For­got­ten au­thors

LUCY LETH­BRIDGE ad­mires the open­ing para­graphs (and the nov­els) of the Amer­i­can writer Shirley Jack­son

The Oldie - - FORGOTTEN AUTHORS - We Have Al­ways Lived in the Cas­tle, The Haunt­ing of Hill House, The Lot­tery and other sto­ries are pub­lished by Pen­guin Clas­sics

In the United States, her nov­els are up there on the re­quired read­ing list, cult clas­sics of mod­ern Amer­i­can gothic; but I have to ad­mit that I’d never heard of Shirley Jack­son un­til about a year ago. Then I read some­where or other, prob­a­bly on the in­ter­net while look­ing for some­thing else, that the open­ing para­graph of Jack­son’s novel The Haunt­ing of Hill

House was ‘hailed by crit­ics’ as the finest open­ing para­graph in all lit­er­a­ture, ever. Which, even al­low­ing for the echo cham­ber of on­line opin­ion, is quite a claim. Here it is in its en­tirety:

No liv­ing or­gan­ism can con­tinue for long to ex­ist sanely un­der con­di­tions of ab­so­lute re­al­ity; even larks and katy­dids are sup­posed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by it­self against the hills, hold­ing dark­ness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls con­tin­ued up­right, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sen­si­bly shut; si­lence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and what­ever walked there, walked alone.

As open­ing para­graphs go, it re­ally is a cracker. Punc­tu­a­tion­ists will rave about Jack­son’s sub­lime mastery of the comma and the semi-colon, but the gen­eral reader will sim­ply want, des­per­ately, to read on. The

Haunt­ing of Hill House is a com­pelling tale of in­san­ity and fear wrapped up in the con­ven­tional wrap­pings of a ghost story. An oddly as­sorted group are gath­ered to­gether to in­ves­ti­gate a haunted house. But who is the haunted? Is it the evils of the house’s past or is it lonely Eleanor whose ac­count seems strangely to dic­tate the ac­tion?

Hav­ing de­voured Hill House in a sin­gle af­ter­noon, I went on to an­other Jack­son clas­sic, We Have Al­ways Lived in the Cas­tle. It also has a su­perb opener – sec­ond sen­tence: ‘I have of­ten thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a were­wolf, be­cause the two mid­dle fin­gers on both my hands are the same length …’ Like Hill House, the cas­tle (the large house be­long­ing to the Black­wood fam­ily) is metic­u­lously recre­ated, with due care given to de­scrip­tions of car­pets, teacups and ei­der­downs. I’ve never en­coun­tered a writer who can con­vey so acutely both the com­fort and the men­ace of do­mes­tic ob­jects. Her build­ings are bur­dened with char­ac­ter: where Hill House is ‘vile’, a hideous as­sem­blage of de­cep­tive an­gles and off-kil­ter cor­ri­dors, the Black­wood home is a tidy fortress against the cruder world, evil kept in and kept out, rum cakes al­ways just emerg­ing warm from Con­stance Black­wood’s stove, poi­son in the sugar bowl.

I went on to Jack­son’s fa­mous short story The Lot­tery, which was pub­lished in the New Yorker in 1948. About a housewife cho­sen as the vic­tim for the an­nual ri­tu­als of her small town, the story pro­voked a furore: no other piece of work in the mag­a­zine has be­fore or since at­tracted so many fu­ri­ous let­ters. And, writ­ten in the same de­cep­tively or­di­nary voice of pedan­tic, neu­rotic, par­tic­u­lar­ity, it is a chill­ing ac­count of ha­tred sanc­tioned by tra­di­tion. Jack­son has a ge­nius for di­a­logue that re­veals when it con­ceals. Other short sto­ries are pretty bril­liant too: some­times char­ac­ters reap­pear in them, like the strange James Har­ris who is the shad­owy ab­sen­tee fi­ancé in The Dae­mon Lover, about a woman, past her prime, on her wed­ding day. I can’t re­call ever read­ing so strik­ingly ter­ri­fy­ing an ac­count sim­ply of wait­ing.

Who was Shirley Jack­son? What kind of life fed this ex­tra­or­di­nary imag­i­na­tion? It was os­ten­si­bly a quiet life, lived for the most part in the kind of tur­retty, ve­ran­dah-ed clap­board man­sions that she would in­vest with such pal­pa­bly sin­is­ter en­er­gies in her fic­tions. Her mother was a so­cial climber and young Shirley, clever and not beau­ti­ful, could never please her. She mar­ried a well-known critic and set­tled in North Bennington, Ver­mont, where he taught at a lib­eral arts col­lege and phi­lan­dered with his stu­dents, and she raised four chil­dren, did the cook­ing (food fea­tures de­li­ciously in her nov­els), looked after the house and kept the fam­ily fi­nan­cially by her writ­ing. She pro­duced at a prodi­gious rate, books, ar­ti­cles (many of them about her do­mes­tic life) and sto­ries – of­ten con­vey­ing with a touch so light as to be barely per­cep­ti­ble the se­cret agony of fe­male in­car­cer­a­tion. She chainsmoked, drank heav­ily and got ex­tremely fat – and one or all these fac­tors could have been the cause of her death, sud­denly in her sleep, in 1965, at the age of 48. But what a legacy she left be­hind.

‘Si­lence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and what­ever walked there, walked alone’

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