Dye the Steak Blue
- Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates
Library of America, 827 pp, $35.00, May 2010, ISBN 978 1 59853 072 8
In Shirley Jackson’s best-known story, ‘The Lottery’, the residents of a small New England village get together on a summer morning to draw lots. The sun shines, the children play, the villagers chat: it takes a few pages to figure out that they’re deciding who should be stoned to death this year. The New Yorker published the story in 1948, and got more calls and letters and cancelled subscriptions than ever before or since. A decade later, people were still writing to ask Jackson what it meant. For the most part she didn’t like to say, but she told a former teacher she’d got the idea from his folklore class; to someone else she remarked that ‘of course’ the story was ‘about the Jews’; and to others she said it wasn’t fiction at all, but ‘simply North Bennington’, the Vermont town in which she lived, and the people there, ‘the way they slaughter one another’.
The lottery works in two stages. First, a family is chosen: the head of each household picks a slip of paper from a box. Then each member of that family draws in turn. Tessie Hutchinson gets the marked slip. Before the draw, she’s seen laughing with Mrs Delacroix; when the crowd closes in on Tessie, Mrs Delacroix hurries to join them, choosing a stone too big to carry in one hand. In the logic of the story and the village, it’s possible she’s doing her friend a favour. The martyred woman is no innocent. When Tessie’s husband draws the marked paper in the first round, she tries to improve her own odds by counting her married daughter – who, according to tradition, must draw with her husband’s family – as part of the Hutchinson clan: ‘There’s Don and Eva,’ she yells. ‘Make them take their chance!’
Jackson, whose best work has now appeared in a Library of America volume edited by Joyce Carol Oates, was born in San Francisco in December 1916, though she liked to shed three years. Her father, Leslie, whose English family had lost their money, changed their name and emigrated after a mysterious scandal, was doing well in business. His wife’s relatives had been prominent local architects. In Private Demons (1988), the only full biography of Shirley Jackson, Judy Oppenheimer seems a little too eager to make a villain of Jackson’s mother (‘shallow … vain, foolish … disapproving, unrelenting’). Geraldine Bugbee Jackson was from California not Vermont, but like the fictional villagers, she wasn’t interested in flouting convention; she set great store by what other people thought. Mother and daughter weren’t at all alike – in the words of Jackson’s son, it was as if a goldfish had given birth to a porpoise – and Geraldine didn’t hide her disappointment. As Jackson, never pretty and always overweight, grew fatter with age, Geraldine sent corsets in the mail, and her letters were often tactless. ‘You have too many demented girls in your books’; ‘why oh why do you allow the magazines to print such awful pictures of you? … I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like.’ When the Pill was introduced, Geraldine wrote to say what a good idea it was, and how silly of the Catholics to make a fuss: ‘I only wish I’d had it back then.’
Jackson and her brother were brought up in Burlingame, a suburb which she skewered in her novel The Road through the Wall (1948), peopling it with near indistinguishable snobs and bullies. The first book, she would tell her own children, is your revenge on your parents: once it’s out of your system you can get on with the real writing. When Jackson was a teenager, they moved east to Rochester, New York, where she liked the people even less, and they disliked her right back. She spent a miserable year at the local university, and another at home after dropping out – or being pushed. Things improved in 1937 when she got into Syracuse University, where for the first time she was admired for her oddness rather than shunned. She published a very short story, ‘Janice’, in which a girl casually tells her friends the details of her suicide attempt earlier that day. Stanley Hyman, part of the small quota of Jewish students at Syracuse, read the story in a college magazine, thought it the only piece that showed any talent and sought Jackson out to tell her so. They fell in love and started their own publication, calling it Spectre, after the one haunting Europe, in which they attacked the university’s policies on race, trashed the writing teacher’s poetry collection, and annoyed the administration so thoroughly that although Jackson became one of Syracuse’s most famous alumnae, and Stanley an eminent critic, they didn’t get invited back for 25 years.
When they married after graduating in 1940, both families were distraught; his father sat shivah for him and didn’t relent for several years. The army classified Stanley unfit for service, so they spent the war living in Manhattan on not much, and started publishing in magazines. In 1945, with one young child and another on the way, they moved to Vermont so that Stanley could teach at Bennington and the two of them could write. They chose not to live near the campus, but settled in North Bennington instead, where they seem to have been treated with some suspicion by their neighbours. Although ten of Jackson’s stories had already appeared in the New Yorker, her first novel didn’t get much attention or sell many copies when it came out in 1948: it was ‘The Lottery’, published four months later, that changed things. From that time on, alongside the literary fiction, she published a stream of short pseudo-autobiographical pieces in women’s magazines. Many other serious writers sold stories to the likes of Good Housekeeping, but few maintained a second career as what Oates calls a ‘domestic humourist’, churning out pieces like ‘The Third Baby’s the Easiest’ and ‘The Night We All Had Grippe’. Joan Wylie Hall, in her 1993 book about Jackson’s short fiction, claims that ‘her name is the only one that is now at all familiar in issue after issue’ of magazines aimed ‘exclusively at a female readership’. In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood imagines sitting in the crook of a tree with a possible future hanging just out of reach on each branch: she can only choose one, and choosing it means losing all the others, so she watches, trapped, as one by one they ripen, fall and rot on the ground. Jackson didn’t accept that she had to choose: she set out to grab everything she could reach.
She often bragged that she was a witch, and when her second book, a collection of stories named after ‘The Lottery’, came out in April 1949, the publishers spread word of her spookiness far and wide. She liked to make a joke of it, saying a woman who’d offended her fell down an elevator shaft, breaking all the bones in her body ‘except one and I didn’t know that was there’, but the jokes didn’t preclude seriousness, or horror, and she believed her powers were real. When Stanley’s publisher proved troublesome later on, she made a matchstick doll and sent word that though her voodoo couldn’t stretch as far as New York, evil would befall Alfred Knopf should he cross state lines. Weeks later, he broke his leg on the first day of a Vermont skiing trip. Asked about it after her death, Knopf would say only that he’d ‘never published Shirley Jackson’.
In 1949, an interviewer for the New York Times Book Review was relieved to find her an unexpectedly motherly type, radiating ‘cosiness and comfort’, who used her broomstick ‘for household chores rather than as a means of transportation’, and she obliged by telling him that writing didn’t feel like ‘honest work’ compared with her real priorities at home. The Times fell for the image of a mother who knows what matters but is lucky enough to write on the side, and Jackson liked the idea of rewriting her life as charming domestic comedy. It was important around 1950 to be like everyone else, especially if you weren’t. Explaining their decision to move to Connecticut (where they lived for a couple of years after The Lottery came out), she complained in a letter to Geraldine that her daughter Joanne was ‘beginning to talk and act like the disagreeable little girls around here’ and that her eldest child, Laurie, looked ‘like a typical North Bennington subnormal farmer’. Part of the pleasure of the women’s magazine pieces and the books that grew out of them was the way the everywoman she pretended to be made fun of other people’s philistinism: ‘This room would be much larger,’ says a pushy woman who wants to buy her house, ‘if you took out all those books.’ When she staggers into hospital to give birth, she’s asked to state her occupation: ‘“Writer,” I said. “Housewife,” she said. “Writer,” I said. “I’ll just put down housewife.”’
Sylvia Plath was impressed by Jackson’s second novel, Hangsaman (1951), which charts a young woman’s mental deterioration: she asked to meet Jackson, Linda Wagner-Martin relates in her 1987 biography of Plath, when she was working at Mademoiselle in the summer of 1953. Wagner-Martin has elsewhere called the 1950s ‘the decade of Jackson’, although an interviewer recently put it to Oates that this must have been a reference to her ubiquity rather than her influence. Now both familiar and obscure, Jackson is ripe for rescue. The Library of America collection includes a great many stories, but only the last two of her six completed novels – the others, though intriguing, are more uneven. Natalie, the young woman in Hangsaman, feels sealed off from her peers at college when, at an initiation ceremony for freshmen, she looks around the ‘ring of placid, masked girls’; it’s clumsier when, later in the book, she thinks: ‘That, I suppose, is why these people find it so easy to get along with the idea of having their minds taken away from them, because their minds were never very useful to them in the first place.’ Hangsaman is thought to have influenced The Bell Jar and, inspired by Jackson, Plath initially wanted to publish in Ladies’ Home Journal as well as the New Yorker, but – Oates claims – Plath’s gifts were such that she ‘couldn’t write down’. For Jackson though, it was a matter of necessity. Even by the standards of the day, Stanley did remarkably little to help with the house or children, and she was still the main breadwinner. ‘My earnings pay the bar bill,’ he told a friend, ‘and that’s it,’ although to be fair to him, the bar bill in their house ran pretty high.
Jackson’s next book, Life among the Savages (1953), was the first of two bestselling family romps, autobiographical works about life with four small children, which present her as a helpless character only just keeping her mischievous brood (husband included) and their ramshackle house together. Material from her magazine pieces is folded into them, and both begin with the travails of moving house. The grocer in the village they’re considering moving to already knows their family secrets, doors lock themselves, bats fly up out of basements. For all their light-heartedness, the line separating these books from the more serious stories she was writing at the time is quite thin. They have similar preoccupations: unstable identity, home as both a refuge and a trap, city people isolated among hostile, whispering villagers, the fearful realisation that your children have minds of their own.
The Bird’s Nest (1954) is about Elizabeth Richmond, who is being treated for multiple personality disorder. The novel, which is based on a case study from 1906, shares an interest in psychoanalysis with Hangsaman, and has similar weaknesses – too much spelling out, principally. Elizabeth’s psychiatrist, Dr Wright, tries to number Elizabeth’s four personalities, but the one called Betsy refuses to be called ‘R3’ (‘you can call me Rosalita, or Charmian, or Lilith, if you like’); nasty Betsy can also imitate nice Beth to confuse Dr Wright. The different Elizabeths attack each other. Bess tries to choke Betsy, and Betsy sends abusive letters to Lizzie, who likes the attention and ‘fondly’ treasures the hate mail: it’s as though ‘at last someone had found her out … someone who wanted to watch her all the time.’ The book did well, and the movie rights sold quickly, but in the mid-1950s Jackson was under increasing strain. In 1956, she accused her daughter’s teacher of bullying and physically abusing students, and the locals closed ranks. The second family book, Raising Demons (1957), is noticeably darker than its predecessor, and her fourth novel, The Sundial (1958), a black comic oddity about a wealthy family who shut themselves away to prepare for the apocalypse, is the first to display her ‘gothic’ preoccupation with the house.
In Life among the Savages but especially in Raising Demons, Jackson makes a joke of the same fears she explores so chillingly elsewhere, and the comic set-pieces about failed parental discipline have echoes in her creepier stories, which often suggest a sense of alarm about young people, about the dark things they might be thinking and the little sway we hold over them. In ‘The Lottery’, the children are the first to assemble in the square, carefully collecting the ‘smoothest and roundest’ stones and piling them up. When we realise what those stones will be used for, we wonder why they choose such smooth ones: is it to make the process last longer? Even Tessie’s small son Davy is given ‘a few pebbles’ so that he can join in.
In ‘The Witch’, a story from the 1949 collection, a woman is reading on a train with her baby girl and four-year-old boy. He’s eating a cookie and passing the time with stories of a witch outside the window. A man gets into their compartment and chats to the boy. He tells a story:
Once upon a time, I had a little sister, just like yours … so pretty and so nice that I loved her more than anything else in the world. So shall I tell you what I did? … I pinched her and I pinched her until she was dead … I cut off her head and her hands and her feet and her hair and her nose … and I hit her with a stick and I killed her … And I put her head in a cage with a bear and the bear ate it all up.
The boy is of course delighted and the mother horrified. What is unsettling is that the man doesn’t abandon or adjust his story when he sees the mother’s distress. The mother, who’d been fondly half-listening to the boy’s talk of witches, is now struck by how flexible his loyalties might be. When she threatens to call the conductor, the boy says, ‘The conductor will eat my mommy … We’ll chop her head off’; then the next minute he tells the man: ‘My mommy will eat you.’ Nothing happens in the story. The stranger leaves the car and the mother gives her son a lollipop. But when she insists that the man hadn’t killed anyone, that he was ‘just teasing’, the boy pays no attention; she’s shown her weakness, and he has taken note.
This is a recurring situation both in the novels and the stories: Jackson places a young person, usually a woman, in a seemingly ordinary setting which then becomes unstable. Sometimes normality is restored, sometimes it isn’t, but either way, something threatening or strange has been revealed hiding under the surface. In some of these stories the woman is miserable, suffocating in her everyday life, and meets the apparent disaster with exhilaration. Jackson is interested in impostors, in estrangement, in small, inexorable shifts of power. In ‘Louisa, Please Come Home’ (1960), a teenage runaway tries to return to her family and finds that they don’t recognise her; they believe she’s one of a series of frauds trying to take advantage of their grief. She goes back to her new life elsewhere, and every year she listens to her mother broadcasting an appeal on the radio: ‘Louisa … we need you and miss you so much. Your mother and father love you and will never forget you. Louisa, please come home.’ In ‘Like Mother Used to Make’ a man asks his neighbour over for dinner and finds himself steadily losing ground, giving in, as she invites another man to join them and accepts his compliments on the meal and the apartment as if they were hers. Eventually, the first man, embarrassed and excluded, is pushed out of his own home. The progression is smooth, as if quite natural. There is no jolt, no place to pause and say this is no longer believable. Stephen King considers Jackson one of the great horror writers because she ‘never had to raise her voice’. There are no sudden twists in ‘The Lottery’. It appears to darken gradually, although in fact it does so at remarkable speed. Tessie’s reaction when her husband gets the first marked slip tells us that this draw isn’t something anyone wants to win; from there, it’s only three pages until the first stone hits her on the side of the head.
The quietness King identifies, the naturalness with which horror is insinuated in Jackson’s stories, is an effect of the evenness of her tone. And just as it allows her to sneak darkness into her comic writing, so it enables her to stitch jokes seamlessly into the serious fiction. Like most things in Jackson, the jokes cut both ways, offering relief from unpleasantness but also heightening it, making things seem bearable when they shouldn’t be. In the stories, laughter can be coercive: it’s often the threat of ridicule that keeps women in line, especially in small communities. The domestic romps tap into the same undercurrent of resentment, and show how fragile our social arrangements are when closely examined. Good manners are the only thing protecting us from one another: if that thought isn’t frightening, it must be because it’s funny. In Raising Demons, Jackson is talking politely to the woman who wants her house (more dark fantasies of usurpation), and notes in passing that ‘of course I did not push her down the front steps.’ These small imaginary revenges give the family books an edge without which they might alienate even the most docile consumer of housewife lit.
Still, Jackson could be defensive about her lighter pieces, claiming they were written ‘simply for money’ and that the magazines were determined not to buy anything good. She worried about exploiting her children in them; when the tales of their antics sold, they were given ‘story presents’. Often she could sell the same thing more than once: in Life among the Savages they worry for weeks about Laurie, who comes home from nursery school with ever worse tales of Charles, a classmate who hits the teacher and leads the other children astray. Eventually they realise that Laurie himself is the bad child, and Charles his imaginary scapegoat. This anecdote, first published in Mademoiselle, also appears in the Lottery story collection, and in that less anodyne context the effect is rather sinister. Jackson kept her household going by writing about it. ‘At a thousand bucks a story,’ she told her mother, ‘I can’t afford to try to change the state of popular fiction today.’
Whatever Geraldine thought of her excuses, they didn’t wash with Betty Friedan, who excoriated Jackson in The Feminine Mystique. Friedan called her an Uncle Tom, one of those women who disingenuously portrayed themselves as ‘just housewives’, ‘revelling in a comic world of children’s pranks and eccentric washing machines’, affecting to find a challenge in the most routine chores and concealing the ‘vision, and the satisfying hard work’ which went into their proper vocation, as writers. (Plath too played this game: it’s eerie to hear her, in a 1961 BBC interview, describing her life with Hughes as ‘practically indistinguishable’ from everybody else’s: ‘I certainly have a life just like all the other housewives and mothers in our district, shopping, dishes and taking care of the baby … being a very practical and domestic housewife.’) It’s certainly true that if Jackson found writing ‘hard’, as Friedan seemed to think she must, she did her best to conceal it, creating a mythology of ease and nonchalance around her work. The Library of America volume reprints a lecture entitled ‘Biography of a Story’, which she gave many times over the years to accompany her readings of ‘The Lottery’. In it she describes how she had the idea for the story as she was pushing her daughter’s stroller up a hill one sunny June morning; she typed it out when she got home, and three weeks later (still June, still sunny), it was published almost unchanged in the New Yorker.
There are other tales like this. Once she left in the middle of a game of Monopoly to write a story (‘The Intoxicated’, in which a drunk talks down to a teenage girl at her mother’s party but finds himself horribly troubled by what she says to him), came back to read it to the assembled guests, incorporated their suggestions and had the manuscript in an envelope addressed to her agent before the game was finished. On another occasion, when she was struggling, not for the first time, to open the fridge door, one of her children suggested she use magic. She wrote the incident into a story that day, sold it to a magazine and spent the fee on a new fridge. As Friedan complained, the smallest domestic task is a struggle for Jackson, whereas writing is so easy, it’s almost accidental.
It was a pose, of course, but it’s true that writing came more easily to her than keeping house. After her death Stanley complained that people were surprised the author of ‘The Lottery’ could be a wife and mother at all, let alone an ‘apparently happy one’. He called this ‘the most elementary misunderstanding of what a writer is and how a writer works, on the order of expecting Herman Melville to be a white whale’. But it might be more accurate, given the clear connections between Jackson’s life and her work, to call it a misunderstanding of what it was (or is) to be a wife and mother. Jackson once said that all her books ‘laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety’. By setting ‘The Lottery’ in the present and in a real place, she said, she’d hoped to shock readers with ‘the pointless violence and general inhumanity of their own lives’, but sometimes ‘the mind just rebels. The number of people who expected Mrs Hutchinson to win a Bendix washer at the end would amaze you.’ She could be impatient with other people’s sensitivities, partly because she fought so hard to keep her own under control, and to make something productive of them.
In Friedan’s view she only played at domestic life between books, while saying to other women: ‘Isn’t it funny? We’re all in the same trap.’ ‘Do real housewives then dissipate in laughter their dreams and their sense of desperation?’ Friedan asked. ‘Do they think their frustrated abilities and their limited lives are a joke?’ But Jackson’s home life wasn’t as easy as it looked. The family books show a cleaned-up chaos, with no dust, no cat pee, no rotting food lying around: the reality (as Jackson’s friends described it to Judy Oppenheimer) was rather different. There were dogs, birds, fish, and a hamster in a cage on the piano. For years she kept at least six cats, all black at first, later all grey; the dark colours seemed appropriate for someone known as an ‘amateur witch’, but they were actually meant to prevent the short-sighted Stanley from noticing how many cats there were. The children had orange soda by the bed at night, and their hair was always dirty. There wasn’t time to manage things the way other women did, but she also liked to make a virtue of being unconventional – her idea of a special dinner was to dye the steak blue.
Despite her worsening anxieties about other people, Jackson was a legendary hostess, and threw raucous parties. Stanley had weekly all-night poker games with Kenneth Burke, Howard Nemerov (who recorded them in his poetry) and other Bennington friends. This sort of entertaining wasn’t incompatible with lax housekeeping; on one occasion the men ran out of booze and trawled the house for half-empty glasses, pouring the contents into a pitcher. They found enough that way to keep the whole group going for another hour. Stephen King has said that Jackson ‘flogged herself into an early grave with overwork’, and though there were clearly other culprits – food, drink, nerves, pills – she did feel the strain of living several lives at once. She had asthma, arthritis and crippling headaches which required massive doses of prescription codeine. When she asked her doctor to help her lose weight (‘Eight hundred calories of alcohol a night. Now what can I eat?’) he prescribed amphetamines, and soon she needed tranquilisers to balance them out. By the 1960s she was keeping uppers and downers in a heart-shaped dish by the bed.
The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is in one sense an old-fashioned ghost story, but it’s Jackson’s Turn of the Screw, playing on the usual traditions and subverting them for different ends. A small group of strangers is invited as an experiment to spend a summer in a supposedly haunted house. They’re greeted by two creepy old retainers, stock characters who repeat the same lines to each guest: ‘There won’t be anyone around if you need help … We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could.’ Soon the horrible sounds and apparitions begin. The book is principally concerned with one guest, Eleanor Vance, a friendless woman of 32 who has spent much of her adult life caring for her invalid mother. She lives with her married sister, ‘the only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead’, and so jumps at the chance to escape to Hill House. It’s unclear how much of what goes on in the house is a manifestation of what happens in Eleanor’s increasingly disordered mind, but as the other guests begin to reject and exclude her – ‘Do you always go where you’re not wanted?’ – the incidents grow more extreme.
Jackson’s heroines are often isolated and bullied by the coarser people around them, but she was too self-aware to stack the deck in favour of the misfit every time. A passing reference to Eleanor’s mother describes her ‘hysterical insistence’ that all the bad things happening to their family were ‘due to malicious, backbiting people on the block who had had it in for her ever since she came’. It’s a sudden change of angle, perhaps even a wry self-portrait; ‘the feud with the entire neighbourhood was never ended,’ and for once, just for a moment, we’ve seen it from the neighbourhood’s point of view. Jackson’s best work leaves us unsure where the source of malevolence lies. The violence might not always come from outside.
As Jackson started to unravel, the worst blow was that fiction no longer came easily to her. She was aware that writing had for a long time kept her sane: ‘The writing handled it.’ In ‘Pillar of Salt’, a story in the 1949 collection, Margaret and her husband make a trip to New York City, and she begins over a few days to notice that the buildings are showing signs of decay, that the seemingly vital city is crumbling and may fall apart. The speeding cars and bustling people are increasingly menacing. The story’s climax comes when Margaret finds herself unable to cross the street to get to where they are staying. Like many of Jackson’s characters, she has a moment of psychological weakness from which she cannot recover: looking across the traffic, she thinks ‘how do people ever manage to get there, and knew … by admitting a doubt, she was lost.’ When she calls her husband for help, the public phone is not to be trusted: ‘Please come and get me,’ she says ‘into the black mouthpiece that might or might not tell him’. Paralysed, she stares ‘back’ at the traffic light ‘with hatred, a dumb thing, turning back and forth, back and forth’. By the early 1960s, Jackson was suffering similar attacks more frequently and for longer. She filled pages of her diary with hysterical ramblings, but then added a note to herself: ‘Now, this is lunacy – save it for when you need a lunatic.’
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the last novel Jackson finished, and the best. Published in 1962, it took three years, during which time she broke down, unable to leave the house – and eventually the bedroom – for months at a time. (Oates, though sympathetic, seems to feel a visceral disgust at Jackson’s decline: ‘it gives me the shivers,’ she says more than once in a recorded interview for the New York Review of Books, which published her essay on the novel in 2009. ‘She was a grotesque parody of the happy housewife.’) The problem, Jackson’s daughter said, was not so much agoraphobia as an intense ‘fear of people in the town’. This fear makes its way into the novel along with many of Jackson’s other fixations. The story is told by the adolescent Mary Katherine Blackwood, ‘Merricat’, whom Oates in her essay compares with other precocious, tomboyish figures in American literature of the same period – Frankie in The Member of the Wedding or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Oates doesn’t push these comparisons as far as she might. In the interview she draws a sharp contrast between those sentimentalised ‘good girls’ and Merricat, whose character ‘shades into psychopathology’. But the labels make both Merricat and characters like Frankie sound less interesting than they are. And then, what about Rhoda Penmark, the ‘murderous eight-year-old’ in The Bad Seed, whom Oates also mentioned in her essay?
Merricat lives alone with her elder sister, Constance, and their dotty uncle, and by the time the novel starts, ‘everyone else in my family is dead.’ The circumstances recall the Lizzie Borden case: although Constance has been acquitted of the murders of their parents, aunt and little brother owing to insufficient evidence several years before, the local people all believe she is guilty. From the start it seems more likely that Merricat was the killer, and that Constance washed out the poisoned sugar bowl before the police arrived to protect her sister rather than herself. In any case, they have constructed a reclusive life together, which Merricat is especially determined to preserve. She ventures out at set times to get supplies so that Constance never has to leave, and navigates the hostile village by awarding herself points for reaching various landmarks. With food (Oates seems transfixed by all this eating: ‘here is the very Eros of food,’ she says, quoting great chunks of it), with words, with keepsakes pinned to trees or buried in the ground, the sisters cast a kind of spell to keep each other safe. Ritual is everywhere in Jackson’s fiction, whether the secret kind an individual uses to protect herself, or the more public kind employed by groups to reinforce their power (when Merricat passes, children surround and taunt her with a nursery rhyme about the killings).
The mob has more reason to fear the sisters than most communities have for mistrusting outsiders, but Merricat insists the feeling antedates the murders: ‘The people of the village have always hated us.’ Sounding like a parent counselling a child to ignore the bullies, Constance tells her that ‘they’ll only get worse’ if she pays attention. Merricat knows it’s true but even so ‘wished they were dead’: ‘I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries, I thought …’ As so often in Jackson, stock phrases or familiar ideas (‘I wish they’d all drop dead’) are stretched beyond their limits, then snapped back into the everyday as if nothing has happened. And in a way, nothing has – nothing is really there that wasn’t lurking there all along. By the end of the novel, Constance and Merricat have escaped their tormentors and retreated still further into their small, fantastical burrow: it’s a bizarre sort of happy ending, and may be the closest Jackson came to writing one. She died in her sleep on a Sunday afternoon in 1965, aged 48. She had managed, among other things, to produce ‘more books than children’, just as she’d hoped.