It doesn’t tie any shoes

Madeleine Schwartz

  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
    Liveright, 585 pp, £25.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 87140 313 1
  • Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
    Penguin, 208 pp, £9.99, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 29542 7

‘I don’t think I like reality very much,’ Shirley Jackson used to say in her lectures on writing. It was an idea she returned to often. ‘Just being a writer of fiction gives you an absolutely unassailable protection against reality; nothing is ever seen clearly or starkly, but always through a thin veil of words.’ By the time she gave such talks in the 1950s and early 1960s, she had reached national fame as the author of ‘The Lottery’, a 1948 New Yorker short story about an imagined ritual stoning in a New England village that led hundreds to cancel their subscriptions in outrage. Her novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, with their flat and measured descriptions of troubled minds, led to her reputation as a ‘spine-chiller’. She had established herself, in the words of one reviewer, as ‘a kind of Virginia Werewoolf among the séance-fiction writers’.

Shirley Jackson and her children in 1956.
Shirley Jackson and her children in 1956.

She often claimed to have magical powers herself. She played up her interest in the occult for the press, talking about Tarot and voodoo. She joked that she had cursed Alfred Knopf, who had had a skiing accident, because of a publishing dispute. In the small town in Vermont where she lived with her husband and their four children, she sometimes wore a necklace made of bird bones. During a party at her house, she once took a human skull off a shelf and began ‘to speak to it as if it were a child’, one particularly unsettled guest recalled. The jacket copy for her first book described her as ‘the only contemporary writer who is a practising amateur witch’, a characterisation she both encouraged and despised.

But Jackson’s novels feature no monsters, no demons, no unambiguous manifestations of the supernatural. What makes her work unsettling is the way it seems to open a door between truth and fantasy, suggesting that the boundaries between reality and illusion may not be as fixed as one would want. In Hangsaman, a novel about a college student who goes missing, it isn’t clear until late in the book that Natalie Waite’s best friend ‘Tony’ is imaginary. The two complain about dorm life and talk about their joy in stealing from the other girls. Natalie is thrilled to have finally found a friend. But when Natalie falls asleep in Tony’s room, she wakes up in her own; later Tony leads Natalie into the woods and then disappears. In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor Vance travels with a group of researchers to investigate the paranormal activity reported at a mysterious manor, but she’s the only one of the party driven mad by the house. While the other characters sleep soundly, she hears a child sobbing ‘Please let me go home.’ Jackson’s description in ‘The Lottery’ of the ‘clear and sunny’ morning of 27 June, ‘with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day’, seemed so real that some readers wrote to the magazine to ask where the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson had taken place. These queries tired Jackson. ‘The number of people who expected Mrs Hutchinson to win a Bendix washer at the end,’ she wrote to a friend, ‘would amaze you.’

Characters in Jackson’s stories often find themselves slipping between reason and madness, trying to understand where exactly they fit in. In ‘What a Thought’, one of the stories newly collected in Dark Tales, a woman called Margaret sits with her husband after dinner. She looks at him with pride, grateful for the care he takes in making her happy. Yet ‘an odd thought crossed her mind: she would pick up the heavy glass ashtray and smash her husband over the head with it.’ Margaret is ashamed at the thought. Maybe it is a ‘perverted affectionate gesture’. But it will not leave her mind. ‘The cord that held the curtains back made her think: strangle him … Drown him, the goldfish bowl suggested.’ She kisses her husband and tells him she has never loved him more. Then she strikes him. ‘Doctor … how do people tell if they’re going crazy?’ a woman in another Jackson story asks. ‘Everyone else seems to understand,’ she says. ‘I don’t.’

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