Shirley Jackson — horror stories brought home

“No one in my family is surprised to find me putting the waffle iron away on a different shelf because in my story it has quarreled with the toaster, and if I left them together they might come to blows …”

Shirley Jackson told herself tales all day in her North Bennington farmhouse, as she got her children ready for school and talked with her husband about the novels he brought in for review.

“It looks kind of crazy …” she says in an essay, “How I Write,” but it does take the edge off cold reality. And sometimes it turns into real stories.”

It turned into nationally known fiction in her lifetime, especially after the New Yorker ran her story, “The Lottery,” in 1948.

“She had two main styles,” said Barry Hyman, her youngest son and a musician in North Bennington, Vt.

She wrote humorous sketches about the family and everyday life — her bread-and-butter writing — and novels and short stories with a paranormal current. She often walked a fine line between mental illness and the supernatural, he said: “Was it a ghost or an illusion? The genius is that it doesn’t matter.”

He has seen a strong revival in interest in her work and life in the last several years, growing in the last year. 2015 marked 50 years since her death in 1965, and this year the 100th since her birth in 1916.

In her honor, representatives from the National Shirley Jackson Awards will come to North Bennington on Monday for the town’s annual Shirley Jackson Day, an event Hyman’s friend Tom Fels has organized for the last 15 years, with live readings of her stories.

The anniversary also has seen the publication of “Let Me Tell You,” a collection of previously unpublished stories and essays edited Barry’s older brother and sister, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt. And a new biography by Ruth Franklin will come out in September, one Barry welcomes as an analysis written with a sense of humor and a deep understanding.

Jackson continues to make public appearances, he said. Two of the stories in “Let Me Tell You,” “Paranoia” and “The Man in the Woods,” recently appeared in the New Yorker. She has nspired a ballet in New York City and has more tributes in the works — a possible film is percolating based on “We’ve Always Lived in a Castle,” her last novel, and a play adapted from “The Haunting of Hill House” is set to open in the West End. A story from the new collection has been nominated for Edgar Allen Poe Award, which she won in 1961 for “Louisa, Please.”

She could even wind up on a postage stamp — she has earned thousands of votes.

“She’s hot,” he said.

He credits his older brother and sister for reviving interest in her writing.

Their mother grew up in the San Fransisco suburbs and came to college at Syracuse, N.Y. When she married Stanley Edgar Hyman, they came to New York City, poor writers in the Village in the 1940s.

Within a few years Jackson was publishing stories in the New Yorker and the New Republic, writing while she and her husband both worked and raised their children. They came to Vermont in 1945, when Hyman became a professor at Bennington College.

“It may have been a sacrifice in certain ways,” Hyman said, “although she wanted to get out of the city, to be somewhere with blue sky and clean air. Towards the end of her life she wanted to be farther out in the country.”

They lived in North Bennington for the rest of her life except for a brief time in Westport, Conn., when Hyman joined the New Yorker staff and their house filled with writers, poets and composers. Ralph Ellison spent months with them as he finished “The Invisible Man.”

In 1948 she caused a national sensation when the New Yorker published “The Lottery,” a short story that shows a small town in New England preparing for an apparently ordinary community ritual that turns out to be viscious — and most horrifying because people accept it as ordinary. She is still best known for this story today.

As an adult, Barry Hyman admires her writing robustly. Every time he reads her stories they get better, he said. He recently rediscovered “A Great Voice Stilled” as “the funniest, nastiest, most bitter denunciation of literary people you’ll ever hope to read” — he was laughing so hard he had to close the book.

His relationship with his mother’s writing has evolved over time, and it has not always been simple. Growing up, he often felt embarassed by the comic stories she wrote about the family, he said, and he thought of her fiction as her serious work.

He first read “The Lottery” at 16, but he knew about it long before then — the local reaction to his family and his mother’s writing was strong and could be hostile. It could even get him beaten up in school.

But he remembers reading his mother’s stories at 13, getting excited about a book she was writing, and every new 10 pages she would give him to read.

He was 13 when she died.

“I knew all these different sides of her,” he said. “She was a very warm, funny, approachable, cheerful, affectionate person. The sarcasm, the cutting one-liners I saw too — never directed at me very often.”

The stories in “Let Me Tell You” are new to him. A 12-year-old girl goes to a night club with her parents. A faculty wife confronts a student over her husband. A new maid bends time. … He flew to California and read through many of them with his brother and sister as they began to edit this collection. It has been in the making, he said, for many years.

In 1995 his brother and sister edited “Just an Ordinary Day,” a collection of Jackson’s unpublished and uncollected work. They all knew then that Library of Congress had many more stories they had not read or that had not made the first cut. They have talked since then about a second collection, and they have tracked down more of her writings in magazines.

They had always known their mother wanted to be a cartoonist, Hyman said. Among 60 cartons of her papers at the Library of Congress they found some 700 drawings, and those line-art sketches gave them the germ of the new book.

They have gathered essays and sketches and chiefly short fiction often set in times and places like her own, and some feel very much like 1940s small-town New England, for better and worse.

“In a small town, everything observed will be talked about,” he said. “Bennington College had about 300 students then, all women, and anything a faculty wife did or said would be known by evening. She had to be careful. She had had to do that with her mother at 16. She had to choose her words.”

Fiction gave her a place to speak strongly, he said, “when feminism was unspeakable and unknown, never used overtly.”

“She showed the the horror when the townspeople turn against you,” Hyman said, “and the beauty of it, how people take care of each other.”

Hyman understands that closeness. He has known his doctor for 30 years, his vet for 35, his mechanic. They exchange favors, he said. He doesn’t lock the house.

When she first wrote some of these stories, small-town New England reacted strongly against her scrutiny, but North Bennington has adopted her long ago. Hyman thinks the town is proud and pleased now that his mother wrote her best work there.

As a musician he thinks of editing his notes as she edited her words, he said. An essay of hers, “Notes for a Young Writer,” applies as well to song.

“You use simple words, nothing unnecessary: the right note at the right time,” he said, “not to be impressive — to be genuine and direct.”

She writes with wit and humor, and with tension and violence confined in apparently civil exchanges — tastes echoed in her reading. She loved 18th-century writers, Jane Austen and Samuel Richardson, and she read mysteries avidly.

Inventing dramas between her frying pans or writing children’s stories about wishes, she brought an impish magic into the places around her. So she uses it in her writing — in a ghost, a post card where people come and go or a slippery sense of time and space. She twists reality, and the effect can be entrancing and painful.

She could read people, he said, and it served her well  — to see conflict in the way the grocer tied up a package, or to know when the postman’s hands on the mail made it obvious he’ had read the post cards.

“There’s another fine line between psychology and telepathy,”Hyman said. “In neuropsychology they mean someone reading body language and small detail, someone fiercely observant. She could certainly do that.”

He paused.

“If there is such a thing as magical telepathy,” he said, “she had that too.”


Shirley Jackson Day 2016

National Shirley Jackson Award representatives and readings of her work with two of her children, J.S.Holly and Barry Hyman

When: 7 p.m.  Monday, June 27

Where: Left Bank, 1 Bank St., North Bennington, Vt.

Admission: Free

Information: 802-681-7161


This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer — my thanks to editor Fred Daley. Photo at the top: The sun sets over Bennington College, where Shirley Jackson’s husband taught, bringing them both to North Bennington. Photo by Kate Abbott

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