Growing up with a Gem: The Domestic Novels of Shirley Jackson

November 7, 2014

Readers love a seldom-read story or an under-praised author.  To appreciate a less-known work or author is the a mark of a book connoisseur and readers delight in being seen as connoisseurs.    Without knowing it, my sister and I trained to be gourmet readers when we grew reading  the work of an under-appreciated writer.  You may  or may not have heard of Shirley Jackson but do you know about  her books Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons?

When Ms. Jackson’s work is recalled (which isn’t often enough) she is remembered for disturbing tales such as The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived at the Castle and the short story, “The Lottery”.   These are artful, unsettling, well-constructed narratives that leave the reader with the impression they would not want to meet Ms. Jackson in a dark alley.  The titles Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons may sound like more “tales of terror” but these are something different.  These stories would be called domestic humor.

Now domestic humor has never enjoyed a great reputation.  The same critics that sneered over the pulp paper tales of crime and science fiction in the 1940’s ignored the later stories about raising kids in the suburbs, largely because of it’s female target audience.. And though the detectives and space explorers have finally achieved a certain level of respect from the cognoscenti, domestic humor is still literature’s the unwelcome step-child.  So, like Rodney Dangerfield, this work “gets no respect.” But the snob who derides these books because of their catagory is a fool.

Yes, these are family stories, but they are told without sentiment or saccharine.  If anything, Ms. Jackson’s humor is tart, like a dry summer wine. The children are depicted as fully developed characters with individual voices and opinions.  Also, there’s a faint air of disturbance in these tales.  Blankets disappear at will, imaginary playmates send very real presents and a toddler changes names without notice (I sympathize with the child, now a man, who was Barry, B, Mr. B., Mr. Beekman and finally, Beekman to his family and all the world all before he entered first grade.)  There’s an air of logical lunacy in these stories that is familiar to anyone with children, bureaucracies  or a sense of the absurd.  And the prose is as clean as a whistle.

Like I said, my sister and I were raised on these stories.  At first, our Mom read them aloud, then we read them to ourselves at lunch or to each other for pleasure.  When I left for college, I tried to pack Mom’s collection of Shirley Jackson.  My sis tried the same thing years later but each time Mom stole them back out of our luggage.  That says something, considering Mom would lend us shoes, hose or money.  Her Shirley Jackson’s books were off limits. We had to find our own copies.  We did.  I hope, so will you.

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