Sunday, February 21, 2010

I Love Shirley Jackson

I've managed to -- I know it's a foreign concept as an English major -- actually read for fun recently. And I've discovered I would so much rather be reading Shirley Jackson than any more critical theory or Middle English renditions of saints' lives. This past summer I read a collection of Jackson's short stories and The Haunting of Hill House, which were absolutely marvelous, dark and thrilling and even sometimes hilarious, and Hill House made its way onto my nonexistent list of favorite books. Last week I finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and I'm currently reading her comedic non-fiction book Life Among the Savages that chronicles her travails as a writer/ housewife/ mother in the forties and fifties. The more I read by Shirley Jackson, the stranger I find it that no one I know seems to read her, besides her short story "The Lottery" widely anthologized for high school students. While Jackson was popular in her time, she seems to have disappeared off the contemporary face of the literary map. She's best known as a "horror" writer, but that title doesn't do her justice. Any definitive supernaturalism is hard to pinpoint in her work. Instead, much of her short fiction and Hill House and Castle center around domestic spaces and awkward female characters, with an overwhelming darkness threatening below the surface of these kitchens, houses and small New England villages. Like Hitchcock's movies, Jackson's fiction works to expose the perverse and subversive desires that exist behind the artifice of the everyday, the malignant capabilities of average people, and the brutish danger of mob mentality.

Also, sidenote: I'm perplexed and impressed by the adverb-heavy style of Shirley Jackson's prose. In writing workshops everyone always scorns the adverb, which I get, since most people throw them around thoughtlessly. But I've always thought the right adverb has its place as long as the writer knows how to use it. Toni Morrison and other famous fancies have written the adverb off as a weak and lazy choice for the writer who can't find an appropriate verb to do the job. I've always been a little wary of general writing rules like that, and think a good writer can find a way to use adverbs -- or anything, for that matter -- appropriately, albeit sparingly. Rules are made to be broken, right? I study Jackson's prose to better understand the artful use and misuse of the adverb. Her adverbs -- while maybe a little incessant -- sometimes add quite a bit to her prose.

To sum up: Shirley Jackson = highly recommended. If you've never read her, start with The Haunting of Hill House or The Lottery and Other Stories and move on from there.

A couple links to her work online:


  1. "since most people throw [adverbs] around thoughtlessly."

    You complete me, Faith. Hahah. <3

  2. :) Hee hee, glad you got my little joke!