I have never read anything by Shirley Jackson, despite her sterling reputation as being one of the essential reads of the American literary landscape (and beloved by the book blogosphere). Why? Simple – psychological suspense with horror elements is not my cup of tea. I like my books calming, peaceful, and if there is some nature writing, so much the better. I am not opposed to a little murder (Exhibit A: my multiple shelves of mysteries) but I like the murder to be bloodless and off the page, and ideally the victim to be someone reprehensible, so I don’t feel too badly.
So, I thought, Shirley Jackson: not for me.
Then I heard about Life Among the Savages, Jackson’s lightly fictionalized memoir of living in a rambling old house in Vermont with her cuddly family. Much more my speed! And a good opportunity to read Shirley Jackson, so I can then say that I have read Shirley Jackson. #alwaysthinking
When Life Among the Savages opens, Jackson is living in a city apartment with her husband and their two children, Laurie (a boy) and Jannie (a girl). They’re unceremoniously evicted from their apartment by an unsympathetic landlord, but this inauspicious beginning is the catalyst for moving their family to a rambling farmhouse in Vermont, where they settle in and then produce two more babies in succession. Jackson is a mom after my own heart – minus the chain-smoking, of course – and the vignettes of her daily life are relatable and hilarious. Witness:
By the time I woke up on a summer morning–the alarm having missed fire again, for the third time in a week–it was already too hot to move. I lay in bed for a few minutes, wanting to get up but unable to exert the necessary energy. From the girls’ room, small voices rose in song, and I listened happily, thinking how pleasant it was to hear a brother and two sisters playing affectionately together; then, suddenly, the words of the song penetrated into my hot mind, and I was out of bed in one leap and racing down the hall. “Baby ate a spider, Baby ate a spider,” was what they were singing.
Three innocent little faces were turned to me as I opened the door. Laurie, in his cowboy-print pajamas, was sitting on top of the dresser beating time with a coat hanger. Jannie, in pink pajama pants and her best organdy party dress, was sitting on her bed. Sally peered at me curiously through the bars of her crib and grinned, showing her four teeth.
“What did you eat?” I demanded. “What do you have in your mouth?”
Laurie shouted triumphantly. “A spider,” he said, “She ate a spider.”
I forced the baby’s mouth open; it was empty. “Did she swallow it?”
“Why?” Jannie asked, wide-eyed. “Will it make her sick?”
“Jannie gave it to her,” Laurie said.
“Laurie found it,” Jannie said.
“But she ate it herself,” Laurie said hastily.
Jackson is not the mom who can’t be ruffled. She’s easily ruffled, and also easily distracted – and remarkably clueless sometimes. I forced Steve to listen as I read five pages aloud, all about Laurie’s first encounter with school. He comes tripping home, full of stories about a trouble-making classmate, Charles, who is constantly getting into mischief and sassing the teacher. (Sounds like someone else I know, who shall remain nameless.) One afternoon, returning late, Laurie explains that Charles was required to stay after school and all the other children stayed to watch him. The entire family becomes fascinated with Charles; Jackson and her husband debate his antics constantly and Jackson attends a PTO meeting in a state of high anticipation at meeting the no doubt much put-upon mother of the famous Charles. I’m not going to tell you how it all turns out, but this is Shirley Jackson, so there’s a twist.
Yes, this is Shirley Jackson. A cuddlier, funnier Shirley Jackson than what I understand her fiction would lead you to expect, but still Shirley Jackson. So, naturally, after the children trip off to school, she relaxes by reading about axe murders, as one does.
I took my coffee into the dining room and settled down with the morning paper. A woman in New York had had twins in a taxi. A woman in Ohio had just had her seventeenth child. A twelve-year-old girl in Mexico had given birth to a thirteen-pound boy. The lead article on the woman’s page was about how to adjust the older child to the new baby. I finally found an account of an axe murder on page seventeen, and held my coffee cup up to my face to see if the steam might revive me.
While Laurie was my favorite, I enjoyed all of the kids, and I identified – slightly painfully – with the anxious way that both Jackson and her husband related to them. For instance, bringing baby number four home from the hospital:
“Come indoors and I’ll show you,” their father said.
They followed him into the living room, and stood in a solemn row by the couch. “Now don’t touch,” their father said, and they nodded all together. They watched while he carefully set the bundle down on the couch and unwrapped it.
Then, into the stunned silence which followed, Sally finally said, “What is it?”
“It’s a baby,” said their father, with an edge of nervousness to his voice, “it’s a baby boy and its name is Barry.”
“What’s a baby?” Sally asked me.
“It’s pretty small,” Laurie said doubtfully, “Is that the best you could get?”
“I tried to get another, a bigger one,” I said with irritation, “but the doctor said this was the only one left.”
“My goodness,” said Jannie, “what are we going to do with that? Anyway,” she said, “you‘re back.”
Here’s where I will ruin things a little bit. I loved the way Jackson portrayed her relationship with her husband (Stanley, although he’s never actually named in the book – just “my husband” or “their father” throughout). Jackson writes Stanley as hapless and bumbling, but in a lovable way – and perhaps he could be, from time to time. But I was curious about Jackson’s life and about midway through the book I sought out some articles about her, and was dismayed to find that her relationship with Stanley was far from idyllic – he was manipulative, could be quite unkind, and he essentially forced her into agreeing to an open marriage so that he could cheat on her with impunity (and then rub it in). I fell in love with Jackson and her family as she wrote them in Life Among the Savages, and while some sugarcoating is to be expected, it was heartbreaking to realize how far off the reality was. Of course, every so often, Jackson does tell her husband off. It just takes being in labor:
“They kept telling me the third was the easiest,” I said. I began to giggle again.
“There you go,” she said. “Laughing your head off. I wish I had something to laugh at.”
She waved her hand at me and turned and went mournfully through the door. I opened my same weary eye and my husband was sitting comfortably in his chair. “I said,” he was saying loudly, “I said, ‘Do you mind if I read?'” He had the New York Times on his knee.
“Look,” I said, “do I have anything to read? Here I am, with nothing to do and no one to talk to and you sit there and read the New York Times right in front of me and here I am, with nothing–”
“How do we feel?” the doctor asked. He was suddenly much taller than before, and the walls of the room were rocking distinctly.
“Doctor,” I said, and I believe that my voice was a little louder than I intended it should be, “you better give me–”
He patted me on the hand and it was my husband instead of the doctor. “Stop yelling,” he said.
“I’m not yelling,” I said, “I don’t like this any more. I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want any baby, I want to go home and forget the whole thing.”
“I know just how you feel,” he said.
My only answer was a word which certainly I knew that I knew, although I had never honestly expected to hear it spoken in my own ladylike voice.
All told – I loved this. It was funny, heartwarming, and at least the parts involving the kids felt very real. It is perhaps the best endorsement I can give to say that Life Among the Savages convinced me to maybe, possibly, give Jackson’s (very different) true fiction a try.
Have you read any Shirley Jackson? Should I read her suspense novels or are they too scary?