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 Even after her death, she leaves us with many unpublished works. Her adult children have been wading through all of her papers and unpublished stories have been found.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.


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you’re done taking a peek, the New Yorker also included an interview with Shirley Jackson’s son about discovering her unpublished stories and other topics.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

“I put the other foot into the water and I went down with it, down like a marble statue, and the waves of Lettie Hempstock’s ocean closed over my head.”

The Ocean at the End of the LaneLike the unnamed narrator of Neil Gaiman’s newest novel, the experience I felt while reading the book was one of being enveloped in the world and memories that were created–the ocean closing around me as the story tumbled forward. It would be a shame to read this book as just a simple tale. What Gaiman is getting at is how we remember things; how are memories change from childhood to adulthood; how the sizes and details of our past are malleable. The most obvious is the “ocean” which we soon find out is a duck pond by the Hempstock farm located at the end of the lane from the narrator’s childhood home.

Strange events lead to unworldly ones that are the core of Gaiman’s other works. There are creepy crawlies making their uncanny home in our world but at first appearing as us which is always the most frightening. Within his own house, only the seven year old narrator feels something amiss. “Because she’s not human,” I said. “She’s a monster. She’s a…” Gaiman gives names to these creatures, but it is not their names that are important; they serve as a nightmare for the seven year old protagonist to try to remember forty years later.

As I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I kept thinking about a favorite author of mine as a child–Roald Dahl. His protagonists were kids and they were up against miserable adults out to make their lives a living hell or transform them in some way (I’m thinking mostly of The Witches and Matilda). But what was different about the protagonist of Gaiman’s book (which isn’t necessarily a book for children) is that he appears almost helpless. It is because of his reliance on the Hempstock women that the narrator’s remembrance of childhood events or nightmares is so easily misremembered, re-remembered, and remembered.

This book is a bit different than Gaiman’s previous (or at least the ones I have read) but it still retains the creativity and vividness that he is known for. What starts as a story of a man returning to his childhood home and to the neighbors that he only slightly remembers becomes an engaging tale that is weaved and reweaved to keep the readers on their toes.

The narrator makes an apt statement about myth,

“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”

In these short lines, Gaiman has described exactly what this book is. The memories that are stitched clearly at times and foggy at others are done with uniqueness and beg to be read thoughtfully. I am curious to see a child read this book now and in four decades, like the narrator himself, try to recall what he had read. How would he tell this story?

The Gaze of Orpheus

Yesterday afternoon, I was invited by a very talented friend to the first part in a series of three concert-lectures she is putting on. The entire arch of the project deals with the Orphic myth and how it has influenced music and composers (my friend is studying to be a conductor). Her research was thorough and inventive, and the music performed was stellar (Haydn, Monteverdi, etc.). Besides the enjoyment I had from the music, I am always keen on anything to do with Classical Greece (full disclosure: I studied Classical Greek Civilization & Mythology in college). Before I continue, if you are unfamiliar with Orpheus, may I suggest taking a look at this quick snippet.

She mentioned that she will explore more about the “gaze of Orpheus” in her second concert-lecture. This had me thinking about Maurice Blanchot (as one does on a chilly Sunday afternoon). Even though her project is of course directed towards music, I strongly recommended Blanchot’s essay, The Gaze of Orpheus. Many people find Blanchot to be difficult and obtuse–I admit to being perplexed at times–but he is definitely worth a read to anyone interested in literature, language, art, life, death, etc. He is so fascinated with the idea of Orpheus, that he even wrote an experimental novel called Thomas the Obscure.

In The Gaze of Orpheus, Blanchot discusses Orpheus’ descent from the world of the living to Hades so he may retrieve his dead love, Eurydice. He compares this excursion to that of “the artist,” as well as examining the creative process.

Even though he is a challenge, I highly recommend Blanchot. I won’t get into it with this post, but for the past couple of years, I have been extremely interested with space in literature: both the physical space within the novel and also, the way the reader, author, and character(s) react to space. Which brings me to Blanchot’s The Space of Literature. Read it!