Shirley Jackson: Novels & Stories
The Library of America
The Library of America honors the best American writers by printing handsome collections of their work. Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) is a recent edition to their list, complied by a great writer in her own right, Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson’s subjects are almost always macabre, or at least spooky, and present a picture of mid-20th century America that seems nearly Victorian in its provincialism and pace of life.
Novels included in the collection such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House – which was made into a film that Jackson approved of in 1963 – are not really about how people inhabit a house, but how a house inhabits the tenants. In The Lottery – a collection of stories that culminates with a town whose rural population kills one inhabitant each year – Jackson reveals herself to her readers.
In The Summer People a retired couple decides to stay in their lonely, holiday cabin one month more, since they have nothing to go back to in the city. They quickly learn they should have listened when their neighbors gently told them to go home. This story – like many of her other works – suggests a distrust of the world and, perhaps the times in which she lived, an era that teetered on the precipice of civil and women’s rights.
Her main characters are almost always women who are bound by their place in life, by employers, mothers-in-law, children, by the little house they have chosen to lease, or the men whom for whom they have fallen in love. There is a desire in her characters for utter privacy, to be absorbed into one’s self – quite fitting for a writer, as if this will free them from what binds them.
In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, we encounter a young girl with very interesting ideas about how to preserve her sense of family harmony. Reading this story makes you feel nervous for the main characters, while still marveling at their actions.
“I was pretending that I did not speak their language; on the moon we spoke a soft, liquid tongue, and sang in the starlight, looking down on the dead dried world; I was almost halfway past the fence,” says Mary Katharine Blackwood of her neighbors.
In The Haunting of Hill House a shy young woman, who has lived under her mother’s shadow, then under her sister’s roof, is invited to a mysterious mansion for a paranormal experiment. This is not just a mere ghost story, as the character develops from a sheltered creature into someone that takes control of her destiny. The reader might not concur with how the main character takes control of her life but it is a fitting end to the way in which the story – much like the house – is constructed.
Jackson’s voice is very proper, very gentile, and implies that she was taught to speak “like a lady” as women of her generation were taught. The timid strain in her writing discusses what might be her fears while allowing characters to grow, and expand in a magical manner that is seldom seen in other works of fiction.
The spooky, macabre nature of Jackson’s work makes an excellent gift this Halloween for those you know that like suspense or are hosting a party!