The Man in the Woods by Shirley Jackson

Although, passing away in 1965, the exquisite author Shirley Jackson still persists as one of our great 20th Century American writers. Even after her death, she leaves us with many unpublished works. Her adult children have been wading through all of her papers and unpublished stories have been found. Last year, the New Yorker magazine ran a previously unknown story called, “Paranoia.” With this week’s issue, a story taking root in mythology and fairy tale was published. This new Shirley Jackson story is called, “The Man in the Woods.” It is also available to read in its entirety online.

themaninwoods

Admittedly, the story reads like an early draft. It is indeed short and the ending is lacking the hard resonance that Jackson’s other works released during her lifetime have. The final sentences give a glimpse, however, to the tone and path she wanted to take. With that all said, “The Man in the Woods” doesn’t disappoint.

It is a short story that unleashes a lingering terror from the first page. Shirley Jackson was always wonderful at making the reader feel on edge without being blunt. Christopher is compelled to start walking into the woods out of the mere fact that he has nothing better to do. He is joined by a nameless cat who Christopher playfully asks, “Where we going, fellow? Any ideas?” As he continues on into the woods, Christopher finds himself at a crossroads, not sure which path to take. Jackson sets up a story that feels very familiar in the realm of fairy tales (well, the kind of fairy tales that really are horror stories with grim outcomes and any notion of “fairy” is wholly misleading). Christopher comes upon a small stone cottage where a trio of mysterious people live. The occupants are strange with their speech and they are not completely able to pick up on the humor in casual conversation.

Regardless of the draft quality of the story, I am still delighted by Jackson’s ability to construct a foreboding environment. She clearly is taking a cue from fairy tales and folk myths (one character’s name is possibly Circe; what this tells the reader about her, though, can be debated). It is this enigmatic quality of the narrative that is the big draw.

When you’re done taking a peek, the New Yorker also included an interview with Shirley Jackson’s son about discovering her unpublished stories and other topics.

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16 comments

  1. Given that the story concludes with unsettling focus on a sharpened knife, you have come up with a remarkable sentence: “Shirley Jackson was always wonderful at making the reader feel on edge without being blunt.”

    1. This story and much of her other works always have a lingering sinister tone. She doesn’t explicitly point to certain moments as being the cause for this, but, instead, she somehow layers emotions and actions till they lead to a climax (although, like I wrote, I think this story feels like a draft, so the ending was wobbly to me).

  2. I’m a New Yorker subscriber and will have to check this one out. I actually blogged about “Paranoia” last year, but I think it was before you & I connected in the blogosphere. (I linked to the same interview that you did, too) I also bought the collection of previously unpublished stories it talks about, but I’ve only read a couple thus far. My post is at http://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/shirley-jacksons-short-story-paranoia/ if you want to take a look.

    1. Ooh, thanks, Jay! I didn’t read that story. I always struggle with the idea of getting a subscription, but I just don’t think I can keep up with the weekly arrivals. Many of my friends have huge collections of unread issues under their coffee tables.

      I, too, am on the fence about releasing posthumous works (I just read the Gabriel Garcia Marquez was working on a novel at the time of his death). The interview above with her son is a new one. He talks about this new story, too. If you get a chance and haven’t done it yet since your Paranoia post, definitely read We Have Always Lived in the Castle — but don’t read anything on the internet about it ahead of time!

  3. Strange, I have been seeing reference to Jackson all over the internet lately and I’ve never read anything by her. I have some of her books in my TBR and was thinking of starting We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Is it a good place to start?

    1. This story just came out this week, so maybe that is a reason for all of the references.

      That’s an excellent start. Her most famous story is “The Lottery,” which is another good one, but I think WHALITC is a fantastic novel.

  4. I’m one of those New Yorker subscribers who has a huge pile of unread issues. To the point of not knowing about this story, and I’m a Shirley Jackson fan. Someday, when there is more time (famous lines of any avid reader), I hope to re-read “The Haunting of Hill House” and also WHALITC. Thanks for this post!

    1. I am also a huge Jackson fan. I’m going to try to fit in a novel (not sure which one yet) of hers that I haven’t read during the summer. Definitely take a look at this week’s issue. This story isn’t long at all.

  5. I’m a subscriber, I read it, and it was maddening to me. It seemed to have no end; there was lots of sinister imagery but nothing really happened. I wonder if she would have wanted it published. I don’t know that much about her and admittedly haven’t read anything else, maybe this is her style. I just like my stories to have endings.

    1. I don’t necessarily need a finite end to my stories, but with that said, this story read very much like a draft. To me, she laid out some ideas, but didn’t completely flesh them out. There are clues that something awful will happen at the end if the main characters goes out into the woods. There is also a sense of a Grimm tale with the people in the house.

      I wouldn’t say this story is representative of her work as a whole. Her most famous story is The Lottery, which is good and her well-known novels are The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (both are excellent).

    2. The story doesn’t have an ending because the narrator *wants* to leave hanging whether or not the king of the woods will this time lose his life (thus, his hold on the library and the women) to the chance and unwitting interloper.

      1. I definitely think that she leaves the story with a sense of something cyclical that happens with the house (struggle between the new guest vs. the man in the house to see who will come out the new keeper). With that said, I still maintained that this is very much a draft. It doesn’t feel complete in the sense that not all parts are working together. I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for people new to Shirley Jackson.

  6. I imagine Mr. Oakley cutting up Christopher into small piece which he then buries in the woods. Its a special type of woods where the trees are sprouted from seeds made from pieces of people and the records are the names of those that been planted before. The records have fallen into disarray and are not longer kept, thus the tragic thing is not that Christopher died, but there is no record of his having ever been born and died.

    1. That’s a completely different end than I filled in, but good, too. I thought that if the story continued, it would be something cyclical. A battle in the woods between the old inhabitant of the cabin and the new one who is there to take his place.

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