Shirley Jackson’s Demons

December 14: Shirley Jackson was born on this day in 1916. Jackson and her husband, the English scholar Stanley Hyman, raised their family in Bennington, Vermont. Life Among the Savages ( (1953) and Raising Demons (1957), Jackson's two memoirs on the misadventures of family life there, continue to be held in high regard, especially by other misadventurers. This moment is from near the end of the first book, a mid-December morning when mother, surrounded by the breakfast chaos of her three children and full-term pregnant with her fourth, grows reflective:

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.

Jackson chooses the hospital over axe-murdering, arriving there to discover that the best maternity suitcase she could manage — “my blue satin bedjacket and a dozen mystery stories and a rough draft of an informative letter beginning ‘Dear ... Well, we have a new son/daughter, and so this makes two pair/three of a kind ...’” — has been repacked by little Jannie, and now contains only her own yellow sundress and a jigsaw puzzle.

The only full-length biography of Jackson is Judy Openheimer’s Private Demons (1988), the title chosen to convey the dark side of the personal rather than the parenting life. By 1962 Jackson’s physical and mental health had deteriorated to the point that she could not face venturing into, let alone fictionalizing, her Vermont hometown. The eventual psychiatric diagnosis was “acute anxiety,” for which any number of descriptions and causes were offered: her mother, agoraphobia, years of drug abuse (amphetamines and tranquilizers), years of overeating and overdrinking, etc. She died at age forty-eight.


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.

 

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.