Monstrous acts and little murders

A new collection of unpublished stories betrays the two faces of Shirley Jackson, the writer who created "The Lottery."

Topics: Books,

theres “The Lottery,” of course, the story everyone knows
even if they don’t remember Shirley Jackson’s name. A small New
England town, blandly familiar in every way, sleepwalking its way
through ritual murder. Likely the most controversial piece of
fiction ever published in the New Yorker, resulting in hundreds
of canceled subscriptions, later adapted for television, radio
and ballet, it now resides in the popular imagination as an
archetype. It can be as difficult to persuade readers that the
story is just one sheaf in the portfolio of one of this century’s
most luminous and strange American writers as it is to explain that the town portrayed in “The Lottery” is a real one.

I know it is, because I lived there. North Bennington is a
tiny village less than a mile from the otherwise isolated
Bennington campus in Vermont. Shirley Jackson was married to
Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic who taught at the college.
And she spent her life in the town, raising four children,
presiding over a chaotic household that was host to Ralph
Ellison, Bernard Malamud and Howard Nemerov, and at times going
quietly crazy  and writing, always, with the rigor of one who has
found her born task. Six novels, two bestselling volumes of
deceptively sunny family memoirs and countless stories before
her death at 48, in 1965.

The town hasn’t changed, or at least it hadn’t by the mid-
eighties, when I was a student at the school. A handful of the
townspeople portrayed in thin disguise in Jackson’s novels and
stories were still around. I knew the square where “The Lottery”
takes place. It was Jackson’s fate, as a faculty wife and an
eccentric newcomer in a staid, insular village, to absorb the
reflexive antisemitism and anti-intellectualism felt by the
townspeople toward the college. She and her children were
accessible in a way that her husband and his colleagues and
students, who spent their days on the campus, were not.



Jackson was in many senses already two people when she
arrived in Vermont. One was a turgid, fearful ugly-duckling,
permanently cowed by the severity of her upbringing by a suburban
mother obsessed with appearances. This half of Jackson was a
character she brought brilliantly to life in her stories and
novels from the beginning: the shy girl, whose identity slips all
too easily from its foundations. The other half of Jackson was
the expulsive iconoclast, brought out of her shell by marriage to
Hyman  himself a garrulous egoist very much in the tradition
of Jewish ’50′s New York intellectuals  and by the visceral
shock of mothering a quartet of noisy, demanding babies. This
second Shirley Jackson dedicated herself to rejecting her
mother’s sense of propriety, drank and smoked and fed to buttery
excess  directly to blame for her and her husband’s early
deaths  dabbled in magic and voodoo, and interfered loudly when
she thought the provincial Vermont schools were doing an
injustice to her talented children. This was the Shirley Jackson
that the town feared, resented and, depending on whose version
you believe, occasionally persecuted.

The hostility of the villagers further shaped her psyche, and
her art; the process eventually redoubled so the latter fed the
former. After the enormous success of “The Lottery,” a legend
arose in town, almost certainly false, that Jackson had been
pelted with stones by schoolchildren one day, then gone home and
written the story. The real crisis came near the end of her life,
resulting in a period of agoraphobia and psychosis; she wrote her
way through it in “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” In that novel, Jackson brilliantly isolates the two aspects in her psyche into two odd, damaged sisters: one hypersensitive and afraid, unable to leave the house, the other a sort of squalid demon
prankster who may or may not have murdered the rest of her family
for her fragile sister’s sake. For me, it is that unique and
dreamlike book, rather than “The Lottery,” that stands as her
masterpiece.

it doesn’t require a personal connection to the town,
however, to be stirred by the news that two of Jackson’s children
have rescued a box of lost story manuscripts and brought them
together with previously uncollected stories to create “Just an
Ordinary Day,” the first new book of Jackson’s fiction since just
after her death. For a core of dedicated readers, Jackson’s
memory is very much alive. Is it faint praise to call her a
writer’s writer? I know so many writers who’ll hurry to stores
for this book, too impatient to put it on Christmas lists.
They’ll be impatient with reviews, too, wanting to delve into the
book, which more than doubles the number of Jackson stories
ever in hard covers, and find their own favorites. Jackson’s
fans tend to be fiercely proud of her, and a little protective.
To read her at all is to have a personal connection.

To put it most simply, Shirley Jackson wrote about the
mundane evils hidden in everyday life and about the warring and
subsuming of selves in a family, a community and sometimes even
in a single mind. She wrote about prejudice, neurosis and
identity. An unfortunate impression persists (one Jackson
encouraged, for complicated reasons) that her work is full of
ghosts and witches. In truth, few of her greatest stories and
just one of her novels, “The Haunting of Hill House,” contain a
suggestion of genuinely supernatural events. Jackson’s forté was
psychology and society, people in other words — people disturbed,
dispossessed, misunderstanding or thwarting one another
compulsively, people colluding absently in monstrous acts. She
had a jeweler’s eye for the microscopic degrees by which a
personality creeps into madness or a relationship turns from
dependence to exploitation. Judy Oppenheimer’s fine 1988
biography of Jackson is called “Private Demons,” but it could have
been called “Little Murders.”

She’s also terribly funny. Her observations are dry, her
dialogue shockingly fresh and absurd, and her best stories can
make you think of a collaboration between James Thurber and a
secular Flannery O’Connor. She reaches that height perhaps nine
or ten times in the fifty-five stories and pieces in “Just an
Ordinary Day.” I’d point newcomers to “The Mouse,” a horrible,
gem-like exhibition of her mastery of nuance and implication;
“Nightmare,” where a secretary gets swept up into a woman-on-the-street promotional scheme in one of the very best of her dark
parables of capitalism; the quietly hardboiled “On The House;”
and the widely anthologized but uncollected classic of good
Samaritanism gone bad, “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts,”
especially. The direly strange “My Uncle in the Garden” is like a
glimpse into a horrific animated snow-globe; “A Great Voice
Stilled” manages to squeeze the astringent satire of a Muriel
Spark novel into four pages. “The Missing Girl” is also
unskippable, a hypnotic distillation of the principle of the
invisibility of victims, reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith. For
these stories alone the book is worthwhile — for longtime
converts, for anyone. To my eye the other forty-odd stories,
while valuable for enriching our sense of Jackson’s genius, fall
short of her standard, albeit in different and interesting ways.

It’s disconcerting, after all this time, to find Shirley
Jackson an inconsistent writer. However chaotic her life became,
she was always obsessively meticulous in what she published, and
when Hyman organized a group of uncollected stories for the
posthumous collection “Come Along with Me,” he was meticulous on her behalf. In contrast, there are stories here that start like
classics but misfire or wind down and a few endings that tend to
the arch or pat. It was famously said of Jackson that “she never
wrote a bad sentence,” and that’s still true. But I’m afraid her
shelf now includes six or eight regrettable, clumsy pieces.

We also learn that Jackson, like Fitzgerald, occasionally
turned out a story for commercial magazines that demanded
“uplift” — couples meet; lonely women blossom; unwished
pregnancies are embraced. In these, Jackson, who was always proud
of her professionalism and productivity, seems not so much to
have betrayed her vision as to have laid it expediently to one
side. They’re deft, funny and perfectly unsatisfying. I’d trade
a hundred of the competent romantic pieces here, such as “About
Two Nice People” or “Dinner For a Gentleman,” for one or two more
like “Portrait” and “Before Autumn” — unresolved, gnomic
experiments I know I’ll reread many times, if never fully fathom.

The family tales are another matter. However overtly droll,
her autobiographical writing always turns on the contest for
identity (for parent and child) that was her deepest subject.
“All I Can Remember” and “Fame,” two little fables of self-
deprecation which elegantly bracket this collection, are perfect
examples. In “All I Can Remember,” Jackson plays a terrible
moment — the rejection of her earliest writing attempts by her
parents — for laughs. Then it ever-so-slightly deepens, as Jackson
decides “never, as a matter of fact, to write anything ever
again. I had already decided finally that I was never going to be
married and certainly would never have any children. It may have
been about that time that I came to believe that being a private
detective was the work I was meant to do.” We know, of course,
that she married, raised a family and wrote, but “Just an
Ordinary Day” reminds us that Shirley Jackson also went
undercover, never flinching from the darkest clues she might
find, and that in her stories and novels she remains on the
trail, of herself, her neighbors, all of us.

Jonathan Lethem, the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College, is the author of, most recently, the novel "Chronic City." He is currently at work on his next novel, "Dissident Gardens," publishing October 2013.

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