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A focus on Shirley Jackson – The Haunted Intellect

Updated on August 24, 2017

From her numerous editions, Shirley Jackson to the time of her death was portrayed as a talented administrator of horror stories. One critic termed her as ‘Virginia Werewolf'. Having died 51 years ago, her reputation lives on to date, and one of her stories "The Lottery" which is a story about human sacrifice in an England Village is on the reading list of the eighth graders. Another of her books, "The Haunting of Hill House" (1959), is also known to be one of the best-haunted stories. In essence, Shirley Jackson’s works have been largely inspired by her own experiences.

Shirley Jackson had a lonely childhood, which was filled with ridicule from her mother. Having been born in the year 1916, Jackson and her brother were brought up in an affluent setting yet her parents regarded her with bedazzlement. Other than being a writer, Jackson also identified herself as an outsider on one of her unpublished essays; she says that she even thought she was insane since she felt that the only sane people e are those already condemned mad. According to Shirley, the world was foolish, cruel and afraid of people who appeared different. Geraldine, Jackson’s mother was the sole architect of her daughter's cruel and stupid world. She was an ordinary woman who never hid to her daughter the disappointment she felt about her, stating to her that she wished she were born prettier and more pliable to her taste. Geraldine went further to spoil her daughter's mind by telling her how she was a result of an unsuccessful abortion. Further, still, Geraldine constantly belittled her daughter's mind when she always complained to her of her bad hair, lack of feminine charm and her weight. Geraldine continued to criticise Shirley even in her adult life. She went on to criticise her appearance and her way of life. On the other hand, Shirley's adulthood life was more of a rebellious life against Geraldine's values. She added a lot of weight, married a Jewish and adopted a bohemian livelihood all against her mother's wishes. Shirley was however not able to let go of her mother's torments. Her marriage to Stanley Edgar Hyman was a way out to replicate the abusive relationship she had had all her life. From her writings, for example, the supernatural, the dark side of human nature amongst others, Shirley Jackson mirrors the painful relationship she had with her mother her entire life. It is through her mother's criticism that Jackson got to accept to be in a relationship with a man who disrespected and shamed her for his rational desires yet she tagged along with him and almost went mental from it. In many of Jackson's stories, the structure of a lonely woman escaping a troubled family and ending up lost is repeatedly observed. This is in tune with her life as she marries Hyman trying to escape from her parent's ridicule only to get trapped in the same familiar environment. Shirley was ever miserable in her marriage life. This is denoted by her frequent dependence on alcohol, amphetamines, and tranquillizers. She must have felt patronised by the town people in North Bennington, which resulted to her using them in the novel "Lottery" as the barbaric villagers. Shirley was feeling oppressed by her husband. Even after becoming the chief breadwinner in her home, her husband Hyman continued to control their family finances and would give Shirley small portions of her money as he saw fit. Shirley's stories are expressing the kind of life she had been living. The disappointment in her marriage, escaping from her parents home which later proves to be no escape; as well as the concern that stopped her from departing from Hyman yet she hampered a lot of anger inside due to his promiscuous life that he could not leave behind. Jackson was able to express this anger through the fictitious insufferable male characters she created for her stories and the fantasy vindicating cartoons she made that showed her creeping behind Hyman with a hatched or serving him intestines for dinner.

From her previous work, Shirley focused more on people being persecuted by their close-knit individuals. She later works however focused more on the evil that troubles its subject from within. From some, her published work, Jackson's main ideas have been about the dark world, like "Raising Demons" that was published in the late 1950s. This might have been as a result of the vast collection she had of witchcraft books. "The Lottery" is another collection that talks of a woman who was stoned to death by her family and neighbors. "Life Among the Savages" is also one of the many books that have references to historical witchcraft records. She enjoyed joking about her witchcraft skills and even went to the extent of spreading a rumor that she made one publisher Alfred A. Knopf break his leg while skiing. Shirley would also read Tarot cards for family and friends. The book, "The Road Through the Wall" describes her as being the only writer who practices amateur witchcraft. Looking closely through her novel, "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" Shirley (1961) it gives the readers a picture of Shirley's inner self. One of a happy domestic homebody and the other of an explorer. Mary Katherine-Merricat is the younger sister and 18 years of age. She is headstrong, worldly and at the same time naïve. Constance is the older sister who is more of a home keeper. She is not outgoing or sophisticated like her younger sister. She is believed to have carried out the murders of her entire Blackwood family through poisoning the dessert. Luckily she never took sugar and her smaller sister Merricat had been sent to her room earlier hence escaping the deadly pudding that the rest of their family took that fateful night. There is no mention of any supernatural in the book, but the echoes of emotions and violence might be the eventualities that make the house a beloved one of Shirley Jackson. It is the irony of the obsession of death yet brimming with life that makes this story an interesting read. This story brings together the psychological and social demons in a wild form that was difficult to forget. This book clearly demonstrates Shirley's ability in mixing up dreadful and wit. Constance and Merricat achieved a goblin story ending. After murdering the rest of their large family except their uncle who luckily escaped but fell in, the two sisters draw back to a happy, mad, private world.

Shirley understands very well the relationship between a person's mental state and his/her surroundings as noted by writer Franklin. "The house of fiction" Is always obsessed and notably women in the story are the ones being disturbed. Franklin also comments that due to the ongoing post-war at the time in the US, Jackson's fictional exploration was all about the history of the American women of her era. At that point, there was a lot of anxiety as Franklin explains.

In Jackson's life, there is enough tension between creative ambition and housewifery. This tension is, however, difficult to locate in her stories since through her stories the house is a vague representation. In that house, looms warmth and security yet at the same time catastrophe and imprisonment are present. The evil present in Shirley's homes is the other people. That is the mother, husband, neighbours whose goal is to squash those they admit to being concerned about. What keeps the women in this kind of horrifying places is not the societal pressure, but it is the demons inside their minds. Jackson's stories hence serve more like a conversation other likeminded female lineage in the first custom. Shirley's stories bring out the shape of an incarcerated lunatic and making her a warder of that jail. ‘The most obvious tension in Jackson's fiction is the tension between wanting to get out but being too scared to do it, or longing for a home yet knowing that in all homes one person ends up controlling the other’. Darryl (2003). If we are to locate the signs of blossoming feminist sentiments in Shirley's books, we find that instead of blossoming what is most interesting in them, it tends to wither them. In other words, the haunted air is emptied and to take its place comes the simmering housewife to fill the vacuum. For example in the novel "The Lottery" there is the stoning of a woman to her demise. This is appearing more as a parable to show how women are obliged to sacrifice their lives, energies and even their ambitions.

In 1962, shortly after she had published "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" Shirley suffered a nervous breakdown and acute agoraphobia and was not able to write for two years. She started writing a journal towards the end of her recovery. In this journal, Jackson talked about how she longed for a future where she would live freely away from fear and would eventually be able to disappear from her husband, Hyman. When she would be separate, to stand and walk alone. To not be degraded, weak and powerless. She contemplated that this new woman would have to find her new style and subject for her writing. She in time begun a new novel. A novel that was happy and funny altogether. The novel was about a woman was already widowed and who did away with her husband’s name. ‘Angela Motorman’ is her name, she begins afresh and finds shelter in a boarding residence free from pets, souvenirs, friends, and other personal ammenities. She is all alone but is not afraid to provide for herself a fine life. Unfortunately for Shirley, she died when she was only 75 pages gone into the book. She did not live to know if she would certainly be capable of fulfilling her desire of living on her own. Her final words on the journal she had done six months before her demise indicated a woman who was heroically trying to convince herself to be optimistic. "I am the captain of my fate. Laughter is possible laughter is possible laughter is possible." Zoe Heller(2016).

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