Sunday, April 12, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 15: "Birthday Party" by Shirley Jackson

This week I drew the Ace of spades, which led me to another story from The Best American Short Stories 1964. This story, "Birthday Party" by Shirley Jackson, also happened to be chosen for me way back in January by Jay, the ringleader of this little cartomancy cruise.

Shirley Jackson, right? The only two works of hers with which I am familiar are the short story "The Lottery," and the novel The Haunting of Hill House. Both creep-fests, to be sure. So I was fully prepared for this to be a creepy birthday party.

The story opens as we meet Jannie, a young girl on the morning of her eleventh birthday. She's excited to death, and has convinced her parents to let her have a pajama party with four of her friends. Her older brother, Laurie, is not so sure this is a good idea, and moans his way through the whole story about how horrible five giggling girls are going to be. Jannie's mother sets up cots in her bedroom and library, and gets ready for THE HORRIBLE, BLOODY NIGHT THAT NONE OF THEM WILL EVER FORGET. (Shirley Jackson, right??!)

No, turns out that Jannie and her friends are typical excited little girls that really can't sleep all night. (Oh, ok, Shirley -- I'm sure you're just building up the suspense.)

Jannie has received all kinds of cool presents for her birthday, including her very own record player, and an Elvis Presley record.... THAT MAKES YOU GO INSANE THE MINUTE YOU START LISTENING TO IT. (Shirley, come on, please start creeping me out!)

No, the Elvis Presley record just makes Jannie's brother go insane, when the girls play it half the night. (At this point I'm throwing some pretty insulted looks at Shirley..... she's taking a long time to get the creep-fest going.)

Within a few pages of the end of the story, I realized that Shirley was going to let me down. This is not a creepy story. It IS a (not very) humorous story about five flighty little girls staying up half the night at a birthday party and making the mother crazy with their jumping in and out of bed, their spats (during the course of the night, it seems as if each one of the little girls gets mad at all the others, and makes up with all the others just as quickly), and assorted girlish shenanigans.

I kind of hated this story. Part of it was because I was convinced it was going to be something different than it was, but part of it was that the story came across as a type of half-baked Erma Bombeck story. This story WAS written in the same time period when Erma began to be popular, so I don't have any idea if Shirley was trying to channel that kind of humorous story, but if so, she didn't do it very well. The story was first published in Vogue, so I suppose that should have given me half a clue to begin with -- Vogue was not then, and is still not, known for publishing creepy fiction. Oh well.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.


  1. I suppose I steered you wrong there, but who - among us somewhat familiar with SJ - wouldn't make a similar mistake? :-)

    I have a lot of unread SJ short stories on my shelf too. I might need to make her a special mini project someday.

    1. No apologies necessary... who WOULDN'T choose a Shirley Jackson story out of a list like that? But now I am wondering if this is an anomaly, or if she really did write other things besides suspenseful stories. So I for one am looking forward to such a mini project as you mention -- I'd be curious to see what you find out!

    2. Actually, she wrote a lot of "domestic" fiction, most of which is fairly autobiographical. I haven't read much of it, but I have it on my shelf.

    3. That's very interesting! It's weird that she's best known for the creep-fests. :-)