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Shirley Jackson’s letters could make an errand more exciting than your entire life

"The Neurotic Personality of Our Time," a cartoon by Shirley Jackson.
“The Neurotic Personality of Our Time,” a cartoon by Shirley Jackson, from “The Letters of Shirley Jackson.” That’s Jackson with the ax and her wayward husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, in a common pose — reclining with the paper.
(Shirley Jackson)

On the Shelf

The Letters of Shirley Jackson

Edited by Bernice M. Murphy and Laurence Jackson Hyman
Random House: 672 pages, $35

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Shirley Jackson’s weird and always absorbing fictions deliver more daymares than nightmares, describing the often disturbingly sunlit landscapes of schools, shopping centers and churches. Her characters ride around on buses doing good deeds or bad, as the mood strikes them (see “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts”). Or they conspire in social networks against that single mother down the road who welcomes questionable Black people into her home (as in “Flower Garden”). And in her most famous story, “The Lottery,” evil has been ritualized into a small town’s annual get-together — replete with gossip, good-natured joking around and pockets full of stones. Even Jackson’s most frightening novels, “The Haunting of Hill House” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” take place largely in the full light of day, visited by the sorts of demons we should worry about more than ghosts, such as nosy neighbors and bullying schoolchildren.

As Merricat, the narrator of “Castle,” observes: “The world is full of terrible people.”

The Letters of Shirley Jackson,” out this week, makes it clear that she found small-town reality to be as fascinating and appalling as the world of her fiction. Co-edited by her eldest son, Laurence Jackson Hyman (who, under the family name of “Laurie,” is also one of the principal characters in these typewritten tales), the volume is filled with energy, compassion, crudely drawn and often hilarious cartoons and an almost overbearing affection for both the family Jackson loved and the world she didn’t love quite so much.

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In propulsive, uncapitalized sentences, Jackson could make even a random trip to the train station or post office sound like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, driving through every tossed-off anecdote with a sort of unstoppable, manic passion that must have been both entrancing and exasperating to live with on a daily basis.

There’s something rotten at the core of the much-praised faux-biopic from Josephine Decker, based on a novel fictionalizing Shirley Jackson.

As she writes to her parents in 1950, it was often hard for Jackson to keep up with raising four children, writing short stories for most of the slick magazines, plotting out novels and trying to keep up with the endless problems of living in a series of sprawling, ramshackle Vermont homes. And when she wasn’t overcompensating for the long absences of her husband, critic and English professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, she was often on the verge of collapse:

“[Y]ou will understand clearly from the fact that i am writing that i ought to be in the kitchen making a cake for the weekend and that there are several million words of novel due next week and that i ought really to be feeding the baby and writing a story and washing the breakfast dishes, if not in town doing the shopping. as a matter of fact, it’s not true at all: baby is still asleep, i ordered by phone, i am not at all sure we should have a cake this weekend after all, and i am nicely ahead on literature. … i spent all morning out in the sun, watching the children play in their new wading pool and wanting to get in myself.”

Shirley Jackson's cartoon of daily domestic life features the caption "Well, looks like we are going to win the war."
“Well, looks like we are going to win the war,” from “The Letters of Shirley Jackson,” co-edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman.
(Shirley Jackson)

As she adds two paragraphs later, Jackson’s recurring headaches are only partly alleviated by five years on codeine — a cycle that will grow worse as Jackson writes increasingly successful novels, suffers accumulating health problems and dies suddenly at 48. No wonder the woman often felt a “lack of energy.” Every scrap she had was continually being used up.

Reading these letters is just as enjoyable as reading Jackson’s fictions — filled with the same intensity that entertained her friends and children as well as recurring glimpses of whatever dark demon was riding her into the ground. She clearly loved her children and they loved her; yet they left her exhausted. She loved writing and reading and never felt she had enough time for either. And while her marriage survived many ups and downs, the downs became steeper as Stanley disappeared for longer stretches with his undergraduate students at Bennington, an all-girls college at the time.

As her children grew up and started spending less time with her, Jackson began disappearing into her attic office while Hyman disappeared into his basement one. While they were fervent partygoers and party throwers, with a wide circle of friends that included Ralph and Fanny Ellison (Shirley and Stanley were early promoters of “Invisible Man”), Jackson grew unhealthier, sadder and more overweight, and the young woman who wrote many sweet, generous letters to her soon-to-be-husband gave way to the wife who sent him some deeply bitter, unforgiving notes:

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“[Y]ou once wrote me a letter (i know you hate my remembering these things) telling me that i would never be lonely again. i think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me.”

Much like Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer she admired, Shirley Jackson was one of the most house-bound of American novelists.

These are remarkably narrative letters, as if Jackson couldn’t bear to waste anybody’s time with words unless they were charged with storytelling. Though she is best known posthumously for stories and novels that explored the strange possibilities lurking beneath the everyday, she was most successful in her time as a chronicler of hectic family life in two bestselling memoirs, “Raising Demons” (1957) and “Life Among the Savages: An Uneasy Chronicle” (1953). As the titles made clear, her humor was just as dark, her metaphors as wild, in portraying the real as in creating the fictional.

Laurence suggests in the introduction that Jackson’s preference for dramatizing life at home may be one of the reasons she did not enjoy the posthumous fame she deserved; she was often miscategorized as a sort of banal suburban humorist on the level of Jean Kerr or Erma Bombeck. But another reason may have been that the literary world of publication parties, book contracts, reviews and movie adaptations didn’t interest her as much as her immediate surroundings. Her main epistolary focus was always on interactions with her children, who (like Jackson) managed to see the world in all its freshness, horror and glory.

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A black-and-white portrait of author Shirley Jackson, wearing glasses and pearls with a button-down blouse.
Shirley Jackson’s letters expose horror and scathing wit in broad daylight, just like her fiction and nonfiction.
(Erich Hartmann / Magnum Photos/Courtesy Michael D. Shulman)

Take a letter recounting one Thanksgiving when Laurie approached her with a dime he had found. “[I] said why not give it to the nice old birch tree out front, so laurie said fine and went outside and came back and announced casually that he had given it to the tree and asked for a dime’s worth of wind.” As Jackson recounts, in the next few days their town got more than 10 cents’ worth; it was hit by a surprise hurricane.

As the letters drive home — and regardless of what critics wrote — for Jackson there was never really any tension between fiction and nonfiction. All that mattered to her was a good story, told right.

Too often, the publication of an author’s selected letters turns out to be a fairly dry, humorless event. They help establish (or reinforce) the idea that this writer was important (Jackson definitely was). Or they remind us how much trouble they had making enough money to live (Jackson certainly had it) or how little they were appreciated in their lifetimes. Often they help explain why they wrote the particular types of books they wrote (she is refreshingly quiet on this topic.) But for those who already love Jackson’s fiction, the papers feel like a big, unexpected gift — much as each individual letter must have felt to each original recipient. The woman simply couldn’t write a dull sentence. And however much each day may have exhausted her, she didn’t seem to live a single uninteresting one.

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Then again, perhaps it’s all in the telling.

Blake Bailey called allegations of sexual misconduct, which first surfaced at the end of a blog post about his new book, “totally false.”

Bradfield’s latest book is “The Millennial’s Guide to Death: Stories.”


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