Early Shirley Jackson

December 14: Shirley Jackson was born on this day in 1919. In "All I Can Remember" (used as a preface for Just an Ordinary Day: the Uncollected Stories of Shirley Jackson), Jackson says that she recalled only two things about being sixteen. One was the day in her new school—she had just moved East from hometown San Francisco—when her Chemistry teacher stopped the class so that everyone could go outside to watch her enjoy her first snow fall. The other memory was of her first story, a murder-mystery written in such haste that she chose her murderer lottery-style by putting the names of all her characters in a hat. After finishing off her victim and her story as best she could, she looked about for an audience:

My mother was knitting, my father was reading a newspaper, and my brother was doing something—probably carving his initials in the coffee table—and I persuaded them all to listen to me. I read them the entire manuscript, and when I had finished, the conversation went approximately like this:

 

BROTHER: Whaddyou call that?

MOTHER: It's very nice dear.

FATHER: Very nice, very nice. (to my mother) You call the man about the furnace?

BROTHER: Only thing is, you ought to get all those people killed. (raucous laughter)

MOTHER: Shirley, in all that time upstairs I hope you remembered to make your bed.

It is a scene that might have come from Life Among the Savages or Raising Demons, Jackson's parenting chronicles (and might have contributed to the "anarchic housekeeping" described in Private Demons, the 1988 Jackson biography by Judy Oppenheimer). And it is not too far from the opening to Jackson's Gothic suspense tale, We Have Always Lived in the Castle:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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