Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Shirley Jackson

"I never was a person who wanted a handout. I was a cafeteria worker. I'm not too proud to ask the Best Western manager to give me a job. I have cleaned homes."

Shirley Jackson was born on December 16th in 1916 in San Francisco, California, to parents, Leslie and Geraldine Jackson. She would grow up in nearby Burlingame where, as a teenager, she would write poetry and short stories. At 17, her family would move east and Shirley would attend the University of Rochester. After a year, she would take a leave of absence to stay home to practice her writing until she was producing at least a thousand words a day.

So long as you write it away regularly nothing can really hurt you.

In 1937, she would start her time at Syracuse University and would go on to become the fiction editor of the campus humour magazine. She would also publish her first short story, Janice, there. Winning a poetry contest at the University would also introduce her to her future husband, the then aspiring literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. The two would go on to found their own literary magazine, Spectre, before graduating together in 1940. The couple would move to Greenwich Village, New York, where Shirley would work odd jobs to make money while writing everyday.

"I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there."

She would go on to write some of the most spectacularly creepy and controversial horror stories ever written, including The Lottery and The Haunting of House Hill, and even more spectacularly is how few people know that this is the lady author behind these works. Her work would go on to inspire horror heavy weights like Stephen King and VC Andrews. But what else would you expect from the woman whose short story got the biggest response to this day by readers of its publication in The New Yorker. Oh, yes, and most of it was hate mail.

"If I thought this was a valid cross section of the reading public, I would give up writing." (in response to the hate mail that met the publication of her famous story "The Lottery" in The New Yorker, 1948)

A woman who never backed down from a challenge or slowed down in life, by the time she had the first of her four children, her work was being published in The New Republic and The New Yorker, and, in 1944, her story, Come Dance With Me In Ireland, would be chosen for Best American Short Stories. A new teaching position for her husband, in 1945, would cause the family to move to an old house in North Bennington, Vermont, where Shirley would run the house, raise the children, and write scary as fuck stories while as she wrote every fucking day. In 1948, she would publish her first novel, The Road Through The Wall. Yet, her most notorious accomplishment was just around the corner when in the same year, her short story, The Lottery, would be published.

"I was born in San Francisco in 1919 and spent most of my early life in California. I was married in 1940 to Stanley Edgar Hyman, critic and numismatist, and we live in Vermont, in a quiet rural community with fine scenery and comfortably far away from city life. Our major exports are books and children, both of which we produce in abundance. The children are Laurence, Joanne, Sarah and Carry: my books include three novels, The Road Through The Wall, Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest, and a collection of short stories, The Lottery. Life Among the Savages is a disrespectful memoir of my children."

The Lottery was printed on June 26th, 1948. The story contrasts contemporary small town American life with an annual ritual known as 'the lottery.' The ritual is believed to ensure a good harvest, and although it has been abandoned in some of its surrounding towns, this story takes place in one that still does. The town's children gather stones as the adults prepare for the ceremony. Each family draws slips of paper, Bill Hutchinson draws one with the damning mark. The next day, the tradition continues, and it is Bill's wife, Tessie that is the drawer of the marked paper. The villagers grab stones and surround her. Tessie bemoans the unfairness of the situation as she is brutally stoned to death.

Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?

A story that you are probably familiar with, but the one you might be unaware of is just how pissed readers of The New Yorker and the members of the reading world became by this story. Subscriptions to the magazine were cancelled, the following summer was filled with many letters of hate directed at The Lottery. The story was banned in the Union of South Africa. The story most likely hit a nerve as many city counsels across America sponsored weekly cash-lotteries throughout rural communities which also encouraged commerce for the businesses that held them. Despite the initial response, it was gone on to be named a classic American short story and is "one of the most famous short stories in the history of American literature".

Shirley would go on to write dozens and dozens of short stories, novels, poems, and children's books. Her works would most famously also include Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest, The Sundial, and The Haunting on House Hill - a phenomenally haunting tale that would be made into many film versions and a novel that Stephen King would call "one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century" and the Wall Street Journal would call "the greatest haunted-house story ever written."

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

In 1965, at the age of 48, tragically too soon, Shirley would die of heart failure in her sleep at home in North Bennington. Throughout her life, she suffered from various neuroses and psychosomatic illnesses - the medicines used to treat these sickness taking their toll on her health. After her death, Shirley's husband would release a posthumous volume of her work, Come Along With Me, containing several chapters of her unfinished last novel, speeches from her writing seminars, and several rare stories.

In her short life, Shirley proved that unpopular speech in art may get you a shit load of hate mail and crowds of angry readers, but it is also a brave, fearless move that can make you the author behind one of the most famous short stories in American culture. She didn't let anyone sway her writing and the work speaks volumes - scary, uneasy, terrifying volumes - even today.


1 comment:

  1. Good article, but your first photo is not a photo of Shirley Jackson.