Shirley Jackson celebrated her 100th birthday this month. We are publishing this post from A.N. Devers in her honor.
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Like so many readers, I loved and was gutted by Shirley Jackson’s famous New Yorker short story “The Lottery” from the first time I read it, and I have read it so many times since then that I don’t remember when I was first introduced to it. I was young. I have a couple of prime suspect English teachers who might have been the gift-givers. But until about nine years ago, I hadn’t read any of Shirley Jackson’s novels. I was only vaguely aware of one of them, her famous ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House.
Then I wrote a short story my MFA professor was enthusiastic about; it was full of domestic disturbance and the strange, and he assigned me to read all the Shirley Jackson I could get my hands on, which was difficult at the time, since not much was in print. So I read her collected stories, and two novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hill House. I inhaled them and their contents, the cobwebs and fairy tales, the ghosts and talismans, the anxieties and fears. They are books written by a self-described witch who was also a tremendously gifted writer, and that makes them laced with a kind of special magic. I still can’t believe they aren’t better known or accepted as great American novels.
Since then, I’ve read nearly the lot of it, and done everything possible to get to know Shirley Jackson and her work, including staring up at her white columned house that was illustrated on the cover of Life Among the Savages, her bestselling memoir about raising four children. I wandered the backroads of Bennington, Vermont in my car looking for the inspiration of her haunted Hill House, before I learned it was inspired by a home far away from Vermont’s hills in California.
I’ve also been Jackson’s book pusher. Not too long ago, I dined with a table of smart, friendly, and incredibly well-read British book dealers and explained to them who Shirley Jackson was. They hadn’t read “The Lottery,” but it rung a faint bell. It’s worrisome, but I’m happy to report that they furiously wrote her name down. I once gave my copy of Castle to a stranger at a bar. And as a cherry on top, last year, I proposed and lead the first Shirley Jackson reading group at The Center for Fiction. We pored over her work, and read some of it out loud, and that is when I realized her fiction hasn’t aged. Her storytelling is incredibly modern. She is a writer to read right now. Read more…
There’s a wonderful, creepy Shirley Jackson story—you may already know it—called “The Summer People.” It’s about a couple from New York City who decide to stay at their little cottage on the lake for a month past Labor Day instead of returning as usual to the city right after the holiday. The story starts out with Mrs. Allison, age 58, doing her shopping in the nearby village and announcing her and her husband’s change in plans. The first person she tells is the grocer: Read more…
There’s that urge in adolescence when you feel like you discovered something, maybe a song, a book, or a painting, that resonates so deeply within you, to protect it, and keep it secret and close, so that you feel like you have claim of something wondrous and all your own. And if you share the secret, or if others discover the artist, you may later state that you were listening to the music first, or reading an author first, as if your personal first spark determines the authenticity of an artist. It does not end up being an attractive trait, because we should share good art, because we shouldn’t be snobs, and because artists are responsible for their talent, not the consumers of the work. Luckily, it’s an impulse most seem to grow out of, except for in extreme cases, particularly if that person continues to fly under the radar of mainstream culture for an unexplainable amount of time. Read more…
I recently discovered Kelly Link, an incredible short story author with a penchant for twisty magical realism. Her new collection, Get In Trouble, comes out in February. Luckily, “The Faery Handbag” is available online:
The faery handbag: It’s huge and black and kind of hairy. Even when your eyes are closed, it feels black. As black as black ever gets, like if you touch it, your hand might get stuck in it, like tar or black quicksand or when you stretch out your hand at night, to turn on a light, but all you feel is darkness.
Fairies live inside it. I know what that sounds like, but it’s true.
Grandmother Zofia said it was a family heirloom. She said that it was over two hundred years old. She said that when she died, I had to look after it. Be its guardian. She said that it would be my responsibility.
I said that it didn’t look that old, and that they didn’t have handbag two hundred years ago, but that just made her cross. She said, “So then tell me, Genevieve, darling, where do you think old ladies used to put their reading glasses and their heart medicine and their knitting needles?”
I know that no one is going to believe any of this. That’s okay. If I thought you would, then I couldn’t tell you. Promise me that you won’t believe a word. That’s what Zofia used to say to me when she told me stories. At the funeral, my mother said, half-laughing and half-crying, that her mother was the world’s best liar. I think she thought maybe Zofia wasn’t really dead. But I went up to Zofia’s coffin, and I looked her right in the eyes. They were closed. The funeral parlor had made her up with blue eyeshadow, and blue eyeliner. She looked like she was going to be a news anchor on Fox television, instead of dead. It was creepy and it made me even sadder than I already was. But I didn’t let that distract me.
“Okay, Zofia,” I whispered. “I know you’re dead, but this is important. You know exactly how important this is. Where’s the handbag? What did you do with it? How do I find it? What am I supposed to do now?”
George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thronesseries is a crossover hit. However, there are still skeptics who view fantasy as children’s fables and tales exclusively for young adults—or you might just find GRRM’s enormous tomes a little intimidating.
Luckily, fantasy short stories offer us the depth of narrative we require and the fantastic elements we crave. Here is a collection of my favorite new and old gems, available online for free.Read more…