An odd look from a stranger as you pass on the sidewalk. A misunderstanding on a bus. The fraction of a second when your daughter walks into a darkening room, and you don’t recognize her. Certain encounters, fragments of time, can register in us an inexplicable angst; they haunt us in the unsleeping hours when the mind spins wrong: Am I all right? Is the world looping off its axis? Am I losing my mind? Shirley Jackson, born a century ago this year, trafficked in this sort of psychic dread and menace and captured it like no one else in her stories and novels of haunted houses, small towns, suspicious villagers, and isolated women seeking all manner of escape.
Jackson also wrote light and humorous essays and memoirs about family life, raising four kids, and tending to a hapless husband and a bunch of cats in a creaky old house in Bennington, Vt. How to square the two? The writer who conjures inarticulatable horror, the cozy homemaker sipping bourbon as she fixes dinner for her family? In her masterful biography, Ruth Franklin, a former New Republic editor and book critic (“A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction’’), explores this divide and the tension between these two identities.
Franklin, who had complete access to the archives of both Jackson and husband Stanley Hyman, establishes the American Gothic master from an early age as an outsider, at odds with the world she was born into, particularly her socialite mother Geraldine who hounded her daughter about her looks, weight, housekeeping, and parenting in letters that Franklin calls “drops of poison.” Franklin pays much attention to that relationship, arguing that it informed much of Jackson’s work and distress. In one devastating example, after the publication and huge success of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,’’ Geraldine wrote a letter commenting on a photograph of Jackson in Time magazine. “If you don’t care what you look like or care about your appearance why don’t you do something about it for your children’s sake — and your husband’s . . . I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like.” Jackson wrote a furious letter back, but it went unsent; she opted instead for chattiness and an emphasis on her success. Two months later, Jackson retreated into her house and didn’t “emerge until the following year.” Franklin’s treatment of this bottled up rage and its results is intuitive and deft, and she shows how it defined another primary relationship in Jackson’s life as well.
Jackson’s husband, a New Yorker critic and Bennington professor who was an early champion of her writing, believed monogamy to be a “politically and philosophically useless enterprise” and didn’t shy from sharing with Jackson the intimate details of his affairs. Franklin emphasizes how blind Hyman was to the anguish it caused his wife over the years, and when she expressed her hurt or anger, he faulted her for being closed, square: “if it turns you queasy you are a fool,” he writes to her. After Hyman details another dalliance in a letter (and encloses an excerpt from the book he was working on for feedback), Jackson lashes back: “[I]nstead of slapping your wrist i ought to kick you in the face you bastard.” But like the letter to her mother, this too goes unsent.
What happens when the cap is sealed on this sort of anger? What can Jackson do, intentionally or not, but shunt this energy, this fury, into her writing? But it takes a toll, and Franklin herself is a skilled builder of tension, tightening the string that connects Jackson to the world until we feel it about to snap. There are balms: patient, supportive agents and editors prove guiding, encouraging forces for Jackson. And it is clear she was a devoted and loving mother who worked to make sure she didn’t repeat the cruelties she had to endure. Though she was not without her oddities: She was messy (a trait that infuriated the fastidious Hyman) and an explorer of witchcraft. In some ways, it was a quirk for jacket copy to sell books; in others, as Franklin observes, witchcraft offered a means of harnessing female power. She was also a heavy smoker, a drinker and, in her later life, a pill popper — uppers and downers, for anxiety, for weight loss, for exhaustion. Jackson would die at 48 of coronary disease.
We also get a sense of the publishing landscape in Jackson and Hyman’s circle of pals (including Ralph Ellison and Dylan Thomas): who was getting paid what, as well as the challenges and anxieties of mid-century America — the Cold War, the atom bomb, the sense of coming apocalypse.
As a literary critic, Franklin serves as an insightful guide to Jackson’s writings, as well as the evolution of her work over time, draft to draft and book to book. She writes “Her interest in houses and their atmosphere extends back to the beginning of her career: to her early fiction, which so often describes the efforts of women to create and furnish a home . . . Her preoccupation with the roles that women play at home and the forces that conspire to keep them there was entirely of a piece with her cultural moment . . . when the simmering brew of women’s dissatisfaction finally came close to boiling over.”
A recurring theme in Jackson’s writings, private and public, is a fear of the dissolution of identity. She writes in a letter: “it is fear itself, fear of self, that i am writing about, fear and guilt and their destruction of identity . . . why am i so afraid?” As Franklin points out, “Female power and creativity, bottled up too long, turn lethal.” Franklin’s portrait of this master is taut, insightful, and thrilling, in ways that haunt, not quite as ghost story, but as a tale of a woman who strains against the binds of marriage, of domesticity, and suffers for it in a way that is of her time as a 1950s homemaker, and in a way that speaks to what it means to be a writer, an artist, and a woman even now.
A Rather Haunted Life
By Ruth Franklin
Liveright, 607 pp., illustrated, $35
Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.