Shirley Jackson’s Wifely Witchcraft

Take a house, add a homemaker, and, presto, she conjured up horror.

I promise I’m not about to accuse the Library of America of ignoring women writers. After all, right up front among the first authors to be canonized when the series began in 1982 was Harriet Beecher Stowe, and after her came an unimpeachable selection of reading-list regulars including Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston. And yet … the closer you look at the whole array of immortals from Henry Adams to Louis Zukofsky, the more you have to wonder. James Thurber, and no Dorothy Parker? Alexander Hamilton, and no Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Manny Farber on film, and no M.F.K. Fisher on food? I know, I know; it’s women’s own fault—too many kitchen tables and broken engagements, not enough whales and wars—which is why it’s such a pleasure to welcome Shirley Jackson’s work into the ranks of chunky, black-covered books with pages as thin as strudel dough (or as the Library puts it, “America’s best and most significant writing”). Jackson took that kitchen table, and she ran with it.

Jackson, who died in 1965 at the age of 48, would have hated being called a woman writer. She never identified with the feminist movement that was just beginning to stir toward the end of her life, according to Judy Oppenheimer’s excellent 1988 biography Private Demons, in part because she refused to think of herself as a victim and in part because she was largely apolitical. But you don’t have to be an essentialist to recognize the terrain that gave rise to her most memorable work, which ranged from masterly novels of moral and psychological horror ( The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle) all the way across the spectrumto her very funny reports from the domestic front ( Life Among the Savages, Raising Demons). Men can write scary books, men can write witty books, and style has no gender; but the pages that piled up next to Shirley Jackson’s typewriter could only have been produced by a wife.

At the center of Jackson’s most unnerving stories, the ones that emerged from her psychological-horror mode, there’s often a woman and a house. It can be a mansion, a shabby flat, or a cheerful cottage, but invariably it’s located at the corner of Creepy and Domestic. Her characters unload groceries, they tidy up, they put snacks on the table for the kids, maybe they have the neighbors over. But do they really believe their pleasant lives as homemakers can protect them? You get the feeling Jackson issued these stories as a kind of early-warning system.

In “The Renegade,” for instance, Mrs. Walpole spends a sunny morning listening to everyone—kind neighbors, helpful shopkeepers, even little Jack and Judy Walpole—eagerly discuss putting to death the family’s beloved dog, which has killed a neighbor’s chickens. The dog herself, returning home bloodstained, seems amused at the prospect of a new collar hammered with spikes. Only Mrs. Walpole, standing in the kitchen while her children chatter over lunch, is imagining “the harsh hands pulling her down, the sharp points closing in on her throat.”

Jackson began publishing in 1941, but it took her six or eight years to start hitting precisely the right notes. In the earliest stories collected here, we can almost see her trying to incorporate public issues into a stubbornly domestic imagination, producing tales overburdened with irony in which middle-class women encounter black people or poor people and can’t recognize their own prejudice. By the end of the decade, however, she was up to her ears in family life. She and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, had produced three children—a fourth would follow—and they were living in a massive old pile of a house near Bennington College in Vermont, where Hyman was on the faculty. Now there was no getting away from it: She stopped trying to write about social problems and turned inward, devising one desperate housewife after another.

There’s Clara Spencer in “The Tooth,” who says goodbye to her husband and baby and takes an overnight bus to New York for an emergency dental appointment. After the sleeping pill, the codeine, and the anesthesia, she disappears—or perhaps finds herself. At any rate, she can’t recognize the face in the ladies’ room mirror until she slathers on makeup. Then she runs away into a dreamscape, barefoot on the city streets. There’s Margaret in “Pillar of Salt,” who’s delighted to be on vacation with her husband in New York until the city begins to gather its forces and claw at her. Buildings seem to be crumbling, the traffic is aimed directly at her, the clerk in the drugstore doesn’t recognize her though she’s darted in for safety three times.

And of course, there’s Jackson’s most famous story, “The Lottery,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 1948 and attracted a record-breaking onslaught of mail. It takes place in a pretty village where people still respect the solid, civic traditions they’ve always known. A good-natured housewife named Mrs. Hutchinson is just finishing the breakfast dishes when she remembers that today is lottery day and hastens to the village square to join her neighbors for an annual ritual they all hold dear. But—too bad!—this year she’s the one to draw the marked slip of paper. Despite her screams of sudden protest, the others promptly stone her to death.

The author of these perfectly skewed narratives was herself most at home in a setting that might have been called middle-class gothic. People who knew the family said the sprawling house in Vermont was a shambles—cats, dust balls, and full ashtrays everywhere, dirty diapers lying around, thousands of books in haphazard piles. Here and there was the odd amulet, or some little device for casting spells, since Jackson studied witchcraft all her life. As a homemaker she was willing to get meals on the table, but otherwise she put her time into writing and the children. (She enjoyed them tremendously but didn’t bother trying to impose shampoos and tooth-brushing.)

Hyman simply exempted himself from household responsibilities, though he was an enthusiastic host at their frequent parties. He was also a notorious philanderer. It was a harrowing marriage, if a stable one in its own alcohol-fuelled way. Jackson, who struggled against agonizing insecurities, was constantly furious at her husband; but she directed her anger at the women around him—and at herself. She ate and drank ferociously, and dosed herself with amphetamines and tranquillizers. In time she came to look like the “Don’t” page from a ‘50s women’s magazine, fat and unkempt with her hair yanked back in a rubber band. By the ‘60s she had developed a crippling case of agoraphobia.

It’s not hard to reconcile this picture with the author of, say, The Haunting of Hill House, whose heroine entangles herself with the paranormal and finds a triumph in self-destruction. But where on earth did the author of Life Among the Savages come from? Jackson was one of the best-loved practitioners of a cozy literary genre immensely popular during the ‘50s, in which wry, capable mothers delivered semifictional accounts of their domestic misadventures. She used to say she turned out these lighthearted stories just for the money—women’s magazines doted on them—but I’m not convinced it was all about the paycheck. Jackson’s voice in the family stories is uncannily like the voice narrating her scary stories: She maintains a quiet, matter-of-fact tone while tensions rumble ominously below the surface. In “The Third Baby’s the Easiest,” she arrives at the hospital to give birth for the third time, contractions already under way.

“Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.
“Name,” I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her.
“Age?” she asked. “Sex? Occupation?”
“Writer,” I said.
“Housewife,” she said.
“Writer,” I said.
“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said. “Doctor? How many children?”
“Two,” I said. “Up to now.”
“Normal pregnancy?” she said. “Blood test? X-ray?”
“Look—” I said.
“Husband’s name?” she said. “Address? Occupation?”
“Just put down housewife,” I said. “I don’t remember his name, really.”
“What?” I said.
“Is your husband the father of this child? Do you have a husband?”
“Please,” I said plaintively, “can I go on upstairs?”

To me it’s oddly easy to imagine this scene airdropped into one of Jackson’s eerie tales. Maybe the narrator would take her first look at the new baby and find she’s gazing into the face of some evil old lady from the neighborhood. Of course, the housewife/writer joke would have to go—or more likely Jackson would recast it so that the confusion of identities became bone-chilling. Or perhaps it just didn’t matter which genre she chose, so long as she kept writing. For Jackson, putting words on paper was the ultimate exercise in witchcraft. Like many a woman writer before and since, she was typing to save her life.

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