The cover of this book claims it to be horror, a ‘macabre masterpiece’. If you’ve read Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, you’ll expect that to be supernatural horror. If you’ve read ‘The Lottery’, you’ll figure that this novel, set in 1940s suburbia, will have some horrific, ancient rite being practiced by the dwellers. Well, that’s true in a sense. But it’s not death by stoning or the spirit of a dead woman at work here; it’s nothing so exotic. In a sense, it’s worse.
Pepper Street is a middle class neighborhood in California. For some of the people, it’s a stepping stone to the upper class neighborhood nearby. For others, it’s a place they are glad to arrived at. They are all, each and every one, adults and children, self satisfied and smug. None of them ever gives a thought to anyone but themselves. They consider themselves moral and proper, yet they are prejudiced against everyone who is not themselves. The one Jewish family is quietly excluded; everyone polite on the surface yet the children are not allowed to be friends with their daughter. They want nothing to do with the family who moves into a rental house, since the mother actually has to work outside the home and the daughters are challenged, one mentally, one socially. These people are so much alike that it is difficult to remember who is who; Jackson plays this up by giving a number of them similar names. No one seems to actually like any other person, whether that person is a childhood friend, a sibling, or a spouse. Yet on the surface, all is serene and just as things should be. These people are the living dead, immured in custom and being proper.
To these folk, a hole being torn through the wall that has long cut off the end of the street is a dreadful thing. The people on the other side may not be the right sort of people. Who knows- why, an apartment building could even be erected, you one knows what sort of people live in those! Their carefully built sense of safety is being torn down as surely as the brick wall is. Something horrific does finally happen, late in the book, and when it does, even though it is obvious that one of their own has committed the crime, their minds slowly work around it and manage to deny that it was one of them, convincing themselves that it had to have been a stranger, a tramp. They can still go on with their lives in the same way they always have, even though this crime might have been avoided if they had been a little bit less self absorbed, a little less free with petty cruelties.
Jackson grew up in an area much like Pepper Street; she knew well the deadness of life there and the cruelties inflicted on one who was not up to snuff by Pepper Street rules. Her own mother is reflected in Mrs. Merriam, the woman who is so controlling that she hunts for and finds her daughters diary. The daughter is punished for her words, just as Jackson was. Despite being a first novel, Jackson has made an artful statement out of her grim teen years.