Shirley Jackson and her bewitching biography, ‘A Rather Haunted Life’
Much like Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer she admired, Shirley Jackson was one of the most house-bound of American novelists. She rarely traveled; one of her last essays was titled “No, I Don’t Want to Go to Europe.” When she wasn’t writing (often in the kitchen between meals) she spent her days absorbed by the intimate daily pleasures and turmoils of her husband and four children. And in her final years, she suffered an intensification of her lifelong agoraphobia that made it difficult to venture beyond her front yard. In many ways, she was one of her generation’s most representative American writers: insular, devoted to family and generally disinterested in the wider political world that extended beyond her very lived-in and reportedly messy home in rural Vermont. As a result of these same characteristics, she may also be one of the most unfairly disregarded writers of her generation — a condition that should be rectified by Ruth Franklin’s fine new biography.
Jackson wrote novels and stories about people who loved the claustrophobic confines of their homes, but who simultaneously (and often sensibly) feared the wider outside world that threatened their sense of coherency and plenitude. For while horrible things commonly occur inside Jackson’s Gothic-style homes, even horribler things happen outside them. In her weird science fictional comedy, “The Sundial,” the multi-generational Halloran family is petty, vindictive and mean spirited, especially to one another — but at least they stay together, unlike a perpetually fragmenting outside world filled with True Believers and apocalypse-worshipers. In “The Haunting of Hill House,” (filmed by Robert Wise in 1963 and again by Jan de Bont in 1999), Eleanor Lance may suffer from terrible supernatural manifestations while investigating a Winchester Mystery House-style haunted estate, but it still beats the hell out of her normal former life as a lonely, broke, spinster-in-waiting; even a family of ghouls, she eventually concludes, is better than no family at all.
And in Jackson’s best and best-known novel, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” the Blackwood sisters, Merricat and Constance, carry on living in the same family mansion where their parents were poisoned; while their surviving uncle goes steadily mad trying to memorialize every detail of the murders, they cook, clean, post protective spells in the surrounding woods (a book nailed to a tree, a bag of silver dollars buried in the dirt) and remain intensely happy — until, of course, local citizens start showing up on their porch trying to be “neighborly,” and pick up a few keepsakes from the yard. (People being neighborly is always a bad sign in a Jackson story.) As Merricat observes, “The world is full of terrible people,” and unless you’re careful, they may actually move in to stay. The only way to escape them is to confine your intensely-private horribleness to the people you love; otherwise you might end up like poor, unlucky Mrs. Hutchinson in Jackson’s most famous story, “The Lottery” — growing so involved in the rituals and conventions of your world that you never find your way home again.
Jackson may have inherited her genetic predilection for enormously horrible houses. Born into a wealthy, aristocratic San Francisco family and raised in privileged Burlingame, Calif., by a socialite-mother and a reckless, nouveau-riche father, Shirley’s legendary great-great-grandfather was Samuel Bugbee, who made the family fortune building ostentatious homes for the San Francisco elite. Decades after Bugbee’s grandest homes were destroyed in the earthquake of 1906, Jackson mined through old photographs of his work and used them to design some of her most nightmarish fictional structures. When Jackson moved to the East Coast as a teenager, she couldn’t bring the California gardens with her, but there remained a sort of Edenic richness to her fictional landscapes. After several college years investigating witchcraft at Syracuse University, she eventually collected several hundred books on the subject, and claimed to practice the “dark arts” in her spare time (as if she had any). She married her college boyfriend, who turned out to be the perfect husband for an insecure writer — and perhaps the worst possible husband for an insecure woman. Stanley Edgar Hyman grew up, like Jackson, an outcast from his own family (they were fairly religious Jews; he was an atheist); and he loved to encourage talented writers like Jackson and their close friend, Ralph Ellison, as much as he loved sleeping around with students. It’s probably no coincidence that Jackson’s most popular book was a bestselling comic memoir of family life, “Raising Demons.” It’s a title that might well have fit any of Jackson’s more sober “literary” novels.
“Witchcraft,” Franklin writes, “whether she practiced it or simply studied it, was important to Jackson for what it symbolized: female strength and potency. The witchcraft chronicles she treasured ... are stories of powerful women: women who defy social norms, women who get what they desire, women who can channel the devil himself.”
Franklin’s biography of Jackson provides a well-written, well-considered and enjoyable opportunity for those of us who recall the pleasures of reading Jackson to go out and enjoy her all over again; it also helps make up for the poor scholarly attention her novels and stories have received since her death.
In the age of Lemony Snicket, when the idea of horrible families has been turned into a form of pastiche, it’s a good time to check out these great gaunt, dark and often very funny original families who inhabited her best novels, such as “Castle,” or the macabre, funny stories collected in “The Lottery.” (And if you get a chance, check out two of my personal favorite Jackson stories — “The Missing Girl” and “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts.”)
Unlike most writers commonly taught in universities, Jackson was a professional who often wrote stories that didn’t please her for money; and when she wrote stories and novels that did please her they didn’t always subscribe to critically acceptable notions about the world, America, psychology, genre or gender. What most interested her was the deeply personal daily job of writing out her demons, and turning them into beautiful little homes for the reader to inhabit, however briefly. “The very nicest thing about being a writer,” she once said, “is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, so long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were…. All you have to do — and watch this carefully, please — is keep writing. So long as you write it away regularly nothing can hurt you.”
The good news is that even after a brief midlife battle with writer’s block, Jackson was back happily writing and creating new fictions before her sudden death at 48. There is no more welcome witchcraft than granting oneself the ability to write well until the day you die, and to this extent, at the very least, she bewitched.
Bradfield’s most recent books are “ Why I Hate Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Several Decades of Reading Unwisely” and a revised edition of his 1995 novel, with a new afterword, “Animal Planet.”
Liveright: 624 pp., $35
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