Is Shirley Jack­son the most un­der­rated writer of the 20th cen­tury?

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By GABY WOOD

Shirley Jack­son, who was born 100 years ago this month and died in her sleep one sum­mer af­ter­noon at the age of 48, has of­ten been called the most un­der­rated writer of the 20th cen­tury.

She’s not so un­der­rated any­more. Among her fans are Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Donna Tartt; her work is be­ing reis­sued by Pen­guin Clas­sics; and a ma­jor bi­og­ra­phy by Ruth Franklin, A Rather Haunted Life, has just been pub­lished.

And Jack­son wasn’t en­tirely over­looked in her time, ei­ther. Dy­lan Thomas ad­mired The Lottery, her most in­fa­mous tale. Dorothy Parker rated her, Sylvia Plath en­vied her. The New Yorker pub­lished dozens of her short sto­ries. Her hu­mor­ous housewife mem­oirs were bestsellers, and so was her strange last novel, We Have Al­ways Lived in the Cas­tle. Her ghost novella, The Haunt­ing of Hill House, sold well enough to pay off the mort­gage, and the film rights went to the man who would go on to direct West Side Story and The Sound of Mu­sic. She was, at any rate, too suc­cess­ful to suit her hus­band, a se­ri­ous critic — of Jack­son as well as lit­er­a­ture.

In what sense, then, was she un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated? Jack­son wrote in many veins — “in gen­eral be­hav­ing like a nov­el­ist who needs money,” she said — and some read­ers found her hard to cat­e­gorise. There was also snob­bery about gen­res that in­volved mur­ders or ghosts, and con­de­scen­sion to­wards women writ­ers — in par­tic­u­lar to­wards a About the book DarkTales wo­man who wrote amus­ingly about bring­ing up four chil­dren, and was not very at­trac­tive.

But per­haps there was some­thing more profoundly un­com­fort­able about her work. Ruth Franklin likens Jack­son to her char­ac­ter Adela Strange­worth, an old lady who sends fright­en­ing anony­mous messages to her fel­low vil­lagers. (That story, The Pos­si­bil­ity of Evil, is pub­lished in Dark Tales, a new vol­ume of her un­col­lected work.) Jack­son dis­pensed dif­fi­cult truths about mod­ern life, ar­gues Franklin — “lit­er­ary bombs” sent “un­err­ingly to their tar­gets”. In the process, Jack­son wrote “the se­cret his­tory of Amer­i­can women of her era”.

Gothic ori­gins

The fact that Jack­son tends to be si­t­u­ated within the Amer­i­can Gothic tra­di­tion de­rives in part from The Haunt­ing of Hill House. But is that book re­ally a ghost story, or is it a novel about so­cial ex­clu­sion? It even con­tains a joke which seems to play with the ques­tion: “Poltergeists are rock bot­tom on the su­per­nat­u­ral so­cial scale.”

The id­iom of Hill House may be gothic, but that as­pect of it is al­most a par­ody — more Young Franken­stein than Henry James — and there’s a sto­ry­book silli­ness to some of the dic­tion. Once you get past those el­e­ments, the ac­tual events in the novel can be read without any in­flec­tion of the su­per­nat­u­ral at all. The plot might sim­ply be this: take a lonely, trau­ma­tised per­son, put her in a group that wel­comes her at first, then be­gins to treat her as an out­cast, and see what hap­pens to her mind.

A char­ac­ter, or a per­son, needn’t be na­tively dis­traught in or­der to be­come so by cir­cum­stance. Much in Franklin’s ac­count of Jack­son’s own life would have driven any sane per­son over the edge: her mother’s bru­tal dis­ap­point­ment in her; her hus­band’s fla­grant in­fi­deli­ties (he wrote to Jack­son about his “ridicu­lous tran­scen­den­tal groin”, and it is said that he thought fe­male protest “sim­ply fore­play”); her persecution by neigh­bours in Ver­mont, when her win­dows were van­dalised with swastikas af­ter she at­tempted to de­fend her daugh­ter against a teacher who was whip­ping her.

In The Haunt­ing at Hill House, writ­ten af­ter this in­ci­dent, vil­lagers are said to have “hated a girl to death”. In her fi­nal novel, We Have Al­ways Lived in the Cas­tle, which Jack­son wrote while in the depths of her ago­ra­pho­bia, two mur­der-sus­pect sis­ters shut them­selves up in the re­mains of their home.

Story con­tro­versy

The Lottery, Jack­son’s fa­mous story in which cheer­ful vil­lagers hold an an­nual rit­ual even­tu­ally re­vealed to be a ston­ing to death, is, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, “one of the clas­sic works of Amer­i­can gothic lit­er­a­ture”. There is a whiff of the Salem witch trials in The Lottery, but its tone is a long way from, say, the work of Edgar Al­lan Poe. It has a sort of way­laid re­al­ism to it. Among the un­prece­dented num­ber of let­ters and can­celled sub­scrip­tions The New Yorker re­ceived when the story was pub­lished in 1948, many cor­re­spon­dents were char­ac­terised by Jack­son as wish­ing to know “where th­ese lot­ter­ies were held, and whether they could go there and watch”.

As Franklin sug­gests, many of Jack­son’s sto­ries — the dead­li­est bombs, if not the loud­est — are threaded through with the ironies of the fem­i­nine con­di­tion. Whether the hero­ine kills her hus­band, mourns him in a way that sug­gests she might have, or just fan­ta­sises about him ly­ing with “his head bashed in”, there is a con­ti­nu­ity about the trap in which th­ese women find them­selves. The sto­ries are like minia­ture re­venge tragedies, rekin­dled or re­cast, and ef­fec­tive by at­tri­tion.

If there is such a thing as “Jack­son Gothic”, it’s fa­mil­ial rather than su­per­nat­u­ral. “Ter­ror” and “hor­ror” are words that crop up of­ten, but only in do­mes­tic set­tings — at the break­fast ta­ble, or when a char­ac­ter re­alises she’s for­got­ten to change the sheets. Jack­son al­ways said The Lottery came to her when she was push­ing her daugh­ter home in the stroller.

Jack­son could be won­der­fully tart. She had a gift for the ironic sub­clause (“the only per­son in the world she gen­uinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sis­ter”); a wry way with ad­verbs (“she thought in­ad­e­quately”, “she looked at him spec­u­la­tively”, “she waved her hand largely”); and a knack for open­ing gam­bits (“I’m in lin­gerie, what are you in?”).

Best work’s trait: un­ease

Be­yond that, in her best sto­ries, there is an un­place­able un­ease. Jack­son evokes so­cial or emo­tional armour with great skill. Snob­bery is rife, and sto­ries are of­ten told from the point of view of the con­form­ist — the per­son who fails to see what the story shows us. Teenagers (those priest­esses of es­trange­ment) fea­ture fre­quently, and are never seen for who they re­ally are.

“She does not much like the sort of neu­rotic mod­ern fic­tion she her­self writes, the Joyce and Kafka schools,” Jack­son’s hus­band, Stan­ley Edgar Hy­man, wrote of her. That may have been true, though given some of Jack­son’s vi­cious sar­casm about her hus­band’s work as a lit­er­ary critic, it’s hard to know. She her­self ac­knowl­edged that “all my books laid end to end would be one long doc­u­men­ta­tion of anx­i­ety”.

Hy­man found her dead on Au­gust 8, 1965, around the time she would have wo­ken up from her af­ter­noon nap. As Franklin doc­u­ments, she had been ad­dicted to pre­scrip­tion drugs — up­pers and down­ers — for years, and was a heavy drinker. Friends later sug­gested she’d had a “pre­mo­ni­tion” of her death, and she sent her agent a letter re­fer­ring to a mys­te­ri­ous jour­ney she was plan­ning to take alone. But Franklin doesn’t ex­plic­itly won­der whether Jack­son com­mit­ted sui­cide, and, as Oates points out, it wasn’t spo­ken of at the time. The of­fi­cial cause of death — af­ter a cur­sory in­quest — was heart at­tack.

Ac­ci­dent or over­dose aside, even the pre­dictably spooky idea of a pre­mo­ni­tion seems to go on ignoring what Jack­son had said all along about the cru­el­ties and en­trap­ments of ev­ery­day life. If we can say any­thing for sure, it’s that she died of what she had de­scribed.

by Ruth Franklin is pub­lished by Liveright (£25).

by Shirley Jack­son is pub­lished by Pen­guin Clas­sics (£9.99).

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