Back during the 1988-89 school year, when I was in eighth grade, one of the stories in our literature textbook was “Charles” by Shirley Jackson. This was the first time I had ever heard of Jackson. The short story was from her book Life Among the Savages and was about her kindergarten-aged son Laurie. He started school and came home each day with wild tales of this other rambunctious kid in his class named “Charles”. The child tormented the teacher, played mean pranks, etc. I won’t give away the ending, but the story is included in many of Jackson’s other collections which you can still find on Amazon and with other book retailers.
Jackson, in a sense, led two professional personas: the “happy housewife” (which is disputable) whose witty, humorous essays and short stories about domesticity were a staple of 1950s women’s magazines. Then, there was Shirley Jackson, “the horror writer”, propelled to fame by her 1948 short story “The Lottery” in The New Yorker. This was the Shirley Jackson I came to know and love. I read The Haunting of Hill House in high school. I think I found it in the school library, but I do know I devoured it. The 1963 movie The Haunting was based on the book and is a faithful adaptation (the 1999 remake is a piece of garbage if you’re a fan of the book—skip it). I’m also a fan of Stephen King, starting from high school through today. He too loved and was inspired by Jackson. King writes in great length about Jackson and Hill House in his 1981 nonfiction book Danse Macabre, another high school library read about horror in pop culture that would inspire me as a writer.
Back to the eighth-grade textbook: at the end of each story was a short, usually one-paragraphed mini-bio on the writer. The first thing I noticed about Jackson’s was that she died at a relatively young age. It gave her birth year as 1919 (it was actually 1916) and her date of death as 1965. That struck my curiosity back then, wondering what caused her to die while still in her forties.
A new book that helps fill in these gaps is Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. Franklin, a journalism professor, poured a great amount of research into the book, going through Jackson’s archives (including old, undelivered letters Jackson wrote to her husband and mother, both of whom she had turbulent relationships with). The book is a bit scholarly, sometimes juicy, and all together hard to put down. Franklin conducted in-depth interviews with Jackson’s children, all still alive, as well as the widow of Stanley Edgar Hyman (Jackson’s husband), whom Hyman married after Jackson’s death. Hyman didn’t take good physical care of himself and, like Jackson, died of a heart attack just five years later in 1970, while only in his early fifties.
Franklin’s book proves some of the things already known about Jackson: she was a heavy smoker who loved her cigarettes (she clutches a Pall Mall in the majority of photos you see of her); she was overweight and obese most of her adult life; she was plagued by insecurities—much of it from her husband’s infidelities, criticisms, and the constant belittling from her mother Geraldine, which continued her whole life (much of it through cross-country letters). I read somewhere else (not in Franklin’s book) that Jackson went through a pound of butter a day between herself and cooking for her family. There are also plenty of stories out there about her college-professor husband (he taught at Bennington, an all-women’s school) carrying on with some of his students. Hyman married one of his former students after Jackson died, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s any evidence they were involved before that.
Jackson suffered from agoraphobia in her final years, unable to leave her house for nearly a year. She made progress with the agoraphobia before she died, and there are hints she had finally and courageously begun plans to walk away from her unhappy marriage when she took a nap one afternoon and never awoke.
Franklin’s book goes much more in-depth and reveals things about Jackson many of her fans never knew. Franklin delves into the backgrounds of both Jackson and Hyman, their childhoods and lineage, their eventual meeting in college, living together, and marriage. They were bohemian and unconventional. One could argue Jackson knew what she was getting into before she married Hyman and had four children with him. Even before they were wed, he shamelessly gloated to her about his “tom-catting” with other women in letters they exchanged when one or the other was out of town. At the same time, they were desperately in love and appeared to be unable to live without the other in the early years of their relationship. Hyman was a practicing Communist during his college years, with a strong disbelief in monogamy. He even told Jackson she was free to have affairs of her own. According to Franklin, Jackson only took him up on it once during their marriage, and it isn’t clear even then if she really went “all the way” with the other man in question. It was obvious to her she would only give Hyman the arsenal he needed to validate his own infidelities if she carried on the same way.
Just a few of the many things I walked away with after reading Franklin’s biography on Jackson: 1. She loved her children deeply, despite her love-hate relationship with her husband. 2. She used much of her own life as a writer’s mill for her fictional stories and novels. 3. She never worked up the courage to deliver those letters to her husband and mother and tell them how she really felt (I think her mother outlived her). 4. Despite the way he treated Jackson, Hyman did love her and was quite bereaved after her passing. 5. I must re-read The Haunting of Hill House (it’s been at least twenty-five years) and read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Sundial!
I have two of Jackson’s collections, so while reading Franklin’s book, I went back and re-read “The Lottery”, “Charles”, and a few of Jackson’s other stories. It was so nice to read “Charles” again without sitting in an eighth-grade classroom, in a new school I absolutely hated (and still gives me nightmares to this day), when I read it the first time. I never liked or cared for school any year; I never really fit in, so reading was always an escape for me when I was younger. It still is, but for other reasons these days. As a middle- and high-schooler, I often fantasized about becoming a famous writer when I grew up and coming back one day to show up all the other kids I didn’t like.
The famous part never quite happened, but now I’m okay with that part of it. Something writers like Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and Edgar Allen Poe uncovered—and what inspires me as a writer of darker fiction—is it isn’t always the ghosts, monsters, blood/guts, and the gore that make a good story. Sometimes the human psyche and inner conflict is where the true terror originates.
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. Highly recommended for Jackson fans!