By Lisa Kröger
December 14, 2016
It’s no secret that Shirley Jackson is a favorite writer of mine. I first read her in high school, quite by accident. I don’t remember what the assigned reading for my English class was for that day, but I remember that I was bored and flipping through the big anthology textbook when I happened upon a story called “The Lottery.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Maybe. That story may be apocryphal, but it's how I like to hold it in my memory. To tell the truth, I can’t remember how I first found Ms. Jackson, but this is as likely to have happened as anything else. I don’t remember the first time I read The Haunting of Hill House (though I loved it), but I know the book that came next for me. I vividly remember reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I picked up in graduate school. I’ve read the book numerous times since. The story shocked me. It’s a nearly perfect Gothic tale, but it’s also a prime example of an extraordinary heroine standing tall in front of a hostile world, a familiar trope for anyone who has read Jackson.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle has remained a favorite of mine, in part, because of the rich detail with which Jackson writes. The taunts of the townspeople echo in my brain to this day. The cruel nature of the children as they sing their nursery rhyme about the Blackwoods is about the most sinister form of hatred I can imagine. The parent’s subsequent storming of the Blackwood home, complete with torches and rocks, is equally as disturbing, as it's obvious that they believed the Blackwood sisters to be something to be feared. This shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, I guess, after all where did the children learn such hatred from if not their parents?
But then there’s Merricat. She's not the typical Gothic heroine, fainting away at the sight of a flickering candle or running to the forest to recite poetry to the woodland creatures. Yes, she has a special relationship to the Blackwood land, but that has more to do with the fantastic landscape she has drawn atop it with her imagination. It’s Merricat’s internal world, which she built to be a sanctuary for her and her sister, that has so endeared me to the novel. Take warning, though, if you haven’t read the book. Merricat is not exactly a shrinking violet with her head in the clouds. She is a tigress stalking the shadows, waiting to pounce.
Early in the novel, Merricat makes a trip into town. She can’t completely ignore the townspeople, who openly show either pity or outright disgust for her. How does Merricat respond? By holding her head high…and imagining their dead bodies strewn across the aisles of the grocery store, all in gory detail. This scene perhaps best illustrates my love for the writing of Shirley Jackson: her heroines, though outsiders, usually have a wonderful internal strength. That, and Jackson’s writing is often undeniably comedic, even in its darkest of moments. I don’t think she gets recognized enough for that.
In reading the new biography on her, written by Ruth Franklin, I learned that Jackson began life as a bit of an outsider. She never quite fit into the ritzy life favored by her parents, nor did she completely embody the role of the housewife that she would later enter. I found I was touched by the times that she held on tightly to a new friendship, as they didn’t happen often. True and deep friendships must’ve been difficult for an extraordinary woman like her. The ordinary world just never quite knew what to do with her.
So, today, on what would have been her 100th birthday, read a little Shirley Jackson.
And join The Know Fear podcast on January 3rd when we interview Ruth Franklin.
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