The Odd Appeal of Shirley Jackson

Review: Ruth Franklin, 'Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life'

Shirley Jackson / AP
• October 22, 2016 5:00 am


Shirley Jackson was a middling writer of the 1950s—and the fact that she was so damn good at what she did must tell us something about writers and their times. Perhaps what it says is that Jackson has been unfairly ignored by the literary establishment, dismissed as a mere horror writer before her death in 1965 at age 48, and nearly forgotten for years after. Or perhaps what it says is that, although she was good, the era of American literature in which she lived was so rich, so thick with talented writers, that being good just wasn't good enough.

The question won’t be settled by the new biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Written by Ruth Franklin, a former editor at the New Republic, the book comes resolutely down on the side of Jackson as an unfairly ignored writer. Following the lead of such feminist critics as Elaine Showalter (who kindly returned the favor by reviewing the biography in the Washington Post), Franklin reads Jackson as a supremely talented writer who suffered from, and yet brilliantly documented, the terrible situation of women in her time. The haunting and haunted women in Jackson’s fiction, she writes, were "channeling female power at a time when women in America often had little control over their lives."

To which the proper reply is maybe. A truly excellent portion of Franklin’s biography is devoted to tying the themes of Jackson’s fiction to the extremes of Jackson’s peculiar life: the agoraphobia, the weight problems, the battles with her mother, the chain smoking and chain drinking that brought about her early death from a heart attack.

So, for example, without a pudgy young girl's fantasies of paying any price to escape the relentless criticism of her overbearing mother, the grown-up Jackson wouldn’t have given us The Haunting of Hill House (1959) with its strange heroine, Eleanor Vance, who may—or may not—be causing the supernatural events chronicled in the novel. In the end, the story is about a young woman willing to endure madness, or supernatural possession, or even death, if it means a home without the mother from whom she has fled. Or, for another example, without Jackson’s fear of leaving home and sense of anger just beneath the surface, we wouldn’t have the murderous young Merricat Blackwood in Jackson’s 1962 novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Jackson’s most famous short story—an over-anthologized, overwrought, and over-stylized 1948 tale called "The Lottery"—fits a little less clearly into Franklin’s equation of biography and fiction. And once we start naming Shirley Jackson’s works, we begin to sense that we’re wrong, these days, to think that she was neglected as a writer during her lifetime. "The Lottery" received more mail than any story published in the New Yorker at the time or since—and it’s not unique among her works. Her short stories were routinely anthologized in best-of-the-year collections and nominated for prizes. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her final book, received the best reviews of her life.

For that matter, the comic harried-housewife pieces she turned out for the women’s magazines were always popular. And when she strung them together as book-length tales of bringing up children in Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957), she found a national readership. This simply wasn’t a woman who was denied success, acclaim, or an audience. Franklin’s biography shows that Jackson was bedeviled, ridden hard by the imps of perversity, but as one works through the details of Jackson’s life, the grand theme of an oppressed woman begins to break down. Those devils were far more her own than everywoman’s.

Jackson wasn’t born into wealth, exactly. It’s more that she was born into good money with a memory of great wealth: a long line whose fortune was originally made generations before by Samuel Bugbee, who built mansions for the rich of San Francisco. Her parents—a distant father and a mother simultaneously pretentious and poisonous—moved to upstate New York when Jackson was in her teens. She retained a vision of her childhood California home as a kind of lost paradise, to which she would make nightmarish returns through the grand houses of her horror stories.

After a miserable start at the University of Rochester (chosen by her parents to keep her close by), she transferred to finish her degree at Syracuse University. It was there that she met her husband, the future critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. He was as supportive of her writing as any husband could be (as well he ought to have been, since her royalties supported them), but he was a steady philanderer and not shy about explaining how her weight deflated his sexual interest.

Still, in outward form, the marriage was a social success. They collected perhaps 100,000 books in the huge, rambling Vermont home they purchased (the setting for her tales of wild housekeeping), and they socialized with other writers—notably Ralph Ellison. And yet, through it all, Jackson remained profoundly unhappy, incapable of maintaining close friendships and distant even from herself. Pills, cigarettes, and booze alternately lifted her up and smashed her down, but it was not a life built for the long haul.

And now, just over 50 years since her death, what are we to say about her? There are limits to the women-had-it-so-bad-in-the-1950s line that Ruth Franklin pushes in Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. It doesn’t explain—and even seems to preclude—the genuine success that Jackson found. For that matter, the deeper one reaches in the biography, the less one trusts that Jackson was driven by her times. She was an odd girl, by the standards not just of her day but of any day. And she grew into a talented woman whose writings may have originated among her anxieties but are not fully explained by them.

Jackson’s prose is good, in a slightly distant and ironic way—an A- in the class that has Muriel Spark as the A+ student. Her anxious ambiguities are excellent, The Haunting of Hill House a solid second-place finish in a style of scene-setting that has Henry James as valedictorian. Jean Kerr’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1957) is probably more satisfying than Life Among the Savages or Raising Demons, but Jackson was no slouch at that Erma-Bombeck-with-a-literary-edge genre of comic housekeeping stories.

All in all, Shirley Jackson was a pro and could write funny or scary, light or profound, as the occasion demanded. In an era of J.D. Salinger and Vladimir Nabokov—Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, for that matter—she was doomed to be dismissed, at least a little, as a commercial hack and a pen-for-hire. But the rise of praise for genre fiction, growing enormously in critical reputation over the last 30 years, has allowed the reconsideration of Shirley Jackson’s work that Ruth Franklin undertakes in her new biography. If it’s not enough to set Jackson among the brightest of literary stars, it’s still enough to see that she has a place somewhere in the firmament.

Published under: Book reviews