Why You Should Read Shirley Jackson

Slate's Culture Blog
March 1 2013 5:49 PM

Why You Should Read Shirley Jackson

shirleyjackson

In one of the lectures reprinted in her posthumous 1968 collection Come Along With Me, rereleased this week by Penguin Classics, Shirley Jackson says she’s been told that if “The Lottery,” her infamous short story about an atavistic ritual set in a contemporary village, “had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.” But the release of Come Along With Me, which includes 14 of Jackson’s best unpublished stories, three humorous lectures, and a sadly incomplete novel, is a good reminder that there are many other reasons not to forget her name. In her lifetime, Jackson published six novels, two memoirs, a children’s book, a book of advice for young mothers which she disowned, and a short story collection. She also wrote countless stories, essays, and book reviews that, uncollected, hide out in libraries, on the yellowed pages of Mademoiselle, The New York Times, Playboy, and The New Yorker. That’s to say nothing of the boxes of drafts and abandoned writings left behind when she died during an afternoon nap in August 1965.

What stands out about Jackson’s other stories is how different they are from “The Lottery,” not in terms of theme but rather—pardon the pun—execution. “The Lottery” and its shock ending are rare among her body of work. Jackson was usually more comfortable with the almost-said. In “The Daemon Lover,” for instance, a woman spends her wedding day, and the weeks after it, searching desperately for her fiancé. She can’t sleep, and keeps “stirring awake to open her eyes and look into the half-darkness, remembering over and over, slipping again into a feverish dream.” The fear that hangs over the story never becomes more explicit than that objectless “remembering” and quiet “again,” though we can guess what it is.

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Likewise, in “The Beautiful Stranger,” Margaret, a housewife unhappy in her marriage, retrieves her husband at the train station, despising “the sight of his hands on the wheel” as they drive home. It’s never clear what’s gone wrong between them; we know only that Margaret considered his business trip “a good time to get things straight” and to “try to get a hold of myself again.” Suddenly, though, when they get home, Margaret realizes that the man she’s picked up is not the same one she dropped off. Her husband has been replaced by a double. The two of them never raise the subject, though Margaret believes they are both in collusion about the switch, and the narrative, streamed through her narrow perspective, denies us an answer about the “stranger’s” true identity. Is Margaret suffering from Capgras delusion? Or has she simply chosen, for her own happiness, to believe her husband is someone else? Is he truly another man? Are suburban husbands really that indistinguishable?

Of Jackson’s novels, only The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the unfinished Come Along With Me are currently in print. In June, that will change, when Penguin Classics releases her first two novels, The Road through the Wall and Hangsaman. The latter traces 17-year-old Natalie Waite’s freshman year of college, which she spends isolated from her peers and in the company of a mysterious friend who draws her slowly away from reality. It is a disorienting and compelling portrait of depression, though at times it’s weighed down by an overworked prose style that Jackson shook off in her later novels. Hopefully, Penguin will also release her other two novels, The Bird’s Nest and The Sundial.

Jackson isn’t all eerie uncertainties and lonely housewives. Those who know her work only from “The Lottery” or Hill House may be surprised to discover that she could also be very funny. Desi Arnaz allegedly once asked her to write a screenplay for Lucille Ball, which seems to me just right: Jackson’s two lighthearted memoirs, are filled with droll observations and amusing mishaps. For a quick laugh, read “The Night We All Had Grippe,” “Charles,” and “Pajama Party.” It’ll make up for that time you read “The Lottery.”

William Brennan is an associate editor at The Atlantic. His work has also appeared online at The New Yorker. You can follow him on Twitter.