Monday, June 13, 2011

Shirley Jackson: Beyond "The Lottery"

   Shirley Jackson is probably best known for her short story, "The Lottery," which has been on practically every high school reading list at some point.  But I really fell in love with her writing after reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her novella about the eccentric Blackwood sisters.  The story is narrated by 18 year-old Mary Katherine (aka Merricat) as she tells the mysterious and tragic tale of her family's murder.  Several years ago, they were all poisoned at dinner one night, except for Merricat, here sister Constance, and their uncle.  The crime is officially unsolved, but most of the town suspects Constance, and therefore the two sisters and their elderly uncle are isolated from the community.  Constance has not even left the house in more than 5 years.  The sisters live their lives on the fringe of society, but through Merricat, we learn the truth about her family's history, including what really happened at their last meal.

   We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a very quirky little book and is reflective of Jackson's own personal fears and social anxieties.  It is a quick and entertaining read, and I have no idea why it is so often overlooked.  For me, this book contains one of the most memorable literary characters of all time, and I am grateful to my friend Amanda for introducing it to me a few years ago.  Plus, every single edition of it has a really cool cover!

   For some people, Shirley Jackson's tone as a bit too dark and grim, so if you're looking for a lighter read, Life Among the Savages is a great choice.  This book contains semi-autobiographical tales of motherhood, highlighting the unique and humorous challenges she faced as a woman trying to raise young children while also working from home.  Life Among the Savages recounts some hilarious conversations between Jackson and her 4 kids during the 1940s and 50s.  Kids say the darndest things don't they?  Seriously, Bill Cosby would have loved her children!  Her other book, Raising Demons, runs along the same lines and is also a great read, but it's really hard to find for some reason.  I borrowed my mother-in-law's paperback from the 1970s, which had to be transported in a ziploc bag to prevent it from completely falling apart.  So if you see a copy of Raising Demons in a used bookstore or something, pick it up!  Not only is it a wonderful book (whether you have any experience in motherhood or not), but it's also pretty rare and would make a great addition to any book collection.

   In 2010, The Library of America released a collection of her work, titled Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories.  The collection is edited by my all-time favorite author, Joyce Carol Oates, and contains short stories and her 2 novellas, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House.