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Shining a Light in the Dark
I know a Good Story / April 26, 2016

Biographies can be such intrusive things.  Say an individual manages, through talent, work and luck, to make something good, something worth remembering.  Now, that’s a difficult, desirable achievement but the is the world satisfied with it? No. When something wonderful is created, some Nosy Parker of a biographer will follow behind, trying to uncover the life and soul of the creator.  On the other hand, a good biography, like Judy Oppenheimer’s Private Demons, can answer questions and provide context to that person’s accomplishments.  The subject here is Shirley Jackson and Ms. Oppenheimer’s tale illuminates a few corners of this complicated, compelling, and private writer. To enjoy Shirley Jackson’s work you must be comfortable with complexity.  In the middle of the twentieth century, she became an acclaimed writer in two genres that seemed mutually exclusive.  The best known samples of her work are psychologically disturbing stories of alienation and evil. However, she also published popular stories of domestic recounted in a well-humored, dry and ironic voice.  In a culture that likes to pigeon-hole the work of its creative artists, Shirley defied easy categorization to the consternation of some of her fans. Could the same person write stories in turn that made…

That Terrible, Really-Bad, House
I know a Good Story , One of My Stories / October 20, 2015

It’s Halloween Season again and TV channels, movies, radio and much of the internet are paying tribute to this time by retelling the stories that entertain and scare us.  The traditional cast of characters are all on display: witches, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, zombies and other deadundead players that make things go bump in the night.  I like most of these but they don’t terrify me.  Haunted homes come closer to the mark since the atavistic part of my brain gives credence to these tales.  It’s easy to believe homes absorb the emotions of the residents they protect and impressions of the events they witnessed. Still, because this type of haunting make sense, in the end they really don’t really frighten me either. These are traumatized buildings with PTSD and it’s obvious they need therapy. However, there is a sub-group of the haunted house that doesn’t follow this pattern. These are the houses that go bad without reason or rhyme. These sentient, “born bad” buildings prey on inhabitants for their own malevolent reasons.  There aren’t many novels that fit in this category but one of the greatest is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.  It can make you distrust your…

The Gift

Sometimes you just get lucky. I believe that. About six months ago I started this  column, writing about books I’d come to love dearly and early on, I praised Shirley Jackson, a writer that almost seemed forgotten.  My mother had loved her work and introduced me to it at an early age.  That was lucky because, in those days, Jackson’s work (with the exception of one story) wasn’t reprinted.  At that time, Jackson wasn’t often remembered in literary circles and when she was the discussions were limited to her supernatural or psychologically disturbing tales.   The author also wrote a lot of well-crafted stories about family life but these were given less weight because a)they were funny or b) they were “chick lit.”   Of all of her works, these looked like they had the least chance of getting back into print. Except, now they are. Ms. Jackson’s books about life with one husband, one sheep dog, four children, 10,000 books and innumerable cats are back in print.  Life Among the Savages follows two parents and their two young children from a New York City apartment to an old Vermont house with Pillars in the Front and ends with the arrival of…

How to Sum up the Year: Just an Ordinary Day
I know a Good Story / December 31, 2014

I’ve thought a lot about this entry because it falls on a calendar date of some significance.  Of course, calendar holidays aren’t usually the ones that make big dents in our memories (unless we’re talking about bicycle gifts for holidays or a wedding celebrated on Valentines).   The days you hold on to, good and bad, aren’t marked on someone else’s calendar.  And of all of the marked days, New Year’s Eve isn’t anticipated by loads of people outside of the liquor business.  Still, it has significance and so does the book, Just an Ordinary Day despite it’s title, because its author was no ordinary writer. Just an Ordinary Day is a selection of stories written by Shirley Jackson.   Some of these are previously unpublished stories that seem to go back to her college years and the final one was published three years after she died.  She created a lot of material between those two events that fall into several different genres.  There are the psychologically disturbing stories that made her famous, the domestic ones that made her loved and several tales that resist categorization of any type.  As a guess, I suspect Ms. Jackson would like that.  Her stories tended…

Growing up with a Gem: The Domestic Novels of Shirley Jackson
I know a Good Story / 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…

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