Witch Week Day Two: Top Ten Reasons to Read Shirley Jackson

WITCH WEEK 2016-200

Witch Week is about celebrating all kinds of fantasy literature, which can evoke many different moods and experiences — but because it takes place in the darkening days following Halloween, our reading choices may tend toward the creepier end of the spectrum. And for intelligently creepy entertainment, there is no one quite like Shirley Jackson, an author who has been receiving more and more well-deserved attention and acclaim these days.

Just in case you might need some encouragement to read Shirley Jackson for the first time, or reasons to give to others, I asked Jenny of Reading the End to help us out. I knew she would do a brilliant job — she got me to read The Sundial, after all. So prepare to be enabled, and perhaps a little bit frightened …

For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.

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Top Ten Reasons to Read Shirley Jackson

by Jenny of Reading the End

Scariness

Seriously, Shirley Jackson’s books are so scary. You’re insufficiently appreciating the scariness of her books. Like all good horror writers, she makes you fear for the characters. But her particular gift is making you fear what the characters will do—not what will be done to them. You can argue forever about whether Jackson is pessimistic or realistic about the state of humanity, but whatever the case may be, nobody writes better than Jackson about the evil that lurks in the hearts of men (and women).

sjlottery“The Lottery”

Let’s face it, your English teacher should have made you read “The Lottery” in eighth grade. Or some grade. (I chose eighth because that’s when I read it, and I assume that my English teacher knew what she was doing, considering she made us all go nuts for Macbeth while at the same time being snotty fourteen-year-olds.) If that didn’t happen, you’re missing out not just on the references people are making to it, but also on one of the greatest short stories mankind has ever known. Get your head right. Read “The Lottery.”(I just reread “The Lottery” right now, to prove my point, and it is still so damn scary.)

Cultural Literacy

Shirley Jackson influenced oodles of writers working today, including Stephen King, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, and Helen Oyeyemi. It’s not that you need Shirley Jackson to understand what those authors are talking about. They’ll stand on their own with no problem. It’s just that their books are houses built on a Shirley Jackson foundation. In fact, possibly no haunted house book written since the 1960s has been able to shake the influence of the mighty and wondrous Shirley Jackson.

Speaking of Houses

sjhillhouseHave you heard the expression “safe as houses”? Because Shirley Jackson makes it meaningless—or maybe just alters its meaning forever. Famously agoraphobic, the houses of Shirley Jackson’s fiction are their characters’ only refuge from the forces of darkness; and at the same time, they are traps and prisons. The outside world promises death, yet only by death can the characters be free of the cages that their houses represent. It’s the best. (Slash, the worst.)

The Sundial

Look, you have already heard plenty about The Haunting of Hill House. (It’s awesome.) We Have Always Lived in the Castle will be a major motion picture™ featuring Sebastian Stan in the handsome opportunist role. But have you read The Sundial? Almost certainly not. Let me help you with that.

The Sundial is about a group of people who live in a big manor house. One of the family members is recently deceased, and there is talk that he was murdered by someone else in the house. Then Aunt Fanny has a vision that the world is going to end, and the only survivors will be the people inside the manor house. They spend the rest of the book hating each other and preparing for the end of the world, and it’s majestic.

sjsavagesHumor

See, here’s the problem with Shirley Jackson being so good at creeping you out. Everyone associates her name (rightly) with horror, but then they forget (wrongly) to praise the pitch-black humor that permeates all of her writing. Even at her very most gothic, Jackson still has an eye to the absurdity of human behavior, and she’s perpetually poking fun at our attempts to find reason and normalcy in the utter chaos of this world.

Humor Again!

I KNOW I KNOW this seems redundant, but bear with me. The first humor was that she’s funny even when she’s being scary, and this one’s that she’s funny when she’s mainly just being funny. Though she’s best known for “The Lottery,” and we hope will soon be best known for We Have Always Lived in the Castle once the movie comes out and everyone loves it and the book becomes the spooky bestseller it always deserved to be, Shirley Jackson’s fame in her own time was down to the many essays she wrote for women’s magazines about her life as a wife and mother. Collected in Life among the Savages and Raising Demons, these stories cast a sardonic eye on the work of raising tots in the years of the baby boom.

sjcastleThat One New Biography of Her That Just Came Out

We all like to feel that we’re keeping up with the new releases, don’t we? And this Witch Week, you’re in luck: A brand new, authoritative, New York Times–approved biography of Shirley Jackson has just come onto the market. Ruth Franklin is by all accounts a careful and insightful biographer, providing new insights into Shirley Jackson’s childhood, marriage, and work as a writer of humorous essays, creepy short stories, and literary criticism.

The Shirley Jackson Awards

Once you know that you love Shirley Jackson (and you will love her—that’s not a threat, just a prediction), the world stands ready to tell you what to read next. If there’s one thing for which you can depend on Shirley Jackson fans, it’s book recommendations. For the annual Shirley Jackson Awards, a panel of writers, editors, and academics choose five finalists in six categories of excellence in the realm of literary psychological suspense and horror. As yet there hasn’t been a single year of Shirley Jackson Awards that’s failed to give me terrific recommendations.

sjsundialBonding with Your Fellow Bloggers

Look, the fact is, book bloggers love Shirley Jackson. This has been true as long as I’ve been a book blogger, and I don’t see any prospect of its changing. Read We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House and book bloggers will flock to your doorstep to rave about our girl Shirley Jackson. Please @ me whenever you get a chance to let me know how you feel about Merricat, and be prepared for me to order you sternly to read The Sundial.

 

 

 

It’s the End of the World as We Know It: The Sundial

Shirley Jackson, The Sundial (1958)

SundialSo, I was thinking I would read Life Among the Savages for Shirley Jackson Reading Week, because it’s a humorous book about living with small children (for which a sense of humor certainly comes in handy), and seemed like a fun summer read. But I was sidelined by Jenny’s enthusiasm for The Sundial and decided to read that instead, to start with anyway. Because Jenny’s enthusiasm cannot be easily ignored.

If you decide to follow our lead, just be aware that this is a very strange book. It is funny, sometimes hilariously so, but it’s also disorienting and savage and mystifying. The premise is, to say the least, odd: a megalomaniac matriarch, along with various descendants and hangers-on, have gathered in her walled estate to await the end of the world, of which they expect to be the only survivors. Given that most of the characters detest most of the others, the mind boggles at what will happen when their already-insular social circle is made even smaller. Classic country-house scenes of deliciously venomous dialogue are interspersed with visions and mysterious occurrences that give the whole book the quality of a nightmare from which it is singularly difficult to wake. I kept wondering what it would be like on stage or in a film, though sadly, I don’t think this has a chance of coming to pass.

“Call it nonsense, Orianna, say — as you have before — that Aunt Fanny is running in crazed spirits, but — although I am of course not permitted to threaten — all the regrets will be yours.”

“I feel it already,” Mrs Halloran said.

“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.

“Splendid,” Mrs Halloran said. “I was getting very tired of all of them.”

“The imbalance of the universe is being corrected. Dislocations have been adjusted. Harmony is to be restored, imperfections erased.”

I wonder if anything has been done about the hedges,” Mrs Halloran said. “Essex, did you speak to the gardeners?”

Is there a point to all of this oddity? By putting her characters in such an extreme situation Jackson makes us meditate on some fundamental questions of life. How do we know what is real, and what is illusion? Are all relationships doomed to ultimately begin and end in selfishness? Faced with the end of everything we know, would we too stock up on canned spaghetti and burn all books except the Boy Scout manual?  These are not comfortable questions, and this is not a comfortable book.

But for sheer startling-out-of-complacency, perspective-shifting weirdness, it’s something of a marvel. After Jackson has relentlessly skewered a materialist’s view of Heaven, what will be left to us in the new world? There’s something to think about.

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