Life Imitates Art? – Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People”

Shirley_Jackson_Portrait

So, I work in a multi-story building, on the top floor. Though my company owns the building, we have tenants on the third floor. On a ride down the elevator, two strangers to me board on the third. They are mid-conversation as they get on, and the man says to the woman, “So, have you been getting out to the lake much?” She replies, “Not anymore, they turned the electricity and the water off.” I immediately thought of Shirley Jackson (above) and her short story, “The Summer People,” which I read last month for the R.I.P. challenge. I kind of chuckled to myself and thought, “Trust me lady, you’re much safer here…”

Are you familiar with this story? I thought it was great! A well-to-do and aging New York couple have been enjoying their annual summer sojourn at a vacation home “on the lake” away from the big city. They muse about how, almost invariably, upon their return to the city “the Tuesday before Labor Day” they are blessed with unseasonably mild weather and find themselves wishing they had stayed longer at the lake. As this story dawns, the couple think “Why not stay a month longer and enjoy the summer weather as long as possible?”

They quickly learn from the locals that staying after Labor Day “just isn’t done,” and the mentioning of their plans to various townspeople is met with a kind of subdued incredulity. “Nobody ever stayed at the lake past Labor Day before,” the grocer tells them. A trip to the hardware store includes the owner’s observation that there have “never been summer people before, at the lake after Labor Day.” The couple from the city find these reactions odd but write it off to the “poor breeding” of the rustics.

We find out only by degrees what makes staying such a bad decision…

What this story got me thinking about is how often our perception of the nature of a place may differ from its true nature. Our perceptions may be influenced by season (as they were in this story) or perhaps by time of day, or the people you are with when you are there. I’ve experienced all three of these situations and noted how different things can be depending on these factors.

I once spent about a week at a friend’s family’s summer cottage on a lake (in my case Torch Lake in Northern Michigan – near Traverse City). It was a beautiful getaway and felt almost like a paradise while I was there. We had the good sense however, to be safely back in Indy before the end of August.

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Above: Torch Lake (picture found on Trip Advisor)

I own this story as part of The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Stories, which has proven to be a great source for my short story reading for a couple years now.

It was also adapted into a CBS Radio Mystery Theater episode: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=yxnbp0u8YVU

Below: wearing white shoes? – yet another thing you don’t want to do after Labor Day?🙂

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Wat do you think of Shirley Jackson? Have you read any of her short stories? I’ve also read “The Lottery,” and another great one, “Paranoia,” which I blogged about here.

14 Comments

  1. Alex said,

    November 14, 2014 at 10:04 am

    uuUUuu Intriguingly creepy! I can’t resist knowing what happens next. Hitchckock would probably make a great adaptation, if The Summer People is anything like The Lottery.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      November 14, 2014 at 12:51 pm

      The Summer People is a lot more subtle than. the Lottery. It’s not like it hits you on the head with a rock or anything.🙂

      Like

  2. November 14, 2014 at 10:35 am

    Yes, I love this story. What I like about Jackson’s horror is the subtlety. There’s so much going on with this story when you have a close look at it. That bit where she buys that baking set and it turns out to be chipped when she gets home and she thinks “he probably didn’t notice it” – such a small detail but all part of the menacing atmosphere that just grows and grows. They are people who are out of their element and the moral lesson from the story is to stay in your sphere and that you should not attempt to change it…or else.

    The same is true for her excellent novel, The Haunting of Hill House – her horror is always psychological.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jay said,

      November 14, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      Excellent comment! I totally agree and almost wrote about how e couple was at first rather smug and pleased with themselves for their breaking away from tradition. I almost instantly knew that was gonna be trouble.🙂. And the slow boil Jackson effects in this story is great – all the little things start to add up and “critical mass” is eventually reached. Great point about the baking set too. The couple clearly “doesn’t belong” there (at least not after Labor Day)

      Like

  3. Nancy said,

    November 14, 2014 at 10:36 am

    What a brilliant story idea. Thanks for bringing to my attention. We lived in a resort town on Lake Michigan for two years. Previously we had vacationed there and thought it beautiful. Living there full time was revealing.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      November 14, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      You should definitely check it out, especially with your personal background.🙂

      Like

  4. November 14, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Shirley Jackson is one of my favorites, even considering my recent Hangsaman disappointment. I *think* I’ve read this story. It sounds very familiar, but I don’t remember the ending. Good excuse for a (re)read!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      November 14, 2014 at 12:58 pm

      Ive only read her short stories, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle has been on my list for years. Last year I bought that collection of “previously unpublished” stories of. Hers but have just read a couple so far.

      Like

  5. Dale said,

    November 14, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    “The Lottery” is still the only Shirley Jackson story I’ve read. Her picture looks a lot like Flannery O’Connor. I think she wrote around the same time period?

    Like

    • Jay said,

      November 15, 2014 at 5:48 pm

      I think you may be right. I think of Jackson as coming a little bit after, but maybe not. They both had their share of issues (and maybe a few other people’s shares too) but I think O’Connor was a bit more “high functioning.” I’ve read that Jackson was “afraid to leave the house”🙂

      Like

      • Jay said,

        November 15, 2014 at 5:51 pm

        It may be time for me to re-read The Lottery. I’ve vowed that 2015 will be “The Year of No Re-Reads” – since I had too many this year – but maybe that can be waived when it comes to short stories.🙂

        Like

  6. Paula Cappa said,

    November 15, 2014 at 11:38 am

    Loved The Lottery. That story is truly one of the most frightening stories at such a deep level. It favors very well as a read aloud story. I’ve not read the Summer People, but you’ve certainly sparked my interest, Jay.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      November 15, 2014 at 5:46 pm

      This ones a lot more subtle, but I love the “slow build” of the creepiness that Jackson employs. She does it so slowly that the kind of matter-of-fact-ness of the denouement, which would normally be irritating to me, didn’t bother me at all.🙂

      Like

  7. Randall said,

    November 15, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    This one definitely goes on my list for next year!!

    Liked by 1 person


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