Shirley Jackson’s letters don’t contain boring phrases

On the bookshelf

Shirley Jackson’s Letters

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 nightmares than nightmares, depicting the often sunny and disturbing landscapes of schools, malls, and churches. His characters ride on buses doing good or bad deeds, depending on the mood that strikes them (see “An ordinary day, with peanuts”). Or they conspire in social networks against this single mother on the road who welcomes dubious blacks into her house (as in “Flower Garden”). And in its most famous story, “The Lottery”, evil was ritualized in the annual meeting of a small town – full of gossip, good-humored jokes, and pockets full of stones. Even Jackson’s scariest novels, “The Haunting of Hill House” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” largely take place in broad daylight, visited by the kind of demons we should care about most. as ghosts, such as curious neighbors and intimidating school children.

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

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

In propulsive, capital-less sentences, Jackson could make even a random trip to the train station or post office sound like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, going through every dismissed anecdote with a sort of unstoppable manic passion that must have. was both bewitching and exasperating to experience on a daily basis.

As she wrote to her parents in 1950, it was often difficult for Jackson to raise four children, writing short stories for most stylish magazines., preparing novels and trying to cope with the endless problems of living in a series of sprawling, dilapidated Vermont homes. And when she wasn’t overcompensating for the long absences of her husband, critic and English teacher Stanley Edgar Hyman, she was often on the verge of collapse:

“[Y]You will clearly understand from the fact that I am writing that I should be in the kitchen baking a cake for the weekend and that there are several million words of romance coming out next week that I really should be feeding the baby. and write a story and wash the breakfast dishes, if not in town to shop. actually it’s not true at all: baby is still sleeping, i ordered over the phone, i’m not at all sure we should have a cake this weekend after all, and i’m way ahead of Literature. … I spent the whole morning in the sun, watching the kids play in their new paddling pool and wanting to come in on my own.

“Well, looks like we’re gonna 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 partially alleviated by five years on codeine – a cycle that will worsen as Jackson writes increasingly successful novels, suffers from health issues. which accumulate and dies suddenly at 48 years old. “lack of energy.” Every drop she had was used continually.

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 the dark demon pushing her into the ground. She clearly loved her children and they loved her; yet they left her exhausted. She loved to write and read and never felt she had enough time for either. And while her marriage survived many ups and downs, the lows became steeper as Stanley disappeared for longer periods with his undergraduates at Bennington, a girls’ college at the time.

As her children grew older and began to spend less time with her, Jackson began to disappear into his attic office while Hyman disappeared into his basement. While they were avid revelers and revelers, with a large circle of friends that included Ralph and Fanny Ellison (Shirley and Stanley were the early promoters of “The Invisible Man”), Jackson became more unhealthy, sadder and more alive. overweight, and the young woman who wrote a lot of sweet, generous letters to her future husband gave way to the wife who sent him deeply bitter and ruthless notes:

“[Y]You once wrote me a letter (I know you hate that I remember these things) telling me that I would never be alone again. I think that was the first, most horrible lie you ever told me.

They’re remarkably narrative letters, as if Jackson couldn’t bear to waste time on words unless they were tasked with telling stories. Although she is best known posthumously for her stories and novels exploring the eerie possibilities that lie beneath the everyday, she was most successful in her time as a chronicler of turbulent family life in two memoirs. hit, “Raising Demons” (1957) and “Life Among the Savages: A Difficult Chronicle” (1953). As the titles made clear, his humor was just as dark, his metaphors as savage, in the portrayal of the real than in the creation of fiction.

Laurence suggests in the introduction that Jackson’s preference for dramatizing home life may be one of the reasons she didn’t enjoy the posthumous fame she deserved; she has often been mistakenly categorized as a sort of banal suburban humorist at the level of Jean Kerr or Erma Bombeck. But maybe another reason is that the literary world of release nights, book deals, reviews, and movie adaptations didn’t interest him as much as his 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.

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, as do her novels and non-fiction.

(Erich Hartmann / Magnum Photos / Courtesy of Michael D. Shulman)

Take a letter recounting a Thanksgiving when Laurie approached her with a dime he had found. “[I] said why not give it to the beautiful old birch in the front, so Laurie said alright and went out and came back and casually announced that he had given it to the tree and asked for a dime from wind. As Jackson recounts, in the days that followed, their town won over 10 cents; he was hit by a surprise hurricane.

As the letters drive home – and regardless of what critics have written – for Jackson, there has never been much of a tension between fiction and non-fiction. All that mattered to her was a good story, well told.

Too often, the publication of an author’s chosen letters turns out to be a fairly dry and humorless event. They help establish (or reinforce) the idea that this writer was important (Jackson certainly was). Or they remind us of how hard they struggled to make enough money to live on (Jackson certainly did) or how little appreciated they were in their lifetime. Often times they help explain why they wrote the particular types of books they wrote (she is refreshingly calm on this subject.) But for those who already love Jackson’s fiction, the papers feel like a big unexpected gift – just like every individual letter must have felt to every original recipient. The woman just couldn’t write a boring sentence. And although each day had worn her out, she didn’t seem to be living a single one without interest.

Then again, maybe it’s all in the story.

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

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