Time again for Six Degrees, the only thing keeping this blog alive for the moment. Grateful thanks to Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest who does all the organising for this monthly feature. The background can be found here.
I have not read The Lottery (1948), the starter book this month. Had I been asked a few weeks ago I would have said with confidence that I’m unlikely to pick up anything by Shirley Jackson despite her work appearing regularly on my bookish radar. A sweeping and unfair dismissal I accept, but what I hear of her work has never appealed.
Nonetheless, in the interests of Six Degrees I read a little about the story that will begin this month’s chain and in the days which followed I’ve found myself wondering. This month’s starter is a short story and readily available to read for free. It has been described as one of the most famous short stories in American literature. Perhaps I should read it? Maybe I will read it. Will it still have that shock factor since I now know what is to come? Perhaps it’s better that it doesn’t. My chain has been constructed without having read it, so it’s best, I think, to leave the story unread until the chain has been written. Then we will see. Meanwhile, given the time of year, the direction of this month’s chain has been set from the start.
Immediately I began investigating Shirley Jackson’s infamous story it chimed with a novel I had just finished reading. Both are set in a small town in summer, both feature mob mentality. Both give rise to the phrase: summer gothic. Thus we move from small town America in The Lottery to small town Ireland in The Beauty of Impossible Things by Rachel Donohue. I’m sure that Jackson’s iconic story carries more shock value than Donohue’s quiet novel but the latter has value and impact too. It’s a coming-of-age tale which explores the mother-daughter relationship between Natasha and her bohemian mother as they are forced together, isolated in genteel poverty in a crumbling ancestral home above the town. Among other things it explores how we deal with our sense of ourselves alongside the pain of otherness and how far we will go in our desire to belong. A melancholic read of longing and regret; I found it quietly haunting.
A small diversion now to ponder on the current penchant for long titles. It seems to me to be an ever-increasing trend and it frequently irritates me. Not enough to stop me from choosing a book perhaps, but I find myself more impressed by a short, pithy title than those which present me with an essay before I’ve left the front cover.
That said, there have always been long titles and my next link is a classic example. Moving from summer to the coming of autumn and moving back to small town America, Ray Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) takes its title from a quote from Macbeth and it’s surely iconic. Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is a favourite of mine. Something Wicked remains in idyllic Green Town but here the town is presented in a very different light. Mostly it’s presented in the dark in fact, with the coming of the ghostly carnival led by the malevolent Mr Dark himself. Just who is he and what does he want?
I have this as an audiobook and this will be the year that I finish it. I’ve started it more than once – always around this time of year of course. Just as the tension builds, filling me with foreboding as the mysterious carnival reels in the two young boys, something happens in life and by the time I’m ready to resume the narrative the moment has passed. Autumn, Hallowe’en, the gothic season – all have passed. The tension broken, it’s just not the moment to find out how the story ends. Another year, the season rolls around again but of course I must start the story again to get the full effect and so it goes, year after year. I’m trapped in my own unending circle of wicked somethings it seems. But THIS will be the year that I’ll get to the end.
I digress. Back to the chain. There’s no question about remaining with the gothic theme and I’m still musing about long titles. Which leads me to a book I haven’t read. Rather than her more famous The Essex Serpent, my next link is to Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood (2014). It’s not particularly well-reviewed on Goodreads but just reading the synopsis gives me shivers. We’re in England now, on the Anglian marshes in a sweltering stultifying heatwave which reminds me of the summer we visited Donohue’s Irish town. Unable to bear the oppressive heat, John Cole closes his bookshop early and drives out of London to visit his brother. His car breaks down on a lonely road and he knocks for help on the door of a dilapidated house. Where the occupants know his name and are apparently expecting him…
”Someone had broken the spine of a book and left it open on the lawn, and near the windows rosebushes had withered back to stumps. A ginger cat with weeping eyes was stretched out in the shade between them, panting in the sun.”
We are back to summer gothic. I’m hooked regardless of the critics and I’m convinced I will love it. I feel the same about my next link.
Weathering (2015) by Lucy Wood has been on my tbr since I read her lingering collection of short stories, Diving Belles. Weathering is another exploration of mother-daughter relationships and another featuring a crumbling old house. Sarah Perry(1) offers it as a superb example of contemporary gothic. I’m so pleased that her article has reminded me of it. Even better, there is a copy available in my local library so I’ll be reading this one soon.
There is, inevitably, a dilapidated and isolated house (this time located in a Devon valley) to which Ada returns with her daughter, Pepper, after an absence of thirteen years. She has returned to ready the house for sale and scatter the ashes of Pearl, her mother, in the river which runs past it. But Pearl never left the house and she is not ready to leave now …
“Rain like feet stamping. A few fat drops slipped down Ada’s back as they ran to the house. It soaked her coat, her hair. Puddles gleamed at her feet. She had forgotten this: the sudden squalls, hail to sun, gales to downpours, drizzle to fog. She turned and made sure Pepper was behind her. She was lagging – gloom had descended on her as suddenly as the weather.”
It was inevitable that my next link should relate to weather. What better example than Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), the house set on storm-wracked moors amid wild winds and tempestuous relationships? The very title foreshadows what the reader might expect: wuthering meaning a strong roaring wind rattling around the chimney tops. I was delighted when we moved here to experience wuthering for myself but I was disappointed in the book. I found it improbably over-dramatic; any romance in the story passed me by and I knew little of the gothic genre. I wonder now, if I chose to read it again, whether I would appreciate it more?
We remain in Yorkshire for the final link and continue to play with weather words with another recommendation from Sarah Perry. She lists Fludd (1989), an early novel by Hilary Mantel, as a book she wishes she had written. A small, bleak town on the edge of the moors, rife with superstition, religious indignation and narrow minds, it was a dark and stormy night when a stranger knocked on the door. An innocuous looking man with a dog collar stood on the doorstep. A priest then? Perhaps not.
Fludd becomes another book I very much want to read and elements bring to mind Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. But a priest who is not what he seems, a housekeeper named Mrs Dempsey? How can I not also think of Du Maurier’s gothic fiction? (Thus far I’ve kept her away from the chain. Were another link required, it would inevitably have been to one of her books.)
But now the chain is forged. Via various small towns and one or two wilder places, with a predictable miscellany of gothic tropes, it has slithered sinuous through stifling sunshine, drenching rain, dark and stormy nights, wild and seductive winds. Claustrophobic tension and presentiment abound. And the chain has come around to meet its own tail. The Lottery and Fludd share more than a small-town location. Each speaks of groups who blindly uphold traditions, perpetuating behaviours without thinking of the consequences which may ensue.
I think perhaps, I will read The Lottery. And a reread of Wuthering Heights might prove worthwhile. I will definitely finish Something Wicked This Way Comes. I’ll collect Weathering from the library this week. And I’ll seek out Fludd and After Me Comes the Flood. Normally my tbr grows from reading the chains written by other contributors. This month it’s grown through my own efforts. Sinister magic afoot methinks!
(1) The article I refer to is here