Shirley Jackson, an appreciation

I wrote this for this summer’s Readercon souvenir program. Shirley Jackson was the memorial guest of honor for the convention.

I have to admit that I’m intimidated by the prospect of writing about Shirley Jackson and what her work means to our speculative fiction community and 20th century literature in general. Having had the honor of spending the past five years working with the Shirley Jackson Awards, I’ve heard heartfelt and erudite speeches from Jonathan Lethem, Elizabeth Hand, Nalo Hopkinson, and Victor LaValle detailing Jackson’s legacy and enduring influence. I’ve listened to and read scores of acceptance speeches from award winners and nominees who expressed their deep and abiding love of Shirley Jackson’s work. I’m not quite sure what it is, exactly, that I can add beyond a humbled what they said!

I’m equally intimidated by the prospect of writing about what Shirley Jackson means to me. Perhaps it would be best to simply walk up to you, interrupt whatever it was you were doing, and press into your hands one of her books or a hastily photocopied short story from my dog-eared The Lottery and Other Stories. My eyes would be those of a zealot, one whose enthusiasm is infectious but more than a little frightening. I might be smiling, but the smile might be twitching. Then, I’d say breathlessly, though not wholly unconcerned about what her work might do to you, “Here. You must read this.”

*

I sat in my middle school’s library, listening to my sixth grade teacher reading what is one of the most famous short stories written in the English language: “The Lottery.” I remember Mr. Hughes pausing dramatically and shifting his position on a skeleton-thin stool; his thick, black moustache curled above a top lip gone missing. Mr. Hughes looked up from the book and down at us criss-cross applesauce sixth- graders sitting on the floor. Some of us were nervously giggling or pulling at the frays of the day-glo orange library carpet, but we were all listening. Mr. Hughes didn’t read the last line. He delivered it like a stage actor: “‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”

*

I took out an old copy of The Haunting of Hill House from the high school library and never brought it back. It’s the only book I’ve ever stolen. I rationalized the theft by telling myself that my fellow students hadn’t taken it out enough, that they didn’t deserve it, that they wouldn’t get it. I am still in possession of the book. Would it be too obvious to say the book is still in possession of me? It’s a reprint of the 1959 paperback. The cellophane library dust jacket protects the weakening, brightly colored cover, “holding darkness within.”

*

In the introduction to the 2006 Penguin Classics edition of The Haunting of Hill House, Laura Miller argues that the novel is less a traditional gothic ghost story and is instead a psychological ghost story. I like the idea of psychological ghosts and their inherent ambiguity, of being haunted from within by the question of identity, of who are we really?, and where the true horror comes from, according to Miller, “the dissolving boundary… the one between the mind and the exterior world.”

In the novel, Dr. Montague, the proposed scientific investigator of supernatural events, and three others are to stay at Hill House for a summer. One of the invited guests, Eleanor Vance, agrees to stay at the house partly because she dreams of escaping her rural, secluded life, one in which she is forced to care for her invalid mother. The house sublimates Eleanor’s dreams and fears. Eleanor is as affected by Hill House as Hill House is affected by her. The genius of the novel is in how it so neatly traps the desperate Eleanor and we the readers within those dissolving boundaries.

*

I don’t like to brag or anything, but a few years ago I digitally pressed We Have Always Lived in the Castle into Shirley Jackson Awards winner Kevin Wilson’s hands. He won the award for his collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. In his most recent novel, the New York Times bestselling The Family Fang, the avant garde performers of the family Fang gave themselves a most interesting werewolf back-story. Kevin said in an email about Jackson’s novel: “I think about it all the time. I’m kind of in love with Merricat. If we ever have a girl, we will name her Merricat.”

*

Merricat is the ultimate unreliable narrator of Jackson’s masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And, all right, I’m kind of in love with Merricat, too. She wishes that she was born a werewolf and she likes Amanita Phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. So what if most of her family is dead and that she may or may not have put the arsenic in the sugar bowl. The Blackwoods had liked to eat blackberries with sugar sprinkled on top, apparently. Merricat’s older sister Constance (who was arrested for the poisoning but acquitted) didn’t use the sugar, and her Uncle Julian survived the poisoning. The three remaining Blackwoods live ostracized from the rest of the village. There isn’t a page that doesn’t ooze with Merricat’s playful strangeness, intelligence, and menace, particularly when cousin Charles shows up to woo Constance, and to woo away the family cash the sisters keep locked in a safe. Merricat isn’t a fan of Charles. When her attempts at using magic to send Charles packing aren’t successful she pragmatically sets fire to the family home. In the most terrifying scene in the book, and one that echoes the finale of “The Lottery,” the local villagers arrive to help put out the fire, but once it’s out they set to destroying the house by throwing rocks while they cruelly taunt the sisters with a childhood rhyme. Here, there’s no crutch of tradition to explain away the villagers’ easy, ingrained, and all-too-real hatred for the two women who have managed to live wholly independent of them. Merricat and Constance manage to survive the near physical assault and the almost total destruction of their family home, and they reclaim their castle. I like to think they still live there now.

I wrote a story called “We Will Never Live in the Castle,” where I attempted to channel some of what Merricat has with my own unreliable, verbose, oddly charming, and quite possibly sociopathic narrator. The dude has an abiding love of death-cup mushrooms, of course. I’ve never had so much fun writing a post-apocalyptic story about a teen holed up in an amusement park, scheming to take Cinderella’s Castle by force.

*

JoAnn Cox (the tireless Shirley Jackson Awards administrator and member of the Board of Directors) put a copy of The Sundial into my big, greedy hands. It’s a beautiful 1958 paperback that smells like a 1958 paperback should. The Sundial is totally messed up: a novel of manners that Austen (without zombies) would’ve approved of, however, the aristocratic Halloran family believes the world is going to end on August 30th, and only people within the Halloran family homestead will survive the apocalypse and be reborn to paradise. With deceptively simple language grounded in the everyday minutia of familiar surroundings (a house, a family, a social gathering, a village) Jackson manages to make the ridiculous turn to the sublime. The Sundial is both hysterically funny and eerily foreboding often within the same sentence. Mrs. Halloran, the controlling, contemptuous, and caustic matriarch is the star of the novel. Her wit, cruelty, and vulnerability make her one of Jackson’s most memorable characters. I know Mrs. Halloran certainly convinced me of the need to be suitably dressed for the apocalypse.

*

Earlier, when I was pressing a short story into your hands, it was “The Intoxicated.” It’s the story that I find myself returning to more than any other piece of Jackson’s work. In six pages this story could serve as both an introduction to and a summary of the brilliant oeuvre of Shirley Jackson.

An unnamed attendee of a swanky suburban party, winds his way to the kitchen in an attempt to clear his head as he is quite drunk. In the kitchen he finds the seventeen-year-old daughter of the hosts sitting at the kitchen table. He says, by way of introduction: “You the daughter?” Which isn’t an introduction, really, but comes off as dismissive. To him, she is “baggy and ill-formed” but at the same time he describes her as “young and fresh,” a brief but creepy sexualizing of the girl who is almost twenty years younger than him. It’s something that he’ll continue to do throughout the story, particularly when she challenges him and his perceptions.

They make small talk about the lovely party and she makes him a cup of coffee. His attitude toward the girl remains deeply condescending as he only drinks the coffee so that she might feel like she helped him in some small way. After more small talk about her homework, she says to him, flatly, “I suppose you like parties.” The partygoer grows more irritated that he has to suffer through not only this conversation, but her very presence, particularly when she reveals that she’s writing a paper on the future of the world, and that she’s of the opinion that the world doesn’t have much of one. He again is arrogantly dismissive of her, saying, “It’s really a frightening time when a girl sixteen has to think of things like that.”

She says, “I’m seventeen…There’s a terrible difference.”

He denigrates her by sexualizing her according to traditional gender stereotypes. Growing louder, he insists that girls in his day, “thought of nothing but cocktails and necking,” and that her morbid fascination with the end of the world is, “a stage you go through, like being boy-crazy.”

She simply explains that if people of his generation had been more scared of the future when they were young, then, “we wouldn’t be so badly off today.” She details the breakdown of society with churches going first, buildings crumbling into the water. She wonders aloud if the end might happen in Latin class, while reading Caesar.

The partygoer continues to berate her, telling her to forget this end of the world stuff and to, “Buy yourself a movie magazine and settle down.”

In response, she simply tells him that she can get all the magazines she wants when the subways crash and go to ruin, when the big department stores are smashed, when, “The office buildings will be just piles of broken stones.”

The back and forth between the girl and the partygoer increases in tempo and dichotomy, the disturbing images of what might be (or what will be, eventually) against the everyday horribleness of this sexist, older man makes for compelling social satire along with an underlying current of dread.

In the penultimate scene, she says, “We’ll have new rules and new ways of living. Maybe there’ll be a law not to live in houses, so then no one can hide from anyone else, you see.” In the story, it’s a simple quip that so perfectly describes and skewers suburbia. Read in the totality of Jackson’s career, it foreshadows the blurring of the boundaries of self, houses, community, and society in The Sundial, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

The pathetic partygoer’s response is as base as a schoolyard taunt: “Maybe there’ll be a law to keep all seventeen-year-old girls in school learning sense.”

She calmly points out that there will be no more schools so that the same mistakes won’t be repeated. Defeated, the partygoer stumbles away from the kitchen, lamely offering to help her with her Latin. The girl giggles and then utters the funniest and creepiest line of the story. “I still do my homework every night.”

*

I’m no longer the little boy sitting on the floor listening to Mr. Hughes read “The Lottery.” All those years ago the story was a straightforward, jarring fable about the perils of mindless tradition and mob-mentality, with its deliciously gruesome twist ending. As an adult, however, I’m as disturbed by the cycle of perpetual violence in that small village as I’m unsettled by all the blurry possibilities in the final line uttered by the doomed Mrs. Hutchinson: Is she just the victim of blind chance? Did she believe the lottery was fixed so that her name would come up? Did she believe the lottery was to be fixed for someone else so her name being pulled is a horrible mistake? Is she talking about the entire lottery, or the social system and its inherent injustices, or existence itself being unfair?

As a writer, I humbly aspire to blur those Jacksonesque boundaries between humor and horror; social satire and realism; reality, identity, and the self to ultimately reveal the happy and ugly truths of the world, and reveal them in such a way that you might be left smirking while utterly unnerved at the same time. And I humbly aspire to address the ultimate questions of art and literature–What am I going to do now? How do I live through this? How does anyone live through this?–which are so expertly and memorably explored in a Shirley Jackson story.

A Shirley Jackson story is where a house, a family, a village, or even six simple words can mean everything.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right.”

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2 Comments

Filed under review, Shirley Jackson Awards

2 responses to “Shirley Jackson, an appreciation

  1. Richard Thomas

    This was awesome, Paul. Thanks.

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