In a nearly empty train coach, a charming male passenger, smoking a cigar, sits beside a young boy and his mother. The boy is looking for witches, and the inquisitive stranger asks him if he has seen many. The boy does not answer the question, instead saying his father smokes cigars. All men do that, the stranger replies, and a rapport is immediately established between them. The boy responds to every question put to him with a lie. He says his name is Mr. Jesus and that he is twenty-six. The mother offers the truth. His name is Johnny, and he is four. To the stranger’s question about the age of Johnny’s baby sister, who has been playing with her rattle when she is not crying and laughing, Johnny responds she is twelve and a half. When the man asks Johnny if he loves his sister, Johnny does not answer. Then the man asks if Johnny wants to hear about the man’s sister. Excited, Johnny asks if she was a witch. “Maybe,” the man responds. The little boy laughs as the man begins, “Once upon a time,” a phrase that seems to reassure the anxious mother, who has obviously been wondering about this stranger’s attention to her son. Then the man explains that he put his hands around his sister’s neck,
“And I pinched her and I pinched her until she was dead.”
The little boy gasped and the mother turned around, her smile fading. She opened her mouth, and then closed it again as the man went on, “And then I took and I cut her head off and I took her head—”
“Did you cut her all in pieces?” the little boy asked breathlessly.
“I cut off her head and her hands and her feet and her hair and her nose,” the man said, “and I hit her with a stick and I killed her.”
“Wait a minute,” the mother said, but the baby fell over sideways just at that minute and by the time the mother had set her up again the man was going on.
“And I took her head and I pulled out her hair and—”
“Your little sister?” the little boy prompted eagerly.
“My little sister,” the man said firmly. “And I put her head in a cage with a bear and the bear ate it all up.”
“Ate her head all up?” the little boy asked.
The mother put her book down, and came across the aisle. She stood next to the man and said, “Just what do you think you’re doing?” The man looked up courteously and she said, “Get out of here.”
“Did I frighten you?” the man said. He looked down at the little boy and nudged him with an elbow and he and the little boy laughed.
“This man cut up his little sister,” the little boy said to his mother.
Horror in the midst of the commonplace.
Here you have the Shirley Jackson effect: horror in the midst of the commonplace. Jackson’s conventional mother wanted to know why she wrote about such gruesome episodes. Her husband, the distinguished critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, fretted that such stories earned both of them a living while he toiled on tomes like The Armed Vision and The Tangled Bank, investigating the great literary modernists and the likes of Darwin and Freud. Jackson’s early publisher, Roger Straus, took her for granted and failed to do enough to position her as an important writer. And through it all Shirley Jackson kept on writing and gaining weight, raising several children, and writing about them in wonderful essays—when she was not dealing with haunted houses and other horrors.
Jackson’s burden, as Ruth Franklin shows so meticulously and movingly, was her identification with genre fiction. Not that she thought of herself that way. But critics and award committees ignored her work, not realizing she was a modern master of both the short story and the novel. In “The Witch,” every detail is exquisitely calculated. The boy and the man are enjoying the bloody story, but the mother is concerned about the extraliterary impact of introducing the macabre to a four-year-old boy (although he has already given evidence of having a taste for it). And both boy and man are, in effect, litterateurs, fascinated with literature for its own sake.
Can literature, or storytelling of any kind, hurt the boy? The story seems to pose this question without ever asking it, just as Jackson’s classic story, “The Lottery,” presents a community stoning as just another ritual citizens regard as a natural part of their heritage. Franklin details the enormous response to the story, as well as the constant requests for Jackson to explain herself, which she wisely declined to do. Jackson applied the same approach to stories about racism, in which her New England neighbors (she lived for years in Bennington, Vermont, where her husband taught at Bennington College) are taken for granted in a most genteel way.
Ruth Franklin provides everything we have come to expect in a literary biography: we learn about Jackson’s upbringing, which did not prepare her for a career; about her understanding father and uncomprehending mother; and about her only husband, usually supportive of her work but also unfaithful and often insensitive. We learn about the genesis and development of Jackson’s most important work, its critical reputation, and her own reactions to her oeuvre. And it is a pleasure to learn how her second publisher, Viking, rescued her from years of neglect and incompetence at Farrar Straus, a firm that devoted much more of its passion to Nobel Prize winners, European authors, and movers of the Zeitgeist like Susan Sontag, while promoting Jackson as if she were merely a great pulp writer.
I wish Franklin had explored even more of Jackson’s work, but trade publishers these days seem to want biographers to keep it short and snappy, unless the biographer is Ron Chernow, Robert Caro, or some other prize-winner writing about huge political and cultural figures. Literary biography, alas, continues to suffer from neglect, but Godspeed to those like Ruth Franklin who soldier on.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 7, on page 75
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