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

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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 after 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.

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