Shirley Jackson, a prolific author in her time, is best remembered today for two specific works: Her short story “The Lottery,” which appeared in the New Yorker in 1948 to both acclaim and backlash, and her novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959), widely regarded as among the best ghost stories ever written. Yet her most unsettling work of fiction—and arguably her most deftly crafted—is a relatively obscure tale, “The Summer People,” which first appeared in Charm in 1950 and was later anthologized in Best American Short Stories 1951. (I say relatively obscure because Kelly Link published a stellar story of the same name in Tin House in 2011 that pays loose homages to Jackson’s piece and has garnered the earlier work some recent traction.) Jackson’s story is a flawlessly structured suspense narrative. As an allegory about the blind arrogance of urban elites and their inability to recognize the destructive populist storm on the horizon, the story carries only more weight in the current political climate.
The protagonists of “The Summer People” are the Allisons, and while the story is told in the third person, readers see the world only from the vantage point of this couple. At the outset, we are informed that they are “ordinary people,” although “ordinary” carries a particular set of class connotations. Robert is sixty; Janet is fifty-eight. They do not work. There is a vague suggestion that Robert might have previously worked at a branch of the nondescript firm where his adult son is now employed—although Robert appears to have been retired for some time and sixty seems an early age for retirement, even by the standards of the early 1950s. The couple spends nine months of the year in New York City, where they endure a life of leisure that they find “insufferably barren,” and summers at a country house on a lake, departing shortly before Labor Day. They rely on the local population for their basic supplies—deliveries of kerosene for their stove, groceries, a daily stock of fresh eggs and butter. Yet they view these same locals with a rather caustic contempt.
Janet Allison has little appreciation for the hard labor and distinctive skills of those who keep her fed and fortified. Of Mr. Babcock, the taciturn grocer, to whom she “always spoke of the city . . . as though it were [his] dream to go there,” she opines: “[P]hysically, Mr. Babcock could model for a statue of Daniel Webster, but mentally . . . it was horrible to think into what old New England Yankee stock had degenerated.” And after buying a set of glass baking dishes at his shop, she observes that “the country people, with their instinctive distrust of anything that did not look as permanent as trees and rocks and sky, had only recently begun to experiment in aluminum baking dishes instead of ironware, and had, apparently within the memory of local inhabitants, discarded stoneware in favor of iron.” She further laments that “city manners were no good with country people,” by which she actually means that “you could not expect to overrule a country employee as you could a city worker.” At the same time, she idealizes these folks as “so solid, and so reasonable, and so honest”—all assessments that ultimately prove false.
In one striking episode, she encounters a woman with a familiar face who might either be the woman who sold them berries or the woman “who occasionally helped in the grocery and was probably Mr. Babcock’s aunt.” To the Allisons, the townspeople are largely interchangeable, defined only by their roles in relation to serving their out-of-town guests.
The dramatic action of the story begins when the Allisons decide to stay at their lake house beyond Labor Day in defiance of longstanding custom. They take for granted that the local populace will accommodate their new plans and fail to appreciate the subtle warnings from the merchants and tradesmen against such unorthodoxy. In fact, retreating to their cabin, the couple continues to mock the hands that have fed them. One memorable moment of dialogue encapsulates their attitude:
“Looks like we might have some rain,” Mr. Allison said, squinting at the night sky.
“Good for the crop,” Mrs. Allison said laconically, and they both laughed.
Over the ensuing days, the Allisons discover that the townspeople will prove far less accommodating to their whims than they had anticipated. First, the kerosene man (“whose name Mrs. Allison have never learned”) refuses to supply them with cooking fuel. He explains that he orders only enough oil for the summer and does not restock until July. Mrs. Allison then phones the grocer to see if he will deliver the necessary fuel. Instead, she discovers that he will not deliver any groceries at all—because his deliver boy has returned to school for the autumn. Nor, he adds, would it be cost-effective to drive out to the lake for only one order. Mr. Babcock also reveals the Allisons’ neighbors, the Halls, who supply the butter and eggs, have gone on a trip upstate. Each of these surprises adds to the Allisons’ sense of frustration—and also to their isolation.
Soon matters take an even darker turn. Mr. Allison attempts to drive into town to retrieve fuel and supplies, but the couple’s car will not start. They are unable to reach the local mechanic before the phone lines go dead. Only when a letter arrives from their son in Chicago do they find themselves finally voicing their vague suspicions that all is not what it appears—doubting, albeit without conclusive evidence, that their son was even the author. “It was impossible to find any sentence, and word, even, that did not sound like Jerry’s regular letters. Perhaps it was only that the letter was so late, or the unusual number of dirty fingerprints on the envelope.” Rather than embrace the lurking danger that surrounds them—a threat engendered by their own obliviousness and entitlement—the Allisons pretend that nothing serious is amiss until it is too late. The allegory is obvious, if not specific: The Allisons serve as stand-ins for the various victims of revolution and oppression who downplay the threat to the status quo unto the last.
Only when Mr. Allison sees lights in the home of the neighboring Halls, who are allegedly away, does he fully embrace the dark truth: the car had likely been “tampered with,” the phone lines cut. The story concludes with the couple holding hands as a storm approaches the lake, waiting for an undefined but clearly calamitous end.
What makes this story truly remarkable is that it is impossible to pinpoint the precise moment when the plot crosses what might be called the moment of irreversible peril—that instant when mere inconveniences, however unpleasant, become something larger and more ominous. Each element, in fact, seems relatively benign: a shortage of oil, a delivery boy back at school, a mechanic unavailable by phone. Yet somehow the collective force of these otherwise minor incidents builds, layer upon layer, until the Allisons are crushed beneath its weight.
I am a great admirer of short stories in which the precise moment when the normal devolves into the abnormal or implausible proves impossible to pinpoint: George Harrar’s “The 5:22” and “Class Notes” by Barry Lopez (as Lucas Cooper) are two recent masterpieces in this regard. Yet only a talent as dark and brilliant as Shirley Jackson could bring this technique so effectively to bear upon a story that is simultaneously a gripping thriller, an astute political parable and an indictment of upper–middle-class prerogatives.