I doubt I'm winning any awards for originality when I say that Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite authors. The Haunting Of Hill House, The Beautiful Stranger, We Have Always Lived In The Castle, The Lottery, A Visit… classics one and all: original, chilling, and written with a distinctive Jackson intelligence and flair.
So it’s always been a particular annoyance that her earlier work has not been easily available in the UK. Fortunately that’s an omission that Penguin are now putting right, starting with Jackson’s first novel The Road Through The Wall.
First impressions: The Road Through The Wall begins with a paragraph which is, in its own way, equal to the celebrated openings to Hill House and We Have Always Lived In The Castle:
"The weather falls more gently on some places than on others, the world looks down more paternally on some people. Some spots are proverbially warm, and keep, through falling snow, their untarnished reputation as summer resorts; some people are automatically above suspicion..."
It's probably not giving away too much to reveal that the characters in this book who are viewed by the world as being "above suspicion" don't deserve such a thing. Unlike much of Jackson’s more well-known work The Road Through The Wall is a realistic story, about a number of families in ‘respectable’ Pepper Street in suburban America. It has an episodic structure, with scenes of everyday life for both the adults and children on the street revealing the snobbery, egotism, bigotry, and petty envy behind the respectable façade. Then the wall that separates Pepper Street from its less bourgeois neighbours is breached by a new road, things comes to a head, and the community experiences a dreadful double tragedy.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, I didn't buy a copy with this hilariously inappropriate cover design from the 1950s. "A married woman prowls the back streets"....!
There’s a lot of characters for such a small book, and sometimes they are hard to keep track of, but that seems almost the point – nearly everyone on the street ascribes to a kind of middle-class Groupthink, a suburban hive-mind that sometimes seems to stifle and paralyse them – they read each other’s diaries, they constantly reaffirm each other’s attitudes, they cannot make a decision about the pettiest of things , such as which local shop to direct a newcomer to, without worrying if it's the correct thing. And during key scenes towards the end, Jackson ceases to describe them as individuals, but as a crowd on the hunt for someone to blame for what has happened:
"The people in the street [...] had gathered so close together than it was impossible to single out any of them [...] they were so close together that there were no names for any of the faces, and the hands might be clasped together tight in the hands of strangers. "
Readers of The Lottery will already know how well Jackson understands mob-think and the punishment of scapegoats.
It’s a slighter book than some of her later work, but A Road Through The Walls is a splendid book in its own way, and shows how damn good a writer Jackson was right from the start.