“The teacher spanked a boy, though,” Laurie said, addressing his bread and butter. “For being fresh,” he added, with his mouth full.
Around eight years ago I was dutifully reading my way through an anthology called The Art of the Short Story, edited by Dana Gioia. I sometimes forget it now, but this book was a great supplementary education, even for somebody who had ostensibly begun to study literature. I’d recommend it to anyone. It was here that I first encountered “The Overcoat” by Gogol, “The Dead” by Joyce, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman, to name some. Among all of the gems in this collection, slotted between Zora Neale Hurston and Henry James, was a story by an author I had not heard of until then. The editor’s introduction noted that, after this story was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, the magazine received more letters from readers—most of them puzzled or upset—than they had received for anything else they had ever printed. That alone is an intoxicating fact to carry into a story, and like seemingly everyone else who reads “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, I was horrified and delighted, and probably uncomfortable about the ancient tribal reflex that it stirred faintly within me.
I won’t say much about that story; it’s so compact, the build-up is so perfectly taut, and the ending so devastating, that to say anything about it is to give too much away. But I loved “The Lottery” and that was that, until a couple of years ago when I finally picked up the full original story collection by Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories. By then I knew that “The Lottery” was pretty widely canonized and, despite my earlier ignorance, hugely popular. But I lacked any context for it besides that story about the reader mail to The New Yorker. What were the other stories like? Who was Shirley Jackson?
The latter question was answered by some fateful timing: I happened to read this book just around the time that a new biography of Jackson was published, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. I have not read it, but an excerpt published in New York Magazine with some great archival photographs was enlightening enough for me. Jackson was married to Stanley Hyman, a writer and professor who apparently thought an awful lot of himself and whom nobody remembers today except as the adulterous wretch who was married to Shirley Jackson. Jackson wrote mostly while she raised her children and hosted parties, and while her husband toiled self-righteously away at his own writing (expecting his wife, surely, to take care of everything while he perfected his oeuvre).
Surprisingly about the writer of such an infamously disturbing story as “The Lottery,” Jackson’s domestic life informed her fiction almost above everything else. Her stories are replete with young women trying to make careers in the city, as in “Elizabeth” and “My Life with R. H. Macey,” and housewives quietly bearing frustration under the judgment of their households and communities, as in “Flower Garden” or “Got a Letter From Jimmy.” She also had an unmatched talent for writing children. She renders their voices as an expert in their diction, but she also revels in their ability to spurn the expectations of adult society, their explosive imaginations, and their potential for cruelty. In “Afternoon in Linen” a squad of grandmothers is no match for little Harriet, who does not want to read her poems to them. She spurns the polite, proper world of the ladies, causing her grandmother more embarrassment than any of the women could have caused Harriett, and handily winning the confrontation. The child is always quicker and further ahead than the adult. It’s no wonder that, during the fatal gathering depicted in “The Lottery,” Jackson writes:
The children assembled first, of course.
That knowing “of course” doesn’t tell whether the children arrived early because they were so enthusiastic about the cruel acts they had been taught to perform, or because, with their vivid sense of awareness, they were better attuned to the forbidding order of the day than their dim and distracted parents were. Either way, she suggests, whatever direction the story is going, the children are already there.
Although the stories in The Lottery share these recurring themes, they are an odd group of styles and moods. Anyone looking for more like the titular story will probably be left wanting. There is a dark, creepy strain running through the book but it’s subtle and it sometimes disappears for a story or two. A piece like “Elizabeth,” which tells of a young woman who has left her family in a small town to work at a crummy publisher’s office in New York, is a beautiful and funny meditation on longing for one’s home, old or new, and on women’s plight in the working world of the time. But weird and disturbing it’s not. “Come Dance With Me in Ireland” shows an old man who, like the young Harriet, spurns social convention by being comically ungrateful to a group of women who had given him food, although he does this while invoking Yeats, which I guess gives him a mystical quality.
One of my favourite stories of the collection, “The Witch,” is everything at once: weird and disturbing, funny and perceptive. A woman and her son sit on a train, and the son stares idly out the window talking about witches. When a nice-looking man with a cigar takes a seat in their cabin, the mother approves of his friendly questions to the boy, until the man’s conversation takes a gruesome turn. The mother gets enraged, but the boy is enthralled by the man’s story—you can tell no adult has ever talked so sensationally to him before—and in the end, after the man has left, the boy concludes he must have been a witch. This very short, very simple story has everything I love about Jackson: it’s kind of disquieting and wholly unexpected, but also funny; it shows her perfect grasp of a child’s imagination; it sympathizes with the mother, who scrambles to protect her son from a weird stranger while tending to her baby:
“Wait a minute,” the mother said, but the baby fell over sideways at that minute and by the time the mother had set her up again the man was going on.
But in case you think that this book isn’t meant to be all that weird and creepy at all, know two things about it. First: each of the four sections of the book has an epigraph from something called Sadducismus Triumphatus by Joseph Glanvil. That’s a book on witchcraft published in England in 1681, and the excerpts have a suitably malevolent tone. Their meaning is obscure, and their import on the rest of the book, beyond setting a certain tone, is beyond me. But being interrupted every fifty pages or so with Glanvil’s antiquated declarations on witchcraft and possession will remind you to keep a chill in your heart, wherever the next page leads.
Second: the original edition of this book, at Jackson’s request, was subtitled The Adventures of James Harris, and there are several appearances throughout these unconnected stories of a James Harris or his relatives named Harris. That’s very well, until you get to the book’s Epilogue. There you find some verses of a song in archaic Scots-English, finally identified, on the very last line of the last page, as “James Harris, The Daemon Lover.” This song will be familiar to the traditional folk crowd: it’s a Child Ballad, origins ancient and unknown, and is still often sung today, usually under the title “The House Carpenter.” I always found it one of the spookier folk songs out there. It’s about a man who seduces a woman into forsaking her husband and children and travelling with him on a ship to Italy. Once they set off, though, his appearance changes, she spies his “cloven foot,” and things get weird. Here’s the second-last verse, just before the one about James Harris sinking the ship with both of them on it:
‘O whaten a mountain is yon,’ she said,
‘All so dreary wi frost and snow?’
‘O yon is the mountain of hell,’ he cried,
‘Where you and I will go.’
Now, the first story of this collection is actually called “The Daemon Lover” and, of course, a James Harris figures prominently in it. But I hadn’t known the significance of the name Harris, and I didn’t want to read too much into the reference to an old song. Mistake. The emphasis on this ballad, with a hand throughout from Joseph Glanvil, tells you this: the Devil is in these pages. In a way, that’s all you need to know. Only Shirley Jackson could write stories so consistently funny, chilling, and beautiful all at once, and leave you wondering who in your life is the witch, the demon—who in your life is the James Harris?
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