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by James Sallis

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin, 2016, Liveright Publishing Corporation/W.W. Norton & Company, $35.

 

For four days the ground moved.

This from real life, from a man giving witness to mass executions in his village during WWII, with entire families lined up and shot, to fall forward into trenches dead or nearly so and be covered over.

There's more terror in that brief sentence and its accompanying image than in a thousand drooling monsters. Horror builds from what you sense yet don't see, things moving beneath the surface, dark shapes at the corner of mind and vision. And with that, you're in Shirley Jackson land.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is the second major biography, following upon 1988's Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer and two collections of miscellany, Just an Ordinary Day (1995) and Let Me Tell You (2015). In 2010 Jackson's work joined The Library of America in a volume edited by Joyce Carol Oates: 800-plus pages, two classic novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, forty-six stories and sketches. Perhaps all this will collude to bring the focused attention Shirley Jackson has long deserved.

Or maybe not. Maybe in the public mind she'll continue to be known only as author of "The Lottery." Ruth Franklin's introduction to this outstanding biography touches on some of the reasons recognition has been so long delayed. Jackson wrote, she says, always with a central interest in women's lives, and in genres regarded as "faintly disreputable," turning plots and characters on a lathe so distinctly personal as to produce a body of work that's finally uncategorizable. And since there's no ready drawer for what Jackson wrote, all too often it gets cut down to fit. The Haunting of Hill House is received as simply a well written ghost story, We Have Always Lived in the Castle as a standard mystery. Meanwhile, what is to be made of those lightly comic tales of suburban life with the kids? How on earth do those fit in?

It's all a confusion, all a tangle.

As was Shirley Jackson's life.

She was, from the first, resolutely a commercial writer. Even while essaying the problem of evil, as in "One Ordinary Day with Peanuts," she anchored her work in the domestic, so that the stories have about them an easy familiarity, an apparent lightness in sharp contrast to the chasms and gorges beneath.

"No writer since Henry James has been so successful in exploring the psychological reach of terror," Franklin writes.

And Shirley Jackson herself: "I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work."

 

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
—We Have Always Lived in the Castle

 

Plenty of fear to work with, plenty of contrast, an abundance of tamped-down pain, all of which grew as years wore on.

She wrote in quick bites, hours seized here and there—stories for The New Yorker, dozens of vignettes and stories for Saturday Evening Post, Mademoiselle, and Good Housekeeping, six novels—while raising four children, maintaining some semblance of a normal suburban household, pursuing an active social life with husband Stanley Edgar Hyman, and hiding out from neighbors estranged by the family's oddness, all this as she struggled upstream of a crushing sense of failure and fragility, prolonged bouts of depression, and occasional hospitalizations.

That sentence may give you some idea of the tangle of her life. All told, she was out there pitching for twenty-four years, dying of heart failure in 1965 aged forty-eight. From 1961 on, she was essentially housebound.

Her second novel, Hangsaman (1951), recounts the emotional breakdown of a young woman fleeing her poisonous homelife for an ever stronger fantasy world overseen by the imaginary Tony, an amalgam of the protagonist's own anxiety and turmoil.

In The Bird's Nest (1954, filmed as Lizzie), Elizabeth Richmond, a woman with multiple personalities, one day arrives at work in the town's museum to find that the wall of her office has been removed and that she can extend her arm into the gaping hole, into nothingness. As again and again, a building is central to the tale; the dissolution of the building and of Elizabeth are one and the same. Already she is so fractured, so insubstantial, that coworkers barely register her presence. Franklin praises scenes in which Elizabeth sets out four coffee cups, one for each personality, and another in which Elizabeth watches as each personality in turn takes a bath.

The Sundial (1958, four years after the first hydrogen bomb test) was Jackson's own favorite of her novels. Behind the walls of the Halloran estate, built by a businessman who "could think of nothing better to do with his money than set up his own world," the profoundly broken Halloran family gathers to await apocalypse, after which they will, as deserved, come forth into "a world clean and silent."

Centering on another dissolution, The Haunting of Hill House (1959, filmed at least twice) may very well be the best ghost story ever written. It is a ghost story, but above all it's the story of a woman's steady erasure from forces within and without in a world where longing and dread, what is most feared and most hoped for, speak the same language. A ghost story, yes—but one as much aligned with Flannery O'Connor, Patricia Highsmith, William Faulkner, and Albert Camus as with any standard fare.

 

With what she perceived as quick cleverness she pressed her foot down hard on the accelerator…. I can hear them calling now, she thought, and the little footsteps running through Hill House and the soft sound of the hills pressing closer…. I am really doing it, she thought….
In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don't they stop me?

 

Three years after Hill House came We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with its tale of two sisters shunned by their community for the presumed murder of their family. In those first lines—"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance.… Everyone else in my family is dead"—the narrator leans close to say she has something important to tell you, and though you trust none of what she says and know that listening may lead you to terrible places, you do listen, and you follow. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is utterly original, a feast for readers, a how-to manual for writers. It would be the last novel.

 

*   *   *

 

In 1958, while working on Hill House, Jackson wrote a letter to her husband, calling out his indifference to her and the children, his retreat into work and the attention of his female students, her own loneliness, his affairs with other women. She ends by reminding him that he once wrote a letter to her to say she would never be lonely again, that this was the first and most dreadful lie he ever told her.

Just as the house of Usher in its collapse memorialized the passing of the Old South and a once grand, now degraded style of living, Hill House echoes the crumbling of Shirley's marriage, or of her belief in it. Nothing can ever again be as it once seemed. Eleanor believes the house in its haunting has called to her, inviting her to become one with it. I am home, I am home, she thinks, not long before driving her car into a tree.

In both the last novels Jackson's art is at a very high level indeed. But sadly, as Franklin writes, "the trajectory of Jackson's creative ascent was mirrored by an arc of personal descent." The depression that had been a lifelong companion, the predative feelings of rejection and helplessness, crowded ever closer, exacerbated perhaps by drinking and by the amphetamines she'd taken for years for weight control. Obese, in poor general health, hamstrung by feelings of betrayal, she was unable to write, barely able to leave the house and to cope with details of everyday life.

She was on her way back up and again writing—three new stories, a piece for the Saturday Evening Post, seventy-five pages of a new novel titled Come Along with Me—when on an August afternoon in 1965 her husband came to wake her from a nap and could not.

 

*   *   *

 

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is an artful, elegant book that does honor to its subject. Ruth Franklin writes extraordinarily well, with fine narrative instincts. She keeps things moving, never allowing the story to founder (as do so many biographies) in facts and details or to be strangled by its timeline, forever aware that she is indeed telling a story, often stepping briefly forward and back to suggest connections that flower as we read on. We clearly sense the ranging of Franklin's mind across the ciphers and crosses of Jackson's life and, behind that, the ranging of Jackson's own, both of them trying to make sense of the pieces. It's a biography that wears its surmise lightly in much the way that accomplished fiction does, knowing the pieces cannot fit together snugly but nudging at them, moving them about again and again, trying for the best fit possible.

Shirley Jackson used to take the kids out onto the porch during storms and howl back at the thunder. "The very nicest thing about being a writer," she wrote in one essay, "is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up." One finishes this biography with full gratitude for all that Shirley Jackson's "using it up" has given us.

Truly amazing, what can come of howling back at the thunder.

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