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Shirley Jackson and the Unsettled Mystery of Life

On the disquieting fiction of the author of “The Lottery” and the chronicler of James Harris.
by Bill Ryan
October 21, 2021
Shirley Jackson and the Unsettled Mystery of Life
(Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

There is a letter, written by Shirley Jackson to a disgruntled reader, that goes viral on social media pretty much any time Jackson’s name comes up. Short and to the point, the letter reads: “Dear Mrs. White, If you don’t like my peaches, don’t shake my tree. Sincerely, Shirley Jackson.”

It’s difficult to trace exactly which of the writer’s short stories so upset Mrs. White, but by the time she’d lodged her complaint—evidently in 1954, given the date of Jackson’s response—Shirley Jackson was no doubt inured to such feedback. Six years before, The New Yorker published what would turn out to be her most famous, and most infamous, story, “The Lottery.” “The Lottery” has of course become a staple in high school English classes, and is a model of literate horror. No one who has read it is likely to forget one of the story’s final images, when the townspeople are gathering up rocks in preparation to stone to death the woman who “won” this year’s lottery, and Jackson writes “The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.” It’s worth mentioning here, as disturbing as that is on its face, that the woman about to be stoned to death is named Tessie Hutchinson.

The controversy generated from “The Lottery” led to a flood of angry letters, some demanding an explanation, some cancelling their subscription to the New Yorker; by Jackson’s own estimate, over three hundred of them were addressed to her, and forwarded along by the magazine. “Judging from these letters, people who read stories are gullible, rude, frequently illiterate, and horrible afraid of being laughed at,” Jackson said in a 1960 lecture collected in her posthumously published book, Come Along with Me. Her correspondents demanded to know where and when in America this ritual took place. These letters came from all over, with one New Yorker assuming it occurred in “the Middle West,” and one Texan imagining the horror must have occurred in “New England, or equally enlightened regions.”

How times have changed.

It’s difficult to know why, exactly, readers were so outraged by the story. It’s certainly unnerving, but horror stories, or dark fiction dealing with human cruelty, were not new in 1948. Possibly it’s simply because the story appeared in the New Yorker. But I also imagine it had something to do with Jackson’s straightforward (which is not to say plain) prose style. There’s no horror in the descriptive passages, only in Tess Hutchinson’s reaction to her situation. This is the genius behind the story, and in so much of Jackson’s other writing. In fact, she wrote one of the most famous paragraphs in horror literature, the one that opens her great novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959). This paragraph is so well-known that I’m going to eschew it (though editor and writer Benjamin Dreyer diagrams it here, for those unfamiliar) in favor of one that is less well-known but is, to me, almost as brilliant. That is the opening paragraph of her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962):

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

There aren’t a lot of fireworks here, unless you count the precise word choice and meticulous accumulation of detail and mood she achieves in five sentences as fireworks. Which, as it happens, I do.

Not all of Jackson’s fiction was, strictly speaking horror. Of her novels, The Haunting of Hill House is most explicitly in the classic tradition, dealing as it does with ghosts. (Though some choose to interpret the novel as not having a supernatural element at all, suggesting anything that appears to be ghostly is simply in the head of the protagonist. This is a boring way to approach the novel, as the supernatural can exist alongside the psychological quite comfortably, and always has.) One of her short stories, “The Bus,” reads almost like an episode of The Twilight Zone, with its circular narrative about an old woman who finds herself in an unfamiliar town. But her second novel, Hangsaman, I would not categorize as horror even though it deals with the great classic horror theme, the Fear of the Unknown, as it was inspired by the real-life disappearance of Paula Jean Welden. A lot of her fiction was about human cruelty; it could often be bizarre, but it was grounded. In another story, “The Witch,” a young mother, her infant daughter, and her four-year-old son are travelling by train. The little boy is very talkative; his mom lets him ramble while she reads a book. He talks of chasing away a witch, and also says hi to everyone who passes through their car. Then an older man approaches, the boy says hi, and the man engages with him, even taking a seat. Since he seems friendly, the mother allows this. Noticing the infant girl, the man asks the boy about his sister, then asks if the boy would like to know about the man’s own sister. The boy does, and the man tells his story, which includes this:

“My little sister,” the man went on, “was so pretty and so nice, that I loved her more than anything else in the world. So shall I tell you what I did?”

The little boy nodded more vehemently, and the mother lifted her eyes from her book and smiled, listening.

“I bought her a rocking-horse and a doll and a million lollipops,” the man said, “and then I took her and I put my hands around her neck and I pinched her and I pinched her until she was dead.”

It goes on from there.

Shirley Jackson was an unquestionably feminist writer, though not didactically so. A lot of her fiction, including her horror fiction, dealt with domestic issues, or at least domestic life for women in the 1940s and ’50s. “The Witch” deals with that, for example; there’s a horrible threat of violence against women embedded in that story. She also frequently wrote about the tensions between city and country people, as in “The Summer People,” in which an older New York couple, who typically spend their summers in a secluded country house, decide to stay longer, only to find any services they usually counted on from the full-time residents of the small town removed, one by one, to the point that a sinister conspiracy seems to be at play.

One of Jackson’s most fascinating fiction projects had to do with a character named James Harris. He first appeared—although he’s only spoken about, he never actually appears “on-stage”—in a 1949 story called “The Daemon Lover.” In that story, an unnamed female protagonist believes she is about marry a man named James Harris. She writes a letter to a friend that begins “Dearest Anne, by the time you get this I will be married,” as if it were a suicide note. Harris is supposed to meet her at her apartment that morning, and then they will get married. However, he doesn’t show up, and when she goes looking for him, she not only can’t find him, she can’t find anyone who is certain they know who she’s talking about. Furthermore, when she tries to describe him, words fail her: “she tried to think of Jamie and could not see his face clearly, or hear his voice. It’s always that way with someone you love, she thought.” It is also often that way in certain kinds of horror stories, where the mysterious and menacing figure can’t be accurately described by those who’ve encountered him to others.

In “Like Mother Used to Make,” Harris does appear in the apartment of David Turner, where Turner is entertaining Marcia, a woman he likes, and who lives in an untidy apartment one floor up. Marcia knows Harris, and her attention goes to him completely, when he turns up looking for her. Marcia immediately takes credit for the dinner and dessert that Turner actually prepared, and soon Harris’s presence seems to be pushing Turner out of his own home. Another, very short, story called “Of Course” finds the Harris family—in this one he has a wife and son—moving into the house next door to our main character, Mrs. Tylor. Once again, James Harris himself doesn’t appear, but as his nervous wife and Mrs. Tylor strike up a conversation while the movers do their work, Harris is revealed as someone who is most likely extremely unpleasant. He and his family never go to the movies because he believes them to be “intellectually retarding.” They also never listen to the radio, nor do they read the newspaper, though his wife tells Mrs. Tylor that for years they did have a subscription to the New Republic (which sounds like a shot at the New Republic if you ask me). I don’t claim that this or “Like Mother Used to Make” are horror stories, but they do help to paint the picture, begun in “The Daemon Lover,” of a vaguely sinister figure whose goal in life is to poison the well.

Perhaps the most interesting story in the James Harris cycle is “Elizabeth.” In it, the title character works in the fiction department of a struggling literary agency. She is romantically involved with that agent, Robert Shax, which one senses is one of the few things keeping Elizabeth going. This is a long story, largely about the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert, but eventually it turns out that Shax once represented James Harris before the two of them had a falling out. For reasons I won’t get into, Elizabeth decides to call Harris and set up a dinner date. The reader is never shown this date, nor are we told if it even happens, but the key part is that it is immediately upon hanging up with Harris that Elizabeth treats a young woman who began work at the agency that morning, with casual and unprovoked cruelty. Just speaking to Harris makes something wrong happen within the other person.

Inspired by an old folk song called “The Daemon Lover” in which a man named James Harris essentially seduces a young woman into a watery grave, and possibly an eternity in Hell, Jackson originally titled her first collection of stories The Lottery or, The Adventures of James Harris. This has been altered over the years and now the last part of the title is gone. I prefer Jackson’s original, as it shows an approach to chronicling the dark and malicious aspects of life and the world that was as mysterious as the stories she told.

Bill Ryan

Bill Ryan is the writer and sole proprietor of the blog The Kind of Face You Hate. He can be found on Twitter at @faceyouhate.