvious long before that point. 

The Missing Girl is a well-written collection of stories showcasing Shirley Jackson’s unique brand of understated, everyday horror that makes her arguably the greatest horror writer of all time. But she’s written far better, scarier, and more engaging stories than these like The Tooth, another small paperback also from Penguin, and her best collection, The Lottery and Other Stories, which is a gosh darn masterpiece; I recommend checking those out over this lacklustre book.

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