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SHIRLEY JACKSON:
"Delight in What I Fear"

by Paula Guran
April 1997 (Originally published by OMNI Online, 1997)

"...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...I delight in what I fear." -- from an unsent letter to poet Howard Nemerov by Shirley Jackson

Sometimes the heart of darkness can be found inside a minivan.

We're all expected to be multiple personalities these days. Nurturing mom, supportive wife, hard driving on the job and carpool driving off. Or maybe we can create a great souffle while whipping up a new novel. If we've opted for a family we have to somehow be several people at once.

My mother-in-law once told me that after she graduated from an Ivy League college and immediately married it never occurred to her, despite her education, to pursue a career. She and her sorority sisters in the fifties were all having babies and the occasional bridge party. "That," she said, "was what we were supposed to do!" Of course nobody told them what to do once the kids went to college. Some of that generation recreated themselves in new careers or fulfilling pursuits. Some re-invented feminism. Others drank a lot.

Shirley Jackson was an anomaly in her generation. In the fifties, the same fifties inhabited by my mother-in-law, Jackson was a professional writer and drove carpools. Now, 30 years after Jackson's death, two of the kids she drove to lessons have grown up, reached middle age, and reminded us of their mother's writing talents by producing a new book of her uncollected stories, Just an Ordinary Day.

The collection includes the variety of stories Jackson wrote -- light domestic pieces and lighter romances along with her dark fiction. But Jackson has always been noted for her truly terrifying tales. These masterful stories are often populated with women and children or set in supposedly safe small towns and politely ordered society. As an author, she instilled fear by taking the rational and inserting the irrational, by having the unfamiliar intrude into the familiar. The duality of her life provided not only the basis of her fiction, but a grounding of stability that allowed her to wander deeply into the realms of darkness, evil, and terror -- sure to be pulled back to safety by the constant needs of her small children. Her life was as much baking cupcakes as making up stories. Each balanced and enhanced the other.

Writers often feed their creativity through several coexisting personalities. Horror writers, when you meet them, are a pretty nice bunch. They can breathe the stench of evil, reach out and touch wickedness, because there is good and innocence in their lives to counter it. In fact, I suspect there's more freedom to explore the depths of depravity if you know the siren call of the soccer field will demand you drive the goalkeeper to it and then wash his uniform later. Without a lifeline forged of balance, responsibility, and the need to find shin pads to bring you back from the abyss, you might never venture close enough to the edge to know its monstrous depths.

Shirley Jackson had the lifeline and knew the abyss. Her best known work, "The Lottery," still disturbs us deeply even though it has been required reading in American schools for at least two generations. In the story the people of a small New England town gather for an annual ritual, a lottery. This festive event is smoothly run according to tradition by the town fathers. As with any traditional event, there is some grousing that "It's not the way it used to be," but it seems that it pretty much is. A winning family is announced and then its members go through yet another lottery. The family's mother is democratically selected and, as she feebly protests, is methodically murdered as the community and her own family stone her to death.

It remains the most controversial piece of fiction The New Yorker ever published. The magazine received hundreds of letters when the story was published in 1948; letters of, as Shirley Jackson later phrased it in a lecture, "bewilderment, speculation and plain old-fashioned abuse."

Readers reacted as if a bomb had exploded in their living rooms. Over the years, "The Lottery" has been interpreted as a modern myth, an attack on institutionalized prejudice, an indictment of the Holocaust, a Marxist-feminist analogy. But more than anything it is just a story written by a gifted and contradictory woman who understood how caring people could also throw stones. A mom who cooked, washed, kept the hectic schedule of Little League and music lessons. A mom who wrote in age when moms didn't work "regular jobs," let alone do something as odd as write. A woman who lived in a small town in Vermont, but was always an outsider. Rumored to be a witch as well as a writer, she was married to a Jew, friend and hostess to New York types and even "Negroes." A woman who fit no more easily into the liberal, academic, supposedly less prejudiced college world (where she was expected to assume the role of faculty wife) than she did with the working class God-fearing townspeople.

Shirley Jackson's stories and books arose out of the complex, sad, and joyous magic of her life. The odd, plain daughter of an upwardly mobile suburban mother to whom appearance and social acceptance was all important, Jackson struggled to both fulfill and deny her restrictive upbringing. According to biographer Judy Oppenheimer in her 1988 book, Private Demons, Jackson saw below the social surface to a grimmer reality even as a child.

Her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, an almost stereotypical fifties Jewish intellectual, encouraged her rebellion against propriety and supported her writing. He also encouraged her to become an eccentric iconoclast who smoked too much, ate too much, and quaffed prescription drugs -- uppers and downers -- on a daily basis.

Stanley had nothing to do with the day-to-day maintenance of their four children, remaining even more distant than the average fifties father, who wasn't supposed to change diapers. He provided, however, a detached, logical rationality that balanced Jackson's deeply involved but emotionally erratic parenting. Bountifully affectionate, understanding, imaginative, a "good" but quirky mother, she did not fit the fifties mommy motif. The children may have been strictly disciplined, dinner on the table on time, but Jackson's house was not exactly clean or orderly, and she regularly sent her daughters off to school with unwashed hair matted in tangles.

As much as she disliked the narrow-mindedness and prejudices of small town life, she appreciated New England 's timelessness, basic character, and respect for privacy. But Jackson never tried to fit in. A large, messy woman given to wearing red and purple, she used no makeup and pulled her stringy hair back with rubber bands. She stood out among the townspeople just as she did in gatherings of slender, well-groomed faculty wives.

As with all gifted writers, Jackson's duality is reflected in her fiction. She wrote primarily for the popular magazines of the fifties like Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, McCall's, Harpers, The New Yorker and Charm, often offering droll stories based on her own family or slick little formulaic romances. These stories are competent, professional, and suited for the periodicals they appeared in; they are also utterly forgettable. It is when she wrote with the dark pessimism of the quiet evil that pervades ordinary life that Shirley Jackson's writing became memorably magical. In the fictional world that she weaves best, true darkness stems from the split psychology and culture of the most seemingly ordinary folk.

Although not as well known as her memorable The Haunting of Hill House, another novel,We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is, perhaps, her most brilliant work. In Castle she writes of two women: Merricat (bold, mischievous, perhaps demonic) and Constance (sensitive and afraid, who never wants to leave home). They are, in many respects, two halves of a single person, and, in aggregate, the summation of Jackson herself.

Indeed, Jackson wrote Castle during a period of psychosis. Like the sisters in the book, the author felt persecuted by the citizens of the small town of North Bennington in which she lived. The fears that plagued her, however, were a source of her creativity. In an unsent letter to poet Howard Nemerov, She wrote, "...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 these...I delight in what I fear. The 'Castle' is not about two women...it is about my being afraid and afraid to say so, so much afraid that a name in a book can turn me inside out."

But by the time the book was finished, Jackson had lost her delight in her fears and succumbed to them, retreating from the world. Beset by physical as well as emotional problems, she refused to leave her house for nearly three months. Even though helped by psychotherapy, she continued taking both tranquilizers and dexedrine. The drugs may have exacerbated her condition.

But Jackson found the strength to fight her fears, struggling and surviving to begin the novel,Come Along With Me. It reflected the newer, lighter world that Jackson, with the help of psychotherapy, had created. The main character, Angela Motorman, was her age (44) and her size (heavy). Mrs. Motorman "dabbled in the supernatural" with her psychic ability, an ability Jackson always claimed and others often acknowledged. It moves along with energy, wit and a triumphal air. But Come Along was left unfinished. As her mental health improved, her physical health deteriorated. She died of cardiac arrest during her afternoon nap at age 48.

Four months after her death, The Saturday Evening Post published her "last" story, "The Possibility of Evil". Although it won an Edgar award (her second) from the Mystery Writers of America, it was not prime Jackson. Still, it is a final revelation of sorts.

In the story a Miss Strangeworth -- Jackson had never used such an unsubtle character name before -- lives on Pleasant Street in one of the author's typical small towns. Ladylike, elderly, and respected, Miss Strangeworth secretly writes anonymous letters and wreaks havoc in her neighbor's lives.

Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion...Miss Chandler, the librarian and Linda Stewart's parents would have gone unsuspectingly ahead with their lives, never aware of the possibility of evil lurking nearby, if Miss Strangeworth had not sent letters to open their eyes. Miss Strangeworth would have been genuinely shocked if there had been anything between Linda Stewart and the Harris boy, but, as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth's duty to keep her town alert to it. It was far more sensible of Miss Chandler to wonder what Mr. Shelley's first wife died of than to take a chance on not knowing. There were so many wicked people in the world and only one Strangeworth left in town.

Shirley Jackson did not bring dismay or ruin lives with poison-pen letters, but her stories do send a "message of evil" to the world. Like her character, Jackson saw herself as someone securely ensconced above the small-town world, sending her stories as "letters" to the world; disturbing us by making us face "the possibility of evil."

Now, after Jackson's voice, to a large extent, had been reduced in the last 30 years to the single voice of "The Lottery," we are presented with the story "The Possibility of Evil" as the endpiece in a posthumous volume, Just An Ordinary Day. It was assembled by two of her children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart, from a "carton of cobwebbed files discovered in a Vermont barn," copies of old magazines, and 26 cartons of Jackson's papers in the Library of Congress. The collection includes some worthwhile eerie tales and a variety of her more mundane work. The inclusion of the latter provides a glimpse of the "other" Jackson, the one acclimated to the needs of her time and culture. Here I found the working mom who wrote with competence to suit a market and make money to pay the credit card bills.

But I did not find genius.

In many ways I wish the kids had left the dust on that attic box undisturbed. If only Laurence and Sarah and their siblings, Joanne and Barry, all now over age 45, had taken the time to tell me more about this double creature, this woman of brilliance and fierce maternity, their mother. What was it like to have her in their lives, and what became of them once she was gone? As for giving me this volume of unremarkable, common and, for the most part, trivial fiction -- I can find that anywhere. From Shirley Jackson I require the magical, the horrific. I need her as a touchstone to push me past the PTA, to unleash my seat-belted psyche and offset the banal, workaday world. Thank goodness I had already found exactly what I needed in Shirley Jackson's previously published and glorious "terrible messages to the world." -- Paula Guran, April 1997

Several biographical paragraphs from the above essay were recycled into a later article -- Shirley Jackson & The Haunting of Hill House. It has an entirely different focus, so the self-plagiarism is (most likely) justifiable. -- PRLG]


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