NEW YORK — Shirley Jackson had a gift for evoking the depths of anxiety in the space it might take to summarize a ball game.
Two very brief and previously unreleased stories, “Charlie Roberts” and “Only Stand and Wait,” were published last week in the summer issue of The Strand Magazine, which has featured obscure works by William Faulkner, Mark Twain and many others. “Charlie Roberts” is a tense conversation between a married couple over plans for a dinner party, while in “Only Stand and Wait” a blind man has surgery and soon will be able to see, but wonders if he made the right decision.
“Like many of Jackson’s works, both of these stories carry weighty, unspoken insecurities,” Strand managing editor Andrew F. Gulli wrote in the new issue.
Jackson’s son and literary executor, Laurence Hyman, calls the two undated stories “vignettes” she likely dashed off in her 20s during one of her daily writing sessions. Jackson, who died in 1965 at age 48, was a prolific writer who completed eight novels and hundreds of stories, most famously “The Lottery.” She left behind a substantial amount of unfinished and/or unpublished work, some of which Hyman and his sister Sarah Hyman Stewart helped compile for the posthumous collections “Just an Ordinary Day” and “Let Me Tell You.”
It was a household dedicated to the production of words; Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was himself an author and New Yorker staff writer. Laurence Hyman has memories of returning home and hearing his parents at work.
“She was a very rapid typist, and when the two of them were on their typewriters the sound was really percussive. It was like machine gun fire,” he said. “You would hear a flurry of typing, then a brief pause, then another flurry.”
Jackson scholar Darryl Hattenhauer, an associate professor of American Studies and English at Arizona State University West, believes the two pieces could have been starting points for longer narratives. But each work as stories in their own right, with a common theme of the outside world as perhaps best kept at a distance.
In “Charlie Roberts,” the title character is never seen, but has left a pocket knife behind at the home of an unnamed couple. In just a few hundred words, during a dialogue about whom to invite for dinner, Jackson suggests a background of infidelity and mistrust, briefly alludes to a previous separation in the marriage and has the husband wonder about the need to have guests at all.
“Why do we have to know people anyway? Can’t we just be contented all alone?”
“We never are contented all alone,” the wife responds. “We have to have people to annoy us.”
The title of “Only Stand and Wait” comes from a poem by John Milton, who laments his blindness but accepts his fate and concludes “they also serve who only stand and wait.”