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In Praise Of: Shirley Jackson

4th Mar 2011

Shirley Jackson
Over a year ago, I was writing a short story when I ground to a halt and walked away.

A short while later I had a craving for some short fiction and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories jumped off the shelf to me – I knew of The Lottery by reputation but nothing of its author.

I was on the train when I read The Daemon Lover, and three pages in I knew exactly how my short story was going to end; Shirley Jackson was the writer I wanted to be.

The stories in the collection cast a dry look at the horrors of the everyday. They play on the banal fears intrinsic to humanity- fears of loneliness, of feeling alien in your own world, of the familiar shifting without warning into something other.

That Christmas I asked for and gratefully received Jackson’s novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I was hooked on The Haunting… from the first paragraph:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”

And so it continues throughout, Jackson artfully mixing the believably mundane with the subtly other and has the reader question all the while what is sanity and what is reality.

The stories in the collection cast a dry look at the horrors of the everyday. They play on the banal fears intrinsic to humanity- fears of loneliness, of feeling alien in your own world, of the familiar shifting without warning into something other.Such a dichotomy has become kind of a cliché over the years and the horrible film adaptations of The Haunting would not have anyone thinking that the book is anything other than a hackneyed psychological ghost story like many others.

But Jackson’s cruel and astute eye for detail and character makes this book compelling and unsettling in a way that must be read to be believed.

It’s unsurprising that Jackson took such a cold view of her contemporaries – as the wife of a Jewish intellectual in 1950’s small-town America, she was treated with suspicion and disdain by the town where she raised four children, attitudes which she returned in kind and which are present in spades in her masterwork We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

A tale of two sisters and their uncle, alone in the mansion on the hill following the tragic deaths of the rest of the family, it is infused with dark desires and animistic magic.

The protagonist and narrator, Merricat, fulfils the archetype of the disturbed child to a tee and it is easy to forget that she is actually eighteen, which only leads the reader into further confusion of good and evil and their desires for the characters.

Shirley Jackson died at the age of 49, having exhausted her body with food, alcohol and amphetamines shortly after the publication of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but best known at the time for her cheery memoirs of motherhood.

If you’re lucky enough not to already know how The Lottery ends, you are in for a surprise. Start there.

Comments

  • Ellen says:

    I recently reread Jackson’s “The Lottery” for this weekly short story thing i do at my blog, but although i own “the lottery and other stories” i’ve never read anything else by her. Thanks for bringing some of her other works to my attention – I think it’s about time I read more of her work.

  • Donna says:

    I am a huge fan,it was great to see this article.

  • R says:

    I am also a huge fan. We seem to be finding this post late 🙂

    The recent Haunting adaptation was crap, given, but the 1963 Julie Harris version is pretty excellent, and preserves quite a lot of the subtleties in the book I thought. Not a frame of gore, and still an incredibly scary movie. The whole cast is good but especially Harris.

  • Claire says:

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my favourite books. I’m always dipping into it and still get more out of it.