Rediscovering Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson’s short stories are almost all perfect, the Haunting of Hill House is as beautiful as it is horrifying, and her domestic, sort-of memoirs, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons are, hate to say it: utterly charming. It’s in “The Third Baby’s the Easiest” we learn that, when asked for her occupation while in labor with her third child, the clerk replied to her answer of “writer” with “I’ll just put down housewife.” Typical.

In the end, choosing which of her books to base our first gift set on was the hardest part, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle—with its charming sympathetic magic and sense of creeping malevolence—holds a special place in our hearts. But much as we adore her, we both had the experience of falling in love with her writing 14 years after first encountering it.

Crista: I first encountered Shirley Jackson in the same way that most people do: reading “The Lottery” in middle school. I remember really liking it, but it was in a textbook anthology, so I thought it was some kind of educational publishing piece that was crafted for a specific pedagogical purpose. I just assumed it was a weird, great outlier… I actually thought all short stories were like this—I didn’t realize it was a genre until I was maybe 16.

I did not go to a great school.   

Maura: Wait, you thought all short stories were created for textbooks!?

Crista: Yes…

Maura: I am both delighted and sad for you!

We also read “The Lottery” in middle school (as a photocopied handout, because public school budgets). I don’t think I really registered an author at the time either—it felt very much like a folk allegory—maybe middle schoolers just haven’t developed a strong sense of authorship yet?

When did you end up realizing Shirley wasn’t just a particularly uncanny textbook author?

Crista: When I was 25 or so I found a beautiful Library of America Collection in the used book basement of the local bookstore (still my favorite collection: hardcover, onion paper. Gorgeous). I hadn’t read anything of hers since middle school, but I immediately remembered that weird, great story about a horrible small town (can’t imagine why that resonated with me…).

You rediscovered her around the same time, right?

Maura: I did! I was on The Hairpin a lot in late 2011, and I came across this amazing, out of context, passage in a reply from prolific commenter melis (aka Daniel Ortberg, now of The Toast and Dear Prudence fame). I kept meaning to go back and google it, but a few days later I bought We Have Always Lived in the Castle on a whim, and there it was on page 41:

All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it, thickly inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth and my colored stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now, held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us.”

It felt like a very appropriate coincidence.

Crista: You recommended that book to me, then we ended up on a joint Shirley Jackson kick for, I guess the rest of our lives.

Maura: At one point you sent me what I thought was a massive letter, which turned out to be a 15-20 page short story of hers that you’d photocopied from a library book—I was not disappointed.

Another great thing to come out of this kick was your amazing We Have Lived in the Castle wedding centerpiece:

Because nothing says romance quite like agoraphobia, small town persecution, classism, and murder
Photo Credit: Oliver Scott Snure

Crista: Thank you. And yes, we’re basically a spooky power couple.

Anyway, we’re so glad we exist now and we’ll try to have some products that aren’t directly related to Shirley Jackson in the future, but no promises.

Yours in Creeping Malevolence,
The Imaginary Bookshop

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