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03 December 2012


I'll start by setting the bar low: I didn't read any nonfiction like I was supposed to. But I did read We Have Always Lived at the Castle, and it was wonderful.

I had read Haunting of Hill House a few years back and was bored silly -- apparently everyone thinks it's supposed to be scary -- but, while I didn't get scared by We Have Always Lived at the Castle, I think Jackson got the horror right in a way she didn't with Hill House.

Ghosts don't scare me. It's other people who scare me.

I'm not sure if Jackson wanted us to identify with Merricat, but eventually I decided Screw it, I like this girl, even if she did murder almost her entire family.

I understand the comfort of routine and the compulsive thinking. It is amazing the lengths I will go to not to leave my house (and when I do, it's usually to the grocery store or the library). She's got a nice strong case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I've got OCD, too, though I'm pleased to report that I haven't murdered anyone.

It was a bit spooky how Merricat still acted like she was twelve, and how people treated her that way. I was confused when Cousin Charles mentioned how kids always liked him, till I realized he was talking about our 18-year-old heroine. Perhaps her growth was arrested when she had her dinner party.

The horror of the novel is the dichotomy: Merricat, Constance, Jonas the kitty, and maybe Uncle Julian, vs. the whole damn rest of the world. Us versus them. Propertied old Blackwood family versus low-class commoners.

Lots of points for prose style. I miss the mid-twentieth-century writers. This reminds me of du Maurier's short fiction ("The Birds," etc., and maybe her longer fiction, only I haven't read it yet). Spooky characters, gothic setting, horror that alternates between the mundane and the severe. Really enjoyable. My only disappointment is that the book didn't disturb me emotionally. My quest for the perfect horror novel continues...

I read "The Lottery" in high school (I won't say how many years ago that was!) and just re-read it last year. It still had the same horrifying impact on me this time around.

I also picked up "Little Savages" when you mentioned it in your blog a couple of months ago. Amazingly, my small-town library had a copy, which I was very pleased about. I wasn't so pleased about the book itself, however. While I liked reading about how she and her husband found their house in Vermont, I felt like when it came to her kids, her anecdotes were just plain silly. I stopped about a third of the way into it, sorry to say.

After that I picked up a similar book called "We Took to the Woods" by Louise Dickinson Rich. Like "Little Savages," it's got humor in it, but it's not what I'd call humorous. I absolutely fell in love with Rich and highly recommend that book. (okay - so that veered way off topic - sorry!)

Your comments on WHALITC were so good, I'll let the fact that you didn't read nonfiction slide.
Do you know anything about Jackson's life otherwise? Her childhood, her pushy mother, her struggles to find her place in Vermont? I'd really, really suggest you read her bio and then we can talk about what that all means in terms of her fiction.
I don't find her fiction scary so much as I do unsettling, and you're right--it's not ghosty scary, it's other people scary. I read The Haunting of Hill House for my fiction, and the relationship between the two women in the book freaked me out more than the house.
Ditto on the lots of prose point styles. Man, I find you can dip in and out of Shirley's fiction (and NF) and instantaneously be BOOM, right where she wants you to be. No fooling. I read Hill House while making supper one night, and it was literally, read a paragraph, stir the noodles, read a paragraph, yell at CRjr for climbing on chairs, read a paragraph, stir meat, etc. And every time I read a paragraph I was right back in her world. THAT was eerie.

Oh, Marija,
I'm so sorry LATS was not for you. I too thought the format was a bit strange (and I actually prefer Jean Kerr's writing from the same era about kids and parenting) but there was just something about Shirley herself that made me laugh in the rather stream-of-consciousness narration. When I picture her just getting a cab to have her fourth baby, and having a cigarette on the way, I can't help but hand it to her for the sheer chutzpah. Oh, and by the way, at the same time she was writing some unbelievably good fiction. What a gal.

May I ask, what specifically do you find horrifying about The Lottery?

And thank you for the LDR suggestion; I'll try that next!

I remember finding the whole matter-of-factness of the lottery event in the town horrifying. Nobody questioned the insanity of it - they just went along because, well, it's tradition don't ya know. Nobody would even think to question it. I find that kind of blind loyalty to a cause very scary.

And yes, I agree that Shirley Jackson was amazing to have had the large family in the farmhouse in Vermont during an era when women did ALL the child rearing, and still produce great writing. I can't imagine plumbing the depths of creativity with all the activity of little ones constantly in the background.

I read Life Among the Savages and The Haunting of Hill House. I have had THOHH on my list for a very long time. I had no idea until very recently that Jackson had also penned the lighter themed LATS. My initial impressions of both books were very positive.
LATS was amusing in parts and personally, I would like to think that if you look closely enough, you can see echoes of Jackson’s sense of the macabre in it. And, as you pointed out CR, the contrast between U.S. 1940’s motherhood and 21st century motherhood was interesting (smoking when pregnant, 10 day hospital stays, etc).
I made a point of reading THOHH at night before I went to bed so I would be scared which worked for the most part. But I don’t think the point of THOHH is things that go bump in the night but rather the thin line between reality and delusions and just how short of a hop it is from sanity to madness. That is creepy. I also liked the ambiguity of the book. In that sense, it reminded me of Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger; you don’t know exactly what to believe.
I also picked up the Jackson Biography “Private Demons” by Judy Oppenheimer this weekend at the library. I am only 50 pages in, but I hope it will be enlightening.

Yes, Shirley does that "creepy in the commonplace" thing very well. That's a big part of WHALITC that the Lesbrarian was talking about too. Even if you don't find it scary, per se, there is something definitely off-kilter about it.
What I find amazing is how much she plumbed both sides--the ugliness of people, but also the little weirdnesses and things that made her kids so interesting to her.

I am glad you felt very positively about your choices. Was it kind of a trip to read them close to each other? The sheer spectrum of her writing (even if there's sometimes a lightness in her fiction and a dark undercurrent in her NF) is fascinating to me.

There was also something about her style in both her nonfiction parenting books that really struck me as making you FEEL the experience of homekeeping/child-rearing--the neverending cycle of it all.

I totally agree with your points about what makes Hill House creepy. Not only from sanity to madness, but the thin line in our relationships with others, and how we perceive ourselves. And the comparison to "The Little Stranger" is interesting--I remember being somewhat annoyed by that book, but atmospherically, yes. For some reason Shirley's fiction also reminds me of Donna Tartt's "The Secret History," which also seemed to explore the shifting nature of relationships, events, etc.

Good luck with the bio!

Ah yes, "The Secret History." I really must re-read that one.

There is sort of a tenuous link between Donna Tartt and Shirley Jackson. Tartt graduated from Bennington College in Vermont and the school in the Secret History is reportedly modeled after Bennington. Jackson’s husband taught at Bennington College and the family lived in a village (which inspired many of Jackson’s stories) near the school for many years.

Me too, although I should try a different Donna Tartt. Didn't she have one called "The Little Friend" or something?

Wow, good catch. I had forgotten the Bennington connection in the Tartt book.

Life Among the Savages shows so clearly how full-time motherhood can lead to madness. It's hilarious, but what gives it the staying power is that something behind the hilarity. The reader has the feeling that if it were pushed even a little bit more...

In the biography and also in LATS, I was all swoony reading about their extensive home library.

Although I wouldn't have 1/8th of the energy required, I was a little swoony about their entire life--kids, pets, library, jobs, laughter, darkness, addictions to coffee and smokes--all of it. I don't think it was an easy life but wow, did she LIVE.
Yes, the "edge" underneath her memoirs is what I really enjoyed too, although perhaps "enjoyed" is the wrong term. Particularly in her writing about sometimes-dodgy community members in their little town--I got the sense all of that might have pushed her more than motherhood.

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