Wednesday, December 14, 2016

This Day in Literary History (Birth of Shirley Jackson, Storyteller of the Supernatural)

Dec. 14, 1916—Shirley Jackson, who mined her family life for humorous tales in popular magazines—and her obsessions and fears for stories and novels that traversed the boundary between the mundane and the macabre—was born in San Francisco.

I was first exposed to Jackson in eighth grade, when our English teacher read aloud to our class “Charles.” That tale, one of many written from the author’s experience as a wife and mother, illustrated one element of her output: popular comic work, aimed at mass-market magazines that catered to the booming postwar stress on family life--a kind of precursor of Erma Bombeck, in a style of writing sometimes called "domestic realism."

But, like her supernatural fiction, “Charles” ended with a surprise that sent readers back to re-read the story for the clues there all along. Another element shared with her supernatural fiction was a demon (albeit a metaphorical one—the narrator's son, a troublesome child at school who projects his scrapes onto a fictitious classmate).

Writing for genres increased Jackson’s commercial appeal but not her critical cachet. Had academics examined the totality of her achievement more closely, they would have realized that she had advanced horror fiction: moving the altered consciousness so central to the genre away from the dark locales of Edgar Allan Poe to more contemporary, normal environments: small towns, summer resorts, grocery stores, trains, and buses. Her settings paved the way for the likes of Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, set in modern Manhattan) and Stephen King (e.g., an American high school in Carrie) by injecting evil into the everyday world of seemingly Edenic postwar America.

The Lottery” is Jackson’s most famous story. It easily passes what Joseph Epstein, in a recent essay on short-story master John O’Hara, called “the memory test,” chiefly because of its horrifying denouement—an annual ritual in a New England village in which one citizen is designated for stoning.

More than a half-century after its publication, the editors of The New Yorker termed it “perhaps the most controversial short story” the magazine had ever published. Not only did The New Yorker receive countless letters about it (some expressing confusion about its meaning, others so enraged that they canceled their subscriptions), but Jackson herself received so much hate mail at her Vermont home that, once her local postmaster stopped talking to her, she needed to switch to a larger post office box.

The woman who produced this disturbing work was profoundly troubled herself. Her mother offered little love or encouragement when she was growing up, and though she received plenty of the latter from her husband, Bennington College academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, it came with a downside: noting her already prolific output, he hectored her to write even more in order to support themselves and their four children. At the same time, he also expected her to attend faculty parties and host some at their house—and look the other way as he conducted affairs with one coed after another.

None of this was conducive to a healthy lifestyle. The faculty parties featured heavy drinking and smoking. Already acutely aware of her homeliness growing up, Jackson sought more comfort in food as Hyman’s philandering increased, to the point that she became morbidly obese.  This only complicated her mounting physical—and mental—health issues, including severe agoraphobia.

Jackson died at age 48 in 1965. In the years since her untimely death, her critical reputation has wavered, but she continued to influence subsequent writers with her Gothic fiction, including Joyce Carol Oates, Joanna Harris and Neil Gaiman, with haunting tales that plumb the human capacity for inexplicable cruelty, violence and intolerance.

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