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Book Review: Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories from The Library of America

The Library of America collection, Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, is an initial disappointment. Editor Joyce Carol Oates, normally so prolific, is surprisingly silent here. There is little to suggest in this volume as to Oates’ own distinct persona: no introduction, no endnote, no homage. This is remarkable because, in rereading Ms. Jackson’s works, the Princeton professor seems to owe a great deal to the woman whose short story “The Lottery” still scares high school sophomores all over the country.

Both women have an unique upstate New York voice. Oates was born and grew up in Lockport, N.Y. Jackson, born in San Francisco, graduated from a Rochester, N.Y. school. Both share an alma mater: Syracuse University. The outsider aspect of being from New York but not a part of the New York that the rest of the world sees, New York City, formed both writers’ mischievous identity. Oates has written extensively on Jackson previously; here is her review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, one of the two novels contained in the LOA book, and my favorite of Jackson’s works.

The disappointment at a lack of Oates here is brief. Ultimately, we are reminded that Shirley Jackson, who passed away in 1965 at a too young 49, is a signficant writer. The Library of America, a nonprofit publishing company whose mission statement is to “preserve America’s best and most significant writing” seems to have a match made in gothic heaven with Oates and Jackson, and Jackson is long overdue for some serious respect in the literary canon.

Hers is the latest installation in the Library’s roster which includes the likes of John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. Would the Vermont writer, imprisoned in the close environs of Bennington College (neither she nor her husband drove) be delighted at the inclusion? I hope so. Or perhaps she would have just shrugged her shoulders, lit a cigarette and started a new story, hopefully one that would pay well.

The edition begins with Jackson’s only published short story collection entitled “The Lottery” which, besides the infamous title story, contains among others: “The Daemon Lover,” a story that Oates describes as “deeper, more mysterious and more disturbing” than the title story, but this we only know from the book jacket, nothing otherwise indicated by Editor Oates. As I said before, I would like to have heard more from the author whose own triplet series, Bellefleur, The Mysteries of Winterthurn, and A Bloodsmoor Romance featured many a demon lover.

As a whole, the short stories, especially for a reader scarred by early reading of “The Lottery,” are a tough read for one sitting. Each story builds to an unbearable tension with the reader scanning the scene for stones.

With one eye shut, the reader comes to the end of each story anxious for the finish. Sometimes the resolution comes. Sometimes the lack of the resolution is its own reward. More often than not, Jackson’s stories don’t end in a murder, but death of some sort is omnipresent — the death of comfort, the death of illusion, the death of spirit. The series of stories are united by a theme of conflict avoidance – the main characters doing everything in their power to not get messy with the complications of life, and yet the mess finds them anyway.

This same theme of a heroine escaping confrontation but then experiencing it tenfold are found in Jackson’s two novels: We Have Always Lived In The Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, the latter, with the self-explanatory title, having been made into two horror movies — one good with Julie Harris seen here with Claire Bloom on the left:

And one very, very bad despite an impressive (and somewhat puzzling) actor roster including Liam Neeson and Owen Wilson. No matter how awful that 1999 movie was in comparison to the William Castle original, Lili Taylor (left) was a tender and affecting follow-up to Ms. Harris. Here she is with Mrs. Michael Douglas:

That castle in We Have Always Lived In The Castle is always good for a revisit. Again, the protagonist is a young woman; here Oates argues, Jackson’s character is even more “compelling” character than Holden Caulfield of that other de rigueur high school experience, The Catcher in the Rye. The antagonist may or not may not be the house. These are fascinating domestic drama themes twisted in dark ways. Why this excellent short novel was never made into a movie, good or otherwise, is beyond me. Ms. Taylor, are you busy?

Of particular interest to the Jackson devotee is the “Other Stories and Sketches” section of the collection. These were stories that Jackson published, some posthumously, in a variety of women’s magazines. Here Jackson breaks out of the stereotype of the horror writer for which she is known and shows a humor and realism that she should be known for.

Of particular interest to the writer who reads Jackson, many of these stories deal with the difficulty of having such a career, even in the seemingly welcoming world of an artsy college town. Much of Jackson’s autobiographical work is left out of this LOA edition. Her memoirs Life Among The Savages and Raising Demons are funny and especially poignant for the aspiring writer/reader, but not included here except in excerpt: “The Biography of a Short Story” describes the reaction to “The Lottery” by her agent (didn’t like it), her editor at the   (didn’t like it and didn’t understand it), and the public (didn’t like it, in fact hated it, but would like to know where the ritual is held so they could attend.)

Her delightful “The Third Baby’s the Easiest” best sums up Jackson’s struggle toward a writer’s existence. She recounts her arrival at the hospital maternity ward for said baby:

    “Name? the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.
    “Name,” I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her.
    “Age?” she asked. “Sex? Occupation?”
    “Writer,” I said.
    “Housewife,” she said.
    “Writer,” I said.
    “I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.

This kind of resistance to Shirley Jackson goes on still.

Recently, Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones supposed that the LOA was running out of consequential American writers to highlight. “Shirley Jackson?” he wrote. “A writer mostly famous for one short story, ‘The Lottery.’ Is LOA about to jump the shark?”

Forget one moment that Mr. Jones used the phrase “jump the shark” and that any discussion that includes that unhappy Happy Days moment grinds to a halt, the argument that seeks to judge a writer by his or her most “famous” work at the present would preclude many of the writers in the LOA canon, not just Jackson. What is Washington Irving “mostly famous” for now? Living as I do, in the Hudson Valley, the only Irving presence I spot is the annual Headless Horseman re-enactment in nearby Sleepy Hollow, but that hardly demeans Irving from his stature as the first American writer to actually make a living from his art.

In these Young Adult Fiction days of The Hunger Games, it is hard to overestimate the commercial importance of that short story or the artistic importance of its author that Mr. Jones is so disdainful of. In explaining the inspiration for “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson may have joked that she was a “practicing witch” to the dismay of a 1950s reading public, but she was also a practicing writer, sometimes reaching perfection, and what other qualification does a writer need to be in the canon?

About Kate Shea Kennon

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One comment

  1. Joyce Carol Oates

    Library of America does not include any prefaces, introductions, or afterwords by editors. This is their policy.