I should go ahead and warn you up front: this is not a book review. This is the raving of an avid fan.
How it took me so long to really discover Shirley Jackson I don’t know. I did read her infamous short story “The Lottery” in high school, and although I liked it (of course I did), it never occurred to me to look up the author and read her other work. To be entirely honest, I’m glad I didn’t. For one thing, discovering a true master is such a thrill I would’ve begrudged my younger self. But more importantly, I’m not sure I would have appreciated Jackson’s stories. These are subtle, sophisticated works.
I also read The Haunting of Hill House as an adult, although I don’t think I directly connected it as the same author of “The Lottery.” I did love that short novel enough to put it in my “favorites” list of about 35 books, but not quite enough to rave about her here. But this collection of short stories was spectacular.
I’m going to have to calm myself down enough to fill you all in, aren’t I? Oh, fine. Shirley Jackson was writing most of her work around the first half to middle of the twentieth century, which makes her active shortly after H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James (Can I just take a moment to applaud her for not initializing her name to appear male?) and roughly contemporary with Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson.
Jackson’s short stories are quite the mixed bag of tricks. If you’ve only read “The Lottery” you might assume that she writes all horror, but you’d be wrong. She does indeed capture horror incredibly well in a few of her stories, but by and large it’s not her main wheelhouse. So what does Jackson write? A little bit of almost everything, really.
A Jackson protagonist is usually youngish, female, and isolated in some way. Her stories take place in city apartments and country houses. Her protagonists live in a world of unstable reality, of subtle yet looming madness, of identities centered, found, and lost in the home. Her characters are sometimes dynamic but usually static – but they are always complex, vivid, and wonderfully flawed.
Some of you may remember my list of 5 Underrated Artistic Qualities. Well, Shirley Jackson nails them all — which perhaps explains why I now consider her one of the most underrated authors of all time. Her writing is compelling and tragic and horrifying and important, but at times her wit is so sharp and humor so biting that I snorted aloud even though I was home by myself. She doesn’t care if you “like” her protagonists. She only writes when she has something to say, and her characters inevitably find a way to say it – even though it will be a question whispered in your ear more often than a tidy moral spelled out at the end. Of all her finer qualities, one of her keenest is her subtlety. Jackson doesn’t patronize readers. She doesn’t scream and jump around and beg for attention. She makes art and lets you read it.
Also well worth noting: remember how I complained about sexism and racism in my last two “Not Quite Book Reviews”? Well, Shirley Jackson doesn’t have those problems. Don’t get me wrong; she deals with the topics. But when she deals with them it is intentional. Jackson doesn’t seem racist; some her characters are, and the tragedy of that is shown. Jackson isn’t sexist; her characters are women and they deal with sexism in ways that enlighten the problem for the reader. After coming off of two classic authors who scarcely even had female characters, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read Jackson’s stories populated with women. What a crazy notion! The thought that if she were writing today she would likely be shelved under “women’s fiction” and largely overlooked… it makes me sad.
All of that, and I still haven’t come to my very favorite thing about Shirley Jackson. The woman is fearless. I often hear “edgy” authors called “bold,” “brave,” or “ risky,” but I think those adjectives are too often misapplied. Using shock value takes some guts, yes, but those authors tend to keep using shock value. What’s so brave about continuing to use something that works?
Shirley Jackson has her share of shock value, but she doesn’t rely on it. She doesn’t force every story into a twist or open each one with a hook or add in gratuitous scandal. She moves from tragedy to comedy to horror to surrealism to satire with no hesitation, no qualms. In Jackson’s world, the mundanity of a dissatisfied character’s life is every bit as important as the severed limb that washes ashore – and that is as it should be. Her moments of comedy are all the more outrageous amidst her pessimism. Her moments of horror are all the more shocking in their placement among the real and the ordinary.
Shirley Jackson makes the artistic decisions I wish I were brave enough to make, and she executes them with skill, grace, and quality. She is simply brilliant.
As far as stand-outs: The version I read was by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and included twenty-five stories. “The Lottery” is the most famous, and is well worth a read both for its position as a cultural cornerstone and because it’s really that good (although the first time you read it is by far the best; don’t let anyone spoil it for you). But by far the most chilling story (to me) was “The Tooth.” I can’t get it out of my freaking head. Three stories that struck me as so realistic and shocking that I was outraged are “Like Mother Used to Make,” “Men with Their Big Shoes,” and “The Witch.” “My Life with R. H. Macy” is hilarious. “The Renegade” and “The Dummy” are both surprisingly unsettling. And “Flower Garden” is heartbreaking.
Read her. Love her. Report back – unless you’re not a fan, and then you’re dead to me. (Kidding, kidding. I promise not to hate you if we have different taste. I might judge you, though.)
Have you read Shirley Jackson? If not, will you? (Please?)Share this: