Reviewed by Simon
I already knew that I loved Shirley Jackson – I did from the time I was about a chapter into We Have Always Lived in the Castle back in 2006, courtesy of Lisa – but Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons made me love her for a whole new reason.
If you think you know Shirley Jackson from ‘The Lottery’, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, then think again. There is nothing at all gothic or haunting about these domestic, strongly autobiographical memoirs. Think Provincial Lady transferred to America (Vermont, I think) in 1953 and 1957 (respectively for these two books). It’s havoc, but it’s brilliant. When I started Life Among The Savages, in which Jackson wittily documents the day-to-day life of a wife and mother, I had to adjust how I responded to her. It’s odd that certain paragraphs can go either way… this one, for example, is wry and whimsical in context. But read it with your Jackson-in-horror-mode hat on, and it feels rather different…
There was a door to an attic that preferred to stay latched and would latch itself no matter who was inside; there was another door which hung by custom slightly ajar, although it would close good-humouredly for a time when some special reason required it. We had five attics, we discovered, built into and upon and next to one another; one of them kept bats and we shut that one up completely; another, light and cheerful in spite of its one small window, liked to be a place of traffic and became, without any decision of ours, a place to store things temporarily, things that were moved regularly, like sledges and snow shovels and garden rakes and hammocks. The basement had an old clothes-line hung across it, and after the line I put up in the backyard had fallen down for the third time I resigned myself and put up a new line in the basement, and clothes dried there quickly and freshly.
Anyone who has read The Haunting of Hill House will know how easily Jackson could have turned this into something terrifying – but there is nothing remotely creepy about this book. The narrator – a version of Shirley Jackson, no doubt, but only a version – evinces none of Jackson’s neuroses or agoraphobia; instead she is a housewife and mother in the self-deprecating, amused mould of the Provincial Lady.
She starts off the book with two children, Laurie and Jannie. About halfway through the book Sally comes along:
Sentimental people keep insisting that women go on to have a third baby because they love babies, and cynical people seem to maintain that a woman with two healthy, active children around the house will do anything for ten quiet days in the hospital; my own position is somewhat between the two, but I acknowledge that it leans towards the latter.
I don’t have children, and very few of my friends have reached that stage of their lives, so I’m new to the world of child-anecdotes. Maybe I wouldn’t have loved this so much if I’d spent ten years hearing people recount the adorable things their children do, but I’ve got to say I laughed out loud a lot whilst reading (and, recently, re-reading) Life Among the Savages. More at the narrator’s reaction to things, to be honest – like taking children to see a Santa Claus who promises rather too much to Laurie and Jannie; learning to drive with an instructor who is ‘undisguisedly amused at meeting anyone who could not drive a car’; coping with the influence of a teacher who tells Jannie that more or less everything is either ‘vulgar’ or ‘unwomanly’. And her husband is there all the time too, loving and affectionate and just as inept as his wife. The first section of the book is my favourite, perhaps because it includes their hilarious attempts to rent a house (everyone is determined that they should buy instead). Oh, and if you’re not sold on the book yet, there’s a delightfully contemptuous and pitying cat called Ninki. Loved her.
The sequel, Raising Demons, is just as wonderful – perhaps even more so. By the time it starts there are six in the family, plus attendant animals, and they have outgrown the house which was so amusingly bought at the beginning of Life Among the Savages – and so they start hunting for a new house. Or, rather, everyone tells them which house they should choose – the one with the wonky gatepost, converted into four self-contained flats. Despite insisting that they don’t want to move, nor rent their house, they find themselves sending all their belongings into storage, and converting the flats into one house. It is here that they live out their ordinary, hilarious lives.
Jackson has a talent for two types of humour at once: the knowing grin we grant to the recognisable, and laughter at the bizarre and unexpected. These initially seem like opposite sides of the coin; that authors would have to pick one or the other – but Jackson manages both at once, by taking the everyday, identifiable dynamics of the family home… and exaggerating them. And then putting them in a pattern, so that events pile on events, creating a surreal outcome. Yet one which seems entirely possible – had, perhaps, happened to Jackson herself.
Here’s an excerpt about the mother preparing her son for his first Little League game – obviously rather more nervous than he is:
As a matter of fact, the night before the double-header which was to open the Little League, I distinctly recall that I told Laurie it was only a game. “It’s only a game, fella,” I said. “Don’t try to go to sleep; read or something if you’re nervous. Would you like some aspirin?”
“I forgot to tell you,” Laurie said, yawning. “He’s pitching Georgie tomorrow. Not me.”
“What?” I thought, and then said heartily, “I mean, he’s the manager, after all. I know you’ll play your best in any position.”
“I could go to sleep now if you’d just turn out the light,” Laurie said patiently. “I’m really quite tired.”
I called Dot later, about twelve o’clock, because I was pretty sure she’d still be awake, and of course she was, although Billy had gone right off about nine o’clock. She said she wasn’t the least bit nervous, because of course it didn’t really matter except for the kids’ sake, and she hoped the best team would win. I said that that was just what I had been telling my husband, and she said her husband had suggested that perhaps she had better not go to the game at all because if the Braves lost she ought to be home with a hot bath ready for Billy and perhaps a steak dinner or something. I said that even if Laurie wasn’t pitching I was sure the Braves would win, and of course I wasn’t one of those people who always wanted their own children right out in the centre of things all the time but if the Braves lost it would be my opinion that their lineup ought to be revised and Georgie put back into right field where he belonged. She said she thought Laurie was a better pitcher, and I suggested that she and her husband and Billy come over for lunch and we could all go to the game together.
That also gives an example of my favourite technique in the book. It’s simple, but I find it endlessly amusing: it is what Jackson doesn’t write. So much of Raising Demons is left to the reader’s imagination. Not much is needed, to be honest – any reader is likely to deduce that the mother is distrait, and the son calm. Jackson isn’t trying to be super-subtle with that point. But I love that it is never quite spelled out – and that other characters thus often miss what is so obvious to the amused reader. Here’s an example in that vein:
By the Saturday before Labor Day a decided atmosphere of cool restraint had taken over our house, because on Thursday my husband had received a letter from an old school friend of his named Sylvia, saying that she and another girl were driving through New England on a vacation and would just adore stopping by for the weekend to renew old friendships. My husband gave me the letter to read, and I held it very carefully by the edges and said that it was positively touching, the way he kept up with his old friends, and did Sylvia always use pale lavender paper with this kind of rosy ink and what was that I smelled – perfume? My husband said Sylvia was a grand girl. I said I was sure of it. My husband said Sylvia had always been one of the nicest people he knew. I said I hadn’t a doubt. My husband said that he was positive that I was going to love Sylvia on sight. I opened my mouth to speak but stopped myself in time.
My husband laughed self-consciously. “I remember,” he said, and then his voice trailed off and he laughed again.
“Yes?” I asked politely.
“Nothing,” he said.
It’s wonderful that these excellent books have come back into print, and with such beautiful covers. Whether or not you’ve read any of Jackson’s other excellent books, do rush out and get these.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Shirley Jackson, Life Among the Savages (Penguin, 2015), 9780143128045, 240pp., paperback
Shirley Jackson, Raising Demons (Penguin, 2015), 9780143127291, 320pp., paperback