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October 18, 2017

Shirley Jackson, Humor & Horror

On this day in 1965 Shirley Jackson died of heart failure, at the age of forty-eight. For twenty years and from various angles Jackson had built a reputation for quietly ripping the lid off life in Pleasantville: "The Lottery" and other stories; her two family chronicles, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons; her horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House. By 1962 her physical and mental health had deteriorated to the point that she could not face venturing into, let alone fictionalizing, her Bennington, Vermont hometown. The eventual psychiatric diagnosis was "acute anxiety," for which any number of descriptions and causes were offered: her mother, agoraphobia, years of drug abuse (amphetamines and tranquilizers), years of overeating and overdrinking, etc.

Whatever the cause, Jackson was acutely aware of her writer's block, if not her personality block, over the last years. She sought therapy in journal writing, and felt that a new style, even a new self, was waiting for her in the "great golden world outside." At one point, the self-help journal included this ministration: "I have already thought I will not be able to re-read this page without embarrassment and cringing because I wrote 'getting laid.' Surely this is unreasonable. Getting laid getting laid getting laid...." Her last journal entry, six months before she died, shows the struggle continuing:
    I know something about this obsession business. It isn't real. It is a huge cloud of looming nothingness triggered off by small events. But it is not real.... I am the captain of my fate I am the captain of my fate I am the captain of my fate. Laughter is possible laughter is possible laughter is possible.
For Jackson, the tension was always between the scream and the laugh. Her comment on the uproar caused by "The Lottery" is now famous: "The number of people who expected Mrs. Hutchinson to win a Bendix washer would amaze you." She was known in the family for her somewhat twisted jokes -- for example, in aid of convincing her husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman, that his favorite old movie, Freaks, did not in fact exist, she hid all the local library's movie reference books in the back of her closet for months. Because of this sort of thing, the family at first thought her death might be a prank. One daughter had overdosed two weeks earlier, an act interpreted by Jackson as histrionics; unable to rouse Jackson from her afternoon nap, the family wondered if she might be having some sort of copycat laugh at her daughter's expense. Hyman, a thorough bibliophile, put a mirror to her lips; when this proved inconclusive, a local doctor was called, but such a bad job was made of describing the situation that the doctor went back to his own nap before driving over.

After Jackson's death over a hundred unpublished or uncollected stories were found in the family's Vermont barn. In "What a Thought," now published in the 1995 collection, Just an Ordinary Day, a troubled wife contemplates life with her pleasant, no-idea husband:
    She flipped the pages of her book idly; it was not interesting. She knew that if she asked her husband to take her to a movie, or out for a ride, or to play gin rummy, he would smile at her and agree; he was always willing to do things to please her, still, after ten years of marriage. An odd thought crossed her mind: She would pick up the heavy glass ashtray and smash her husband over the head with it.

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