Hangsaman

Spooky novel from Shirley Jackson about a 17-year-old girl who’s off to college and who loses her grip on reality somewhat, plus the disappearance of her friend Tony. It’s structured in three sections: Natalie on the cusp of leaving for school, at her parent’s house, possibly/definitely assaulted by a friend of her father’s at a party; Natalie at school, discovering that she’s drinking more than reading and that her English prof has married an ex-student but who still has affairs with current students, letters back and forth to her writer dad with advice and assignments; the final section she returns home and can’t wait to head back to school, when she does it’s an unreal unraveling where she and Tony hide from the college, go eat in town hanging in the railway station, then at a diner where a one-armed man asks for help buttering his roll, then they take a bus to the end of the line and Tony disappears.

Life Among the Savages

A humorous glimpse at home life with four children, a few cats, a dog, and a husband. Jackson took material from short stories she published elsewhere (e.g. Charles, Third Child is always Easiest, etc.) and wove it into a longer work along with new bits. Having just read the other stories, it was a bit jarring to come across them again. So this is skipable if you’re familiar with her other short stories.

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings

More excellent previously unpublished or collected writings by Shirley Jackson. Hundreds of pages of delightful short stories, essays, and —what I found most useful—lectures about the craft of writing.

All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories. Stories about anything, anything at all. Just stories. After all, who can vacuum a room and concentrate on it? I tell myself stories…They keep me working, my stories.

I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything she sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to her morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.

(From Memory and Delusion: A Lecture)

Fitting in lockstep with the approach I’m learning from Method Writing, Shirley Jackson hit on this idea decades before Jack Grape did:

I am actually going to talk about what I call images, or symbols. It seems to me that in our present great drive—fiction-wise—toward the spare, clean, direct kind of story, we are somehow leaving behind the most useful tools of the writer, the small devices that separate fiction from reporting, the work on the imagination from the everyday account. OF these the far most important, and the most neglected, is the use of symbols; I am using the word loosely, because it has altogether different meanings elsewhere, and yet I hardly know what other word to use. The thing I am talking about is best identified by reference to a theory of acting that has always seemed to me very profound, and certainly useful to the writer: Before entering upon a role, the actor, having of course familiarized himself with the character he is to portray, constructs for himself a set of images, or mental pictures, of small, unimportant things he feels belong around the character.

There must be at least one basic image, or set of images, for each character in a story, a fundamental symbol the writer keeps always in mind; as these images grow the character grows, and the accumulation of material and information about the image slowly makes up the character in the story. Various things belong to a character—a manner of speaking, a manner of moving, a particular emphasis, a group fo small physical things—and each of these must take on, like a perfume, the essence of the character they belong to. Just as a tune or a scent can evoke for most of us an entire scene, so the basic image of the character must evoke that entire character and his place in the story. As a result of this, of course, the characters themselves grow apart in the writer’s mind, become entirely separate people, and by the end of a book or a story the writer can no more mistake one for another than he can mistake a can of beans for a pearl necklace.

Suppose a story needs a male character. In the story he must further the action, although he is really a minor character. If the story requires no very definite attributes from him, suppose the writer were to assign, arbitrarily, the image of a bird to this character. He need never be named or called a bird, but his gestures and his habits are birdlike, his voice and his very words are sharp and twittering, and in his brief appearance he might select nuts or pieces of popcorn, and pick them up like seeds from the ground, with a quick darting movement. Even if this character never appears again, he has been alive for the space of a page, perhaps, and has added depth and imagination to the story…

Within these strict limits the writer must operate as vividly as she can, drawing as much as possible upon a sympathy with the reader, hoping that a single word will be enough to turn the reader inward, remind her, perhaps, of a similar emotion of her own, to bring her along willingly down the path of the story. Many experience in life are common to all of us, and a word or two is frequently enough to enrich a story with a wealth of recollection; take, for instance, the words “income tax.”

(From Garlic in Fiction: A Lecture)

Other Stories and Sketches

Rounding out the book of Jackson’s novels and stories is a group of previously uncollected or unpublished stories. Of most interest to me:

  • Janice – girl who tries to kill herself in the car in the garage and drolly tells everyone about it “darn near killed myself this afternoon.”
  • A Cauliflower in Her Hair – a friend of his daughter comes over to do algebra and the father flirts with her, gives her a cigarette
  • It Isn’t the Money I Mind – a man in park pulls out various clippings from his wallet and pretends he knows the celebrities
  • The Third Baby’s the Easiest – childbirth story with that great line about being asked occupation by the hospital at check-in and saying “Writer,” but the clerk saying she’ll just put down “Housewife.”
  • The Summer People – really great story about a couple who decide to stay in their vacation cabin at the lake past Labor Day for the first time, only to be met with hostility from the locals: no kerosene or groceries delivered, telephone wires cut, mail service disrupted, car sabotaged.
  • Louisa, Please Come Home – a girl runs away from home successfully and builds another life for herself. She succeeds in altering her personality and appearance so greatly that when an old friend drags her back home, her parents and sister reject her as a stranger pretending. “My mother still talks to me on the radio, once a year, on the anniversary of the day I ran away.”
  • The Possibility of Evil- an old lady writes anonymous nasty notes to her neighbors and then gets one herself
  • Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith – a woman finds herself gossiped about immediately after her marriage, the townspeople want to warn her that her husband might be the killer who gets his wives to sign over their wills to him and then kills them in the bathtub.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Another creepy delight from Ms. Jackson… the remains of a family ostracized by a small town even after the daughter (Constance) was acquitted of poisoning her family with arsenic in the sugar bowl that her mother, father, uncle, aunt, and brother dipped into for toppings on their blackberries. The other sister, Mary Katherine/Merricat, survived by having been sent to her room without supper. Uncle Julian also survived the poisoning but has become wheelchair-bound and deranged. A cousin arrives unexpectedly, Charles, and proceeds to make himself at home and counts the money greedily in the safe. Merricat wants him gone, ransacks his room (her father’s old room), and may or may not have been responsible for letting his pipe set a fire that consumed most of the house. While Charles runs for the fire department and asks for help moving the safe a thousand times, the sisters retreat to the woods and watch the villagers throw rocks in the windows of the home once the fire is out. It’s at this point, six years after the poisonings, that Merricat and Constance exchange words about it, where Merricat admits to doing it.

The Haunting of Hill House

Shirley Jackson is a master story-teller and she makes it look so easy with this 1959 novel about a professor (Montague) studying paranormal activity who invites people to assist him in studying the phenomenon at Hill House. His way of finding assistants was to discover anyone still alive who’d had a brush with the abnormal, send them letters inviting them for the summer, and reply to their replies with detailed directions. Out of a dozen prospects, only two show up: Eleanor Vance and Theodora. Joining Montague is a member of the family who owns the house, Luke.

Luxuriate in how we first meet Eleanor:

Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends… She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair.

The four of them arrive separately to Hill House, grapple with the gatekeeper and meet the formidable housekeeper who leaves before dark every day. It becomes creepier by the day and within a week, Eleanor is ushered out for her own safety, so she intentionally wrecks her car into a tree in the driveway before she’s past the gates. She’s the one who’s been adding to the haunting of the house, writing on walls and generally scaring people.

The Lottery and Other Stories

Another book with the word “sullen” for those keeping count of the back-to-back similarities. A dark collection of twisty tales from the 1940s, the formula is almost too plain, it’s obvious that each will end with a thud, a whimper, a shiver. The writing is decent enough, and the ideas behind the stories are good. Drunk party guest meets daughter of the house doing her homework in the kitchen. Woman tidying up her room after a night with her husband-to-be is stood up by him for the actual wedding so she goes in search. Man lives alone but is fastidious about his home, invites neighbor over for dinner who then pretends that his apartment is her own when a friend from work arrives — he slinks off to sleep in her dirty hovel down the hallway. Woman goes to buy furniture from a couple leaving town and pretends to be them when they aren’t there, is caught in a dancing pose by someone else coming to look at the furniture. Etc. etc. etc.