Shirley Jackson

Right Author, Wrong Book

Doris Lessing died last year. It got me thinking again about another one of my ongoing small problems as a reader, which I can explain very nicely with two writers as examples. The problem is: You love a writer, but for the wrong book. Another way to put it: The weird situation where you love a writer, but exclusively for the "lesser" works. When a writer gets famous, or develops a reputation for being particularly good at some thing or other, you’re supposed to gush over That Thing. Let me take as examples Doris Lessing (famous for her novel The Golden Notebook, embraced by feminists around the world; her political novel The Good Terrorist, and her sci-fi/fantasy novels) and Shirley Jackson, about whom I’ve written elsewhere for the New Haven Review. Shirley Jackson is known today mostly for her creepy fiction, novels such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hangsaman, among many others.

Here is my problem: I have spent most of my life really admiring both of these writers, and regarding them with awe and wonder, and counting myself, really, truly, as an ardent fan, without having read any of these landmark titles.

Instead, I base my adoration of these writers on books that I think most critics would view as fluffy side projects. In the case of Doris Lessing, my love is based entirely -- entirely -- on a really skinny, scary-as-hell novel called The Fifth Child, which came out in 1988. (It’s actually a very Shirley Jacksonesque work, about a happy family that has four children, and then a fifth baby arrives, and Everything Changes and Not For the Better.) In the case of Shirley Jackson, my love is based on Life Among the Savages, which is just a collection of fictionalized essays about domestic life. (The connections here are fun to think about, aren’t they?)

And I have no plans to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or Hangsaman, or whatever else.

Now, in the case of Doris Lessing, I’ve long felt bad that this book, The Fifth Child, was the one that made such a big impression on me. I suppose it was bound to; I was never someone who liked small children, and always found them scary. The idea of ever being a mother was completely abhorrent to me: Never! Never! (Never mind that I am, in fact, a mother now.) It was a short novel (my favorite kind) that was taut and made me feel that my sense about children was not unfounded. And it was, you know, well-written, had a literary pedigree, was published by a fancy house, etc. etc. I think I read that book once a year for ages. I remember that it was one of the books I took with me when I went away to college. I wasn’t at all ashamed of my love for The Fifth Child, but I definitely felt guilty that none of Lessing’s other books held any interest for me. I thought it didn’t speak well of me that The Fifth Child was the Lessing book I knew and loved so well, and more to the point, I always felt like I was the only person who felt this way, who’d had this experience. (I acknowledge this, though: Perhaps I just wasn’t the right age for most of her books. There are definitely some writers where if you don’t read them at just the right phase of your life, there’s no point. My mother gave me copies of numerous Lessing books when I was a teenager, which I glanced at and then set aside, because I thought, “oh, who cares.” At the same time, though, I’ve never gotten rid of them. Maybe the time is now, and in 2014 I should put them on my list. I’ve actually begun to read Anna Karenina, recently, for the first time; this, if nothing else, proves that anything is possible, because I’ve been avoiding reading that for decades, now, in spite of the fact that I own two copies of it.)

I thought that The Fifth Child as the only Lessing book I knew and loved so well showed me to be a weak reader, somehow. More to the point, I always felt like I was the only person who felt this way, who’d had this experience. And then a couple days ago I finally got around to reading the issue of the New York Times Magazine that they do every December, the Lives They Lived issue, where writers and photographers do little pieces about the noteworthy and interesting people who died during the year. Of all people, of all books, Steve Almond wrote about Doris Lessing, and god bless him for making me see so clearly that I am not alone. His essay, which is a pleasure to read by the way, begins with this:

“My interest in Doris Lessing -- Nobel Prize winner and one of the most celebrated writers on earth -- derives from a single book, the 1988 novel The Fifth Child, which has haunted me for more than 20 years.”

I always knew I liked that Steve Almond. I don’t care about his fiction at all, by the way, but boy do I love that book Candy Freak.

Story Playlist 20: The Lottery

Shirley Jackson: “The Lottery” (1948) What new remains to be said about the most-anthologized short story in history? Shirley Jackson’s classic story, it seems, is read by every American high school student, and is analyzed in classes across America with a batch of cookie-cutter teacher questions. At what point did you realize that the lottery in the story was one that people did not want to win? What are some elements of foreshadowing employed by the author (the pile of stones that children gather, the “black box” in which lots are drawn that recalls a coffin)? What might this story refer to, considering its publication shortly after World War II? And so on. Predictable questions, perhaps, but for a story that is universally read (at least by American students), it still packs a wallop.

The villagers of a small American community, some 300 strong, gather on the annual day of the lottery—an event that will not take long, they’ll be home in time for lunch. Children gather stones in the town square, and men and women arrive separately—we are in a sort of non-specific Puritanical settlement, the sort about which Hawthorne wrote in “The Minister’s Black Veil.” The man who runs the lottery arrives with a coffin-like black box containing slips of paper, one for every villager. A single slip is marked with a pencil-drawn dot. Whoever draws that slip is “the winner.” We realize by the end of the story that the winner is actually the loser—selected by the lottery to be stoned to death in the town square by the other villagers, who can still make it home in time for lunch.

Despite the grim facts of the lottery, the villagers take it for granted, and even pooh-pooh the rumor that some neighboring villages have given up the annual lottery tradition altogether. It is implied that the villagers feel this tradition is necessary to their culture, if not their livelihood, but Jackson does well not to explain this. As we see the lottery in action, we and the villagers are relieved when children do not “win,” and the eventual victim is a wife and mother distinguished largely by her nervousness, while the rest of the villagers are resigned to take the lottery as it comes—although perhaps anyone who “wins” would break down and get edgy. What is most striking is the matter-of-factness with which the whole gruesome process unfolds. Villagers chat with each other, joke, call each other on a first-name basis, as if this were normal and quotidian, albeit not something you look forward to—maybe like a dentist’s appointment.

It’s shooting ducks in a barrel to list the allegorical merits of such a story. Given the publication date (1948), high school English students would likely mention the Holocaust, a perfectly good association. Some might refer to German citizens and soldiers following the orders of the Nazi regime without questioning even the most grotesque commands. Conformism and passivity in the face of horror is what it’s all about, and you don’t need the Second World War (alas) to find examples of it.

Jackson’s decision not to focus on a single protagonist, not to step within the minds of the characters, not really even to provide a narrative arc, but simply to let an ingenious, horrifying concept play out is an interesting one. That she avoided specifics makes the story that much easier to see as an allegory. It’s like one of those Baroque paintings of Justice. Shown in her allegorical form, Justice is presented as an idealized female in a toga, wearing a blindfold and carrying scales in one hand, a sword in the other. We recognize this figure as allegorical, in part due to the fact that she is non-specific. If the painting showed a portrait of a specific queen, dolled up with the accoutrements of Justice, then we would be pulled in two directions, one biographical, the other allegorical. This story, like the idealized painting, is unabashed allegory, focusing our attention on the form presented to us, at the expense of telling a more traditional narrative story in which we cheer for a protagonist and see that protagonist change over the course of the tale.

Jackson did a rare thing with “The Lottery.” She created an archetype that has no evident literary predecessor, but which has influenced pop culture hugely since its publication. There are cultural parallels to its concept—the Spartans culled newborn babies who did not seem physically perfect, for example. There are a number of Greek myths about a princess being sacrificed to appease a monster, as in the legend of St. George and the Dragon. But the idea of a lottery, which Jackson tricks us into thinking you want to win for the first two-thirds of her story, and the numbed normality of the villagers who submit to—and even seem to actively support—this annual execution, struck a chord that still reverberates. Popular fictions like The Hunger Games, which begins with a lottery whose winners are forced to fight for their lives on national television, rely on Jackson’s tale. Creating an archetype that enters the common oxygen is the dream of many a writer. The same goes for writing a story that is considered so good and powerful that it is required reading for every student throughout an entire nation.

Jackson is a wonderful novelist, too little known beyond this story. The Haunting of Hill House is the best haunted house book ever written, hands down, with an oft-quoted opening paragraph that has been sung to the rafters by modern masters of the scary, like Peter Straub and Stephen King. “The Lottery” is less palpably “written” than most stories I’ve read in this project, based as it is entirely on incident—but an incident with a repetitive, allegorical significance, and that makes it distinctive. There is no character development, and most of the characters, aside from the man who runs the lottery and the nervous, ultimate “winner” of it, are barely presented to us, in just a few broad strokes. We cheer for no one, aside from eventually hoping that no one “wins,” once we realize that you do not want to win this sort of lottery. No one changes over the course of the story. The basic premises of good, satisfying fiction seem to be missing. Instead we have a wholly original, killer (literally) concept. The text is merely a method for presenting the concept. And the concept is ingenious because it is not explained away, leaving its readers to make of it what they will.

Home Sweet Gloom

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) celebrates social dysfunction.  Whatever one’s opinion of the oddball Blackwoods – Constance, in her twenties, Mary Katherine (Merrikat), eighteen, and old, wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian – one can’t help feeling that their seclusion from the townsfolk of Bennington, VT, is merited, that something sets the Blackwoods apart from the hoi polloi, and that “something” makes the Blackwoods worth knowing about. The “something,” as so often happens in Gothic fiction, is a dark past, but in this case, it’s not a secret, but rather something everyone knows: Mrs. Blackwood and Mr. Blackwood, the latter the brother of Julian, and Julian’s wife, and Tom, the girls’ younger brother, all died of arsenic consumption six years ago.  The poison, which Constance bought to kill rats, made its way into the sugar, you see, sugar which was used as topping for early raspberries served by Constance at a particularly fateful dinner.  Constance, who never eats sugar, was spared, as was Merrikat, sent to her room without any dinner.  Julian, who sweetened his dessert sparingly, was left an invalid.  Constance, of course, was acquitted of murder, but condemned for the deaths by the townspeople.

Adam Bock and Todd Almond’s musical of the novel, directed by Anne Kauffman, now playing at The Yale Repertory Theatre, opens with Merrikat, played with a sly and wiry girlishness by Alexandra Socha, stepping to the footlights to regale us in song about “We Blackwoods.”  The upshot of Merrikat’s every pronouncement is that insular families, whatever their oddities, are preferable to intrusive neighbors, who should simply butt out.  Certainly that’s the point of Jackson’s novel, where some personally important aspect of the inner life must resist attack by the forces of uninspired and uninspiring conformity, tiresome normality, and aggressive mediocrity.

In the musical, those qualities take the form of a stock cast of locals who like to amuse themselves with catty remarks and provoking jokes at the Blackwoods’ expense.  But the real bearer of a threat comes from within the Blackwood clan itself.  Young cousin Charles (Sean Palmer, with a good voice and engaging dance moves), son of the other Blackwood brother, Arthur, shows up after the death of his destitute father to see what’s doing with the branch of the family that still has at least a large, crumbling property to their name, a name now primarily upheld by retiring, yet charming Constance (Jenn Gambatese), tireless cook and gardener and caretaker of Julian.  Constance, played with a light, maidenly obtuseness by Gambatese, seems content with her twilit spinsterhood, until Charles arrives and makes her think about herself and duets with him (the sprightly “She Didn’t Get Very Far”) and dancing (to a wry little ditty called “The Stomp”) and longing (the evocative “come to me” interlude).

If this were your typical musical, we’d be rooting for Charles to sweep Constance off her feet and rescue her from this premature mausoleum.  But this isn’t that musical, and we aren't.

In part it’s because Merrikat got there first: she sweeps us away with her confidential songs, her winning manner, her knowing certainty that Charles, ultimately, only wants to take away the sisters’ peace without giving anything of value in return.  By the time the townfolk stage an outright siege on the castle – echoing all those horror films where the villagers attack the stronghold of Frankenstein to destroy the monster they can’t understand – Merrikat, who had more or less challenged Charles to a duel, has proven her point.

The stage business in this play is captivating enough to make us want to stay in the castle with the Blackwoods – the American Gothic gloom of David Zinn’s set, Ilona Somogyi’s gorgeous costumes for the ghostly ancestors who mainly keep to the upper story, intoning their musical support of the surviving Blackwoods’ isolation, the at-times sharp, at-times senile comments by Uncle Julian (a usefully comical portrayal in Bill Buell’s show-stealing hands), the musical numbers, directed by Dan Lipton, that are revealing dialogues, and the arch musings of Socha’s irrepressible Merrikat.

The World Premiere of We Have Always Lived in the Castle; Book and Lyrics by Adam Bock; Music and Lyrics by Todd Almond; Based on the novel by Shirley Jackson; Directed by Anne Kauffman

September 17 to October 9, 2010, Yale Repertory Theatre, at the University Theatre, 222 York St.

Shirley Jackson Gets Hers

Some months ago, I wrote a little thing for the New Haven Review about my love for Shirley Jackson's book Life Among the Savages. I've just gone back and looked at the date on the piece (which can be found here on the website) and my word, it was almost a year ago I wrote that tribute. Goodness. I've lost track of time in precisely the same way that Shirley Jackson lost track of her blankets. Well, in a recent Wall Street Journal, John J. Miller wrote an article about Jackson which will get a lot more attention than anything I'd ever write about Shirley Jackson, and I wanted to thank him for writing the piece because from it I learned some really good news. The Library of America is going to publish a collection of Shirley Jackson's work. Though I see no mention of the book on the Library of America website or on, the book is apparently scheduled for a June 2010 release. I for one am looking forward to it.

Life Among the Savages

By Shirley Jackson (Penguin edition, 1997; orig. pub. Farrar and Rinhart, 1953)

There are scads of books about motherhood out there, and obviously most are crap. I’m okay with that; I know I can always re-read Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages. Last week, I sent an email to a friend who was going mad trying to work on a book while tending her two small children. It wasn’t going so well. She described her domestic scene and said, “On days like this, I wish I liked the taste of alcohol.” My immediate response was that she would simply have to find a copy of Life Among the Savages. “When I went into the hospital to deliver our daughter,” I wrote, “I took one – ONE – book with me, and it was Life Among the Savages.”

Shirley Jackson is best known for her creepy fiction. “The Lottery” is one of the most anthologized of short stories; The Haunting of Hill House has been filmed twice. Writers cite her; there’s a literary award named after Jackson. The creepy stuff is fine, I’ve got nothing against it, but for my money Life Among the Savages is Jackson’s masterpiece. Laura Shapiro cites it as a touchstone in the “literature of domestic chaos,” which it is, but to me it’s more than that. Jackson’s fictionalized account of her life with her husband, critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, is wise on marriage, on why urbanites don’t belong in Vermont, on cats, on the folly of gun ownership, on children, and on why it is that, when everyone gets sick, blankets will go missing.

Eva Geertz, a bookseller, lives in New Haven.