It was the summer of 1910. Wispy cirrus clouds skittered nervously across a pale sky as Lily Briscoe, brush in hand, stood before her easel at the edge of the lawn in front of the Ramsay’s house. From where she was standing she had a clear view of the sea and the rocky coastline of the Isle of Skye, and then, at some distance from the shore and standing out starkly in the soft summer light, the lighthouse, a tall, solitary pharos on a rock barely the size of a tennis court. But her canvas was empty…
More from author Susan M. Gaines in advance of her appearance at Cardiff BookTalk on 17 February – here she shares a few thoughts on one of the unintended consequences of writing a novel where the real protagonists are non-human. ‘We don’t have to read … Continue reading All the Birds in Accidentals
Shirley Jackson’s biographer, Ruth Franklin, discusses the unexpected and complex ways in which the author’s experiences of motherhood fed into her writing. ‘Jackson had always had an imaginative, even magical mind, filled with witchcraft lore, myths, and fantasies of her own devising. Hyman, ever a … Continue reading ‘All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories,’
The Lottery is perhaps Shirley Jackson’s most famous work. A small town gathers one morning to perform its annual lottery, but who will be chosen and for what? This bold and unsettling short story first appeared in The New Yorker where its journalistic, matter-of-fact tone … Continue reading Shirley Jackson reads The Lottery
As part of a series for Tor.com commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of A Wizard of Earthsea’s publication, Gabrielle Bellot considered what Le Guin’s pioneering sci-fi classic meant to her, as well as the ways it pushed against the boundaries of its time while simultaneously not quite pushing far enough.
Betty watches the row of cars waiting to follow the hearse. Or the grand car, as Mr Eden calls it. Betty is pleased that Mother gets a grand car and lots of eyes on her. She’ll like that. The grass is wet around the grave pit. A big brown box is lowered into the earth. Gallagher still isn’t in the crowd; she checked. He will come though.
A man wearing a white robe says a prayer. Mrs Eden cries. Mother hates Mrs Eden. She will hate Mrs Eden crying too. I’ve no time for that green-eyed woman, that’s what Mother says, even though Mrs Eden has brown eyes. Mother’s eyes are a beautiful ice blue.
Betty wanders off to find the nearest tree; it is an oak. She presses her head against its trunk and lets it take some of her weight. The heaviness has returned but she has hardly eaten so shouldn’t she be losing heaviness? Maybe she should have a nap on this branch. Would this be a good place to sleep, Mother? She tries to hoist herself up but her arms are weak as butter. Mr Eden appears then. He smiles gently.
‘Time to go home,’ he says.
‘Where’s home?’ Mr Eden rubs his chin. Grey stubble pricks through the pores.
‘You need to shave,’ she says to be helpful.
‘Hotel Eden,’ he says. ‘It’ll always be your home.’
‘Thank you.’ Because that’s what you’re supposed to say to people who are trying to be kind – and he sounds kind, but she doesn’t really feel thankful.
She feels nothing apart from heaviness.
Taken from The Unforgotten, Chapter 17.
It was never like this on holidays with Jerry. They never ate in hotels, as he always wrote a list of recommended restaurants. He wrote daytime itineraries too and lined up interesting attractions for them to visit. He knew she needed structure, even though it didn’t come easily to her.
Sometimes they fell behind schedule because she took so long doing things; not that she spent hours applying lipstick or mascara, just an inordinate amount of time drifting between rooms, picking up a skirt here, a bottle of moisturiser there and setting them down elsewhere as if her brain had frozen.
Jerry never complained. He just seemed afraid to ask why she was that way.
Their honeymoon to the Isle of Man; Jerry always said, that was a good holiday – one of their best. Mary picks over the exact days of it in her mind. Actually, it wasn’t good. She recalls an argument about her clerical job and how he had suggested that she slow down to get ready.
‘Get ready for what?’ she had shrieked.
It was the first time she had raised her voice around him and she had felt her neck veins jut out like spines on rhubarb. He had looked at her baffled, yet she knew exactly what he was going to say next, just as she knew what her answer would be. That conversation had been scripted in her head years earlier, between her and whichever man took her on.
‘To have a baby of course,’ he had said.
Taken from The Unforgotten, Chapter 8.
Parked motorcars line the street and a man wearing a spotted bow tie lolls outside the hotel sipping a glass of something amber. His left arm blocks out half of the hotel sign. Eden, it reads now.
‘Fully booked, love,’ he mutters without looking up.
‘I live here,’ says Betty curtly and squeezes past him.
Inside, the big room is misty with tobacco warmth. Men stand shoulder to shoulder, still wearing their overcoats, and Mother wriggles between them doling out cups of tea and
cinnamon biscuits and toothy smiles.
‘Want your grushans topped up with a drop of stout?’ she calls to a man in an armchair, with an empty teacup balanced on his knee. He ignores her.
‘The killer has to be a local,’ another of the reporters is saying to no one in particular.
‘Apparently her blood was still warm when they found her,’ chips in a younger one with a cigarette wedged in the gap between his front teeth. ‘And the Inspector just told me that the first poor lass was stabbed in the stomach forty times… Or was it fourteen?’
‘Mind your lip, Tony,’ says the eldest with an Irish accent. ‘There’s ladies about.’
‘I’m just saying it like it is.’
‘Well don’t,’ snaps the bow-tie man, stepping into the room. They all quieten. His face is stern but he slips Mother a wink. Betty pretends not to notice.
Taken from The Unforgotten, Chapter 1.
Director Robert Wise based The Haunting on The Haunting of Hill House after being frightened by the book. The abbreviated title was a suggestion by Jackson herself. Released in 1963, the film has since become a cult classic, and is often found near the top of ‘Scariest Film’ lists.
The Haunting of Hill House was a financial and critical triumph. A month before the publication date of October 16, 1959 – appropriately close to Halloween – Viking ran an unusual announcement in The New York Times, generating advance sales of about eight thousand copies and considerable buzz. Though there was the usual wonderment at Jackson’s dual writing personas, reviewers responded far more enthusiastically than they had to any of her previous novels. Some treated it as little more than a particularly well-written horror tale.
In The New York Times, Orville Prescott – often one of Jackson’s more skeptical critics – called it ‘the most spine-chilling ghost story I have read since I was a child,’ although he was unsure whether she intended it to be ‘taken seriously’ or had simply designed it ‘to give delicious tremors to readers who delight in one of the oldest varieties of folk tale.’
Some thought the book was too obviously Freudian: Time opened its piece with the snide line ‘When busy Housewife Shirley Jackson finds time for a new novel, she instinctively begins to id-lib.’ Jackson professed to think this was hilarious, claiming she had ‘never read more than ten pages of Freud,’ though she later invoked him regarding Castle.
But most critics recognized that Hill House was, as the Providence Journal’s reviewer put it, ‘a strong and scary parable of the haunted mind’ in the vein of Hawthorne, Poe, or James.— Excerpt from Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
(New York: Liveright, 2016), p. 424.