wed 24/05/2017

Shirley Jackson: A Rising Star at 100 | reviews, news & interviews

Shirley Jackson: A Rising Star at 100

Shirley Jackson: A Rising Star at 100

As the great American ghost writer rises again, her son explains her allure

'Some Shirley Jackson stories and novels will scare the daylights out of you. Others will bring tears of laughter'

My mother has been rediscovered, if she ever went away. She is suddenly a rising star, 51 years after her early death. Interest in Shirley Jackson’s novels and stories has blossomed significantly in recent decades, but her new stardom really hit me when I recently walked onto the set of a new feature film adaptation of her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There, in a 300-year-old Manor House in County Wicklow, where nearly all the movie was filmed, sat a well-worn copy of my mother’s book on the director’s monitor console.

“If you love the book you will love the movie,” director Stacie Passon beamed, holding the book like a chalice in front of her between takes. Indeed, she has kept the film remarkably faithful to the book, and has coaxed superb performances from her young stars, all of whom told me privately that they had read and loved the book, and some said they had read other Jackson stories and novels. Shirley would have loved being there - it is quite an experience to watch characters you know intimately as print personae suddenly appear before you, in real life, dressed as you had imagined and speaking the words you know so well. (Pictured below: Shirley Jackson with her son Laurence. Picture courtesy of Laurence Jackson Hyman)

As the curator of my mother’s work it is a great pleasure to see her popularity rising around the world. Her novels continue to be translated into numerous languages, and there are daily requests. Two of her early short stories, “The Lottery” - by far her most famous - and “Charles”, are among the most anthologised stories in the English language, and are required reading in most American high schools. Shirley was popular in her time and enjoyed some years of literary success and admiration before her untimely death, but in recent years her work has started to receive increased scrutiny and praise from international literary critics, and a number of biographies have been published, including the excellent recent Ruth Franklin book, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Her novels and stories have been adapted many times into feature films, TV movies, theatrical stage plays, musicals, staged readings, and touring ballets.

Some of Shirley Jackson’s stories and novels will scare the daylights out of you, while others will bring tears of laughter. She wrote comfortably in a wide variety of styles and voices, something that has puzzled critics for years, and only now is her true genius finally being recognised and acknowledged. A counterpoint to the serious novels and stories were the many funny short stories and two humorous books she wrote about our family that became best-sellers. I was often an unwitting character in those tales, and would sometimes open a popular magazine to find myself cavorting in print, often up to no good, even with illustrations of me and my friends. I did not mind the attention I received, and Shirley gave me some great lines. To this day I am still asked about “Charles” and whether I really did all those mischievous things. It was certainly a unique experience to be one of her characters, although at the time I didn’t give it much thought. Now, of course, my children and I are highly amused.

Unlike the way she is sometimes portrayed, my mother was a very warm, loving, funny, kind person who was a pleasure to be around. She was the quickest in the family with witty retorts during dinnertime conversations, and was always there waiting in the car for us after school, or scouts; she came to our school plays and pageants; and dinner was always good, and on time. She loved baseball - not only watching the Brooklyn Dodgers and her beloved New York Giants, she was a pretty good hitter herself (I pitched to her, and I threw fastballs) and she and my father came to all my Little League games. She loved to cook, and to give dinner parties.

Shirley was not a “spooky” kind of person at all. She was a professional writer, and those stories and novels that came pouring out of her Royal typewriter, when she could find the time, were made-up fiction. She prided herself on being a writer and making a living at it. It was very hard work. But that was challenging in the 1950s. When Shirley was checking into the hospital to deliver my younger brother, the registration clerk asked her occupation. When she said “writer” several times, proudly. The clerk said “Well, I’ll just put down ‘housewife.’”

Shirley would write in the mornings when we were in school, again in the late afternoons, and then at night. My childhood memories are filled with the sound of both my parents’ typewriters, usually pounding away into the night, with the inevitable bell-ringing at the end of each line. She would keep pads and pencils around the house, and when she was doing housework she would often stop to make notes. Her position was that a writer is always at it, even when cooking dinner. Among her many cartons of papers in the Library of Congress are shopping lists with names of characters or key plot words scribbled among the food items.

Currently all 17 books of Shirley’s are in print, with three new ones appearing in the past 18 months alone, along with many impressive new redesigned editions of her classics. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House is considered to be one of the finest ghost stories ever written, a terrifying book in which no ghosts appear. Others of her masterpieces include We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Sundial, Hangsaman and The Bird’s Nest, and there are four posthumous published collections of her short stories: Come Along With Me, The Magic of Shirley Jackson, Just an Ordinary Day, and most recently, Let Me Tell You; I co-edited these last two collections of previously unpublished stories, which we culled from among the vast collection of her writings in the Library of Congress. This autumn a graphic novel adaptation of “The Lottery” created by Shirley’s grandson, my son Miles Hyman, a professional artist living and working in Paris, was published simultaneously in English and French, to glowing reviews. 

Instead of fading into the literary woodwork, as so many good authors have, my mother is again immensely popular, with her countless loyal fans, with writers who acknowledge her influence, and readers who are excitedly discovering her work for the first time. She was far ahead of her time, as a writer and as a feminist, and her work resonates anew with readers around the world. Shirley has earned her rightful place as one of the few writers of the 20th century whose work seems apt to survive. I know she would be very amused and pleased.

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