The writer we all read in high school is making a major comeback
Like many people, I was miserable in the eighth grade. Junior High had it’s share of daily trials: bullies, intimidating teachers, inscrutable dress codes, the onset of puberty. I arrived every day in homeroom trembling from yesterday’s harassment, anticipating another day in the trenches.
My only reprieve was English class. Ms. Miles was one of the only teacher whose lessons I retained among that chaos of not-quite learning. She was short, with long, black, coarse hair, delicate gold jewelry, and the most powerful reading voice I’d ever heard. While my 7th grade English teacher had us write “book reports” that consisted exclusively of listing the parts of a book (e.g. Table of Contents, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3…), Ms. Miles assigned us Steinbeck, Hemingway, Lois Lowry, and, most memorably, Shirley Jackson.
We read Jackson’s “The Lottery” out loud. The tone of the narrator maintained its distance as poor Tessie Hutchinson received the slip of paper with the black dot decreeing a public death by stoning. When the student next to me finished the last sentence, “and then they were upon her,” Ms. Miles leaned back against the chalkboard and let the silence fill the room. After class, as I lugged my three-ringed binder to my locker, averting the sneers from the other students in the hallway, Tessie’s last cry came to mind: it isn’t fair, it isn’t right. I gathered my things quickly and fled for home; I had gambled with fate and and survived another day.
Fifteen years later, Shirley Jackson’s work is having a renaissance, and I’m reminded of the lessons she imparted to me all those years ago. Her latest collection of previously unpublished works and essays, Let Me Tell You, is out this week, and let me tell you, it paints a much fuller picture of the writer, whom I always thought of as a creepy genius grandmother, than her most popular works portray. It’s almost a pity that “The Lottery” caused such a stir when The New Yorker published it in 1948; the notoriety of it, in some ways, overshadowed the writer’s body of work. “I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name,” Jackson said in a 1960 lecture.
If, like me, you were familiar with Jackson only from “The Lottery,” or any of her novels, including The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, you might assume Jackson was mostly preoccupied with the gothic, the mystical, or maybe just houses. She came from a long line of architects, in fact, and appears well aware of her obsession in “Good Old House,” an essay about her own haunted house in North Bennington, Vermont, and “The Ghosts of Loiret,” an essay about a series of strange events that occurred in aforementioned house after her husband gave her a collection of postcards of old mansions from all over Europe. Soon after receiving the gift, figures in the postcards begin to move, sometimes in front of Jackson’s very eyes, and doors start slamming shut sporadically throughout the house. And so the woman, whose talismans includes a crystal ball, five black cats, and a Japanese netsuke of a skeleton reading a book of poetry, inscribes incantations onto pieces of paper and tapes them to doors throughout the house for the children to chant when they arrive home from school.
Though she had her obsessions, Jackson refused to limit herself to them. It’s this limitlessness that I admire most in her. Yes, her rituals may have been strange; yes, her husband may have bought her a Japanese scroll showing the gradual decomposition of a dead body for her birthday, but Jackson was also a doting mother, and, strangely enough, a pragmatist. In “The Ghosts of Loiret,” she writes: “I have never liked the theory that poltergeists only come into houses where there are children, because I think it is simply too much for any one house to have poltergeists and children.”
Jackson was whomever she felt like. And without these bizarre preoccupations, her work wouldn’t be nearly as rich. For Jackson, conformity was as good as death, which for me, as a thirteen-year-old who only wanted to be accepted, proved to be a very comforting method of survival indeed, even if it was a little macabre (my English teacher before Ms. Miles would have pronounced it “mack-a-bree”).
From her essays in Good Housekeeping to her disquieting tales of murder, Jackson shows us a woman who embraced what it was to be inconsistent, and therefore human. Essays like “Here I Am, Washing the Dishes Again” suggest a sly self-awareness of her limits as a writer in a quotidian world of motherhood, and her willingness to rebuff those boundaries. Much of her fiction is similarly engaged in the incongruities between expectation and reality for post-war families, and particularly the wives that run them. One of my favorite pieces in Let Me Tell You is “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons,” a short story about a perfectionist housewife whose rigidity impedes her from genuine joy. For Jackson, any character who submits to so many rules will inevitably get a heavy dose of chaos, just as the reader hopes.
Let Me Tell You hits bookstores three days before the anniversary of Jackson’s death (she died of sudden heart failure at the young age of forty-eight). It seems more than appropriate that her undiscovered work should come to us from beyond the grave. She was never bound to the living world, anyway.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]