Literary daybook, Aug. 8

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published August 8, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On August 8, it's the first night on Indian Island for the group of ten.
-- "And Then There Were None" (1939)
by Agatha Christie

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1965, Shirley Jackson died of heart failure, at the age of 48. For 20 years and from various angles Jackson had built a reputation for quietly ripping the lid off life in Pleasantville: "The Lottery" and other stories; her two family chronicles, "Life Among the Savages" and "Raising Demons"; her horror novel, "The Haunting of Hill House," etc. By 1962 her physical and mental health had deteriorated to the point that she could not face venturing into, let alone fictionalizing, her Bennington, Vt., hometown. The eventual psychiatric diagnosis was "acute anxiety," for which any number of descriptions and causes were offered: her mother, agoraphobia, years of drug abuse (amphetamines and tranquilizers), years of overeating and overdrinking, etc.

Jackson sought therapy in journal writing, and felt that a new style, even a new self, was waiting for her in the "great golden world outside." The self-treatment included this ministration: "I have already thought I will not be able to re-read this page without embarrassment and cringing because I wrote 'getting laid.' Surely this is unreasonable. Getting laid getting laid getting laid ... " Her last journal entry, six months before she died, shows the struggle continuing:

"I know something about this obsession business. It isn't real. It is a huge cloud of looming nothingness triggered off by small events. But it is not real ... I am the captain of my fate I am the captain of my fate I am the captain of my fate. Laughter is possible laughter is possible laughter is possible."

Jackson was known in the family for her somewhat twisted jokes -- in aid of convincing her husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman, that his favorite old movie, "Freaks," did not in fact exist, she hid all the local library's movie reference books in the back of her closet for months -- and they at first thought her death might be one of them. One daughter had overdosed two weeks earlier, an act interpreted by Jackson as histrionics; unable to rouse her from her afternoon nap, the family wondered if she might be having some sort of copycat laugh. Hyman, a thorough bibliophile, put a mirror to her lips; when this proved inconclusive, they called a local doctor, but made such a bad job of describing what was going on that he went back to his own nap before driving over.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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