Review: ‘Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life’ by Ruth Franklin

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
Liveright (September 2016)
624 pages; $25.14 paperback; $16.05 e-book
Reviewed by Frank Michaels Errington

Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of biographies. Not my thing. Nothing against them, I just prefer to spend my time reading fiction. That being said, when I saw there was going to be a Shirley Jackson biography, I decided to get out of my comfort zone just a bit.

Shirley Jackson is perhaps most remembered for her short story “The Lottery” and her novel The Haunting of Hill House, but there is so much more to her short life. The biography covers her childhood, college years (she wasn’t a very good student), early published works, novels, family life, her troubles with anxiety and a period of agoraphobia, and ends with her untimely death.

Shirley Jackson was the mother of four—two boys and two girls: Laurence (Laurie), Joanne (Jannie), Sarah (Sally), and Barry. Each unique in their own way and often fodder for lighter, more humorous stories she wrote, in sharp contrast to her more serious pieces. She also had a sense of humor about her children’s misdeeds. One day Laurence, twelve or thirteen years old, balked when she told him to take a bath. Shirley went into the kitchen, came back with an egg, and smashed it on his head. “Now you need a bath,” she told him.

Her husband, Stanley Hyman, was a firm believer in polyamorous relationships, much to Jackson’s dismay, but despite numerous thoughts of divorce throughout the years, the couple remained married until her death in 1965.

Of the many quotes from Jackson’s work included in her biography, there was one which seemed just as relevant today, as it was when written 60-plus years ago. From The Witchcraft of Salem Village:

We are not more tolerant or more valiant than the people of Salem, and we are just as willing to do battle with an imaginary enemy…The people of Salem hanged and tortured their neighbors from a deep conviction that they were right to do so. Some of our own deepest convictions may be false. We might say that we have far more to be afraid of today than the people of Salem ever dreamed of, but that would not really be true. We have exactly the same thing to be afraid of–the demon in men’s minds which prompts hatred and anger and fear, an irrational demon which shows a different face to every generation, but never gives up its fight to win over the world.

The biography is certainly complete, right down to the seemingly most minor of details. As much a treatise on the times and the publishing industry in general as it was on the life of Jackson. Plus, there are a number of wonderful pictures interspersed throughout the book.  

Recommended for all readers who are the least bit curious about Shirley Jackson.

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