With the passing of Halloween last week, our national season of fright has officially come to a close.
But even though we’re supposed to be shifting our attention from things that go bump in the night, I’m not quite ready to put away horror writer Shirley Jackson, whose books have been on my nightstand since they turned up on my summer reading list a few months back.
Many of us first met Jackson in junior high, thanks to “The Lottery,” a short story included in lots of English textbooks. It’s about a quaint New England town in which the residents, who at first seem like characters from a Norman Rockwell painting, casually participate in a violent civic ritual.
When Jackson first published her story in The New Yorker in 1948, many readers were shocked by her surprise ending. The story prompted more mail than any other work of fiction the magazine had ever published. Scores of readers bristled at Jackson’s suggestion that the threat of great evil could lurk in an otherwise peaceful and prosperous community.
I doubt that many people would be startled by that idea today. The headlines tell us that Jackson’s alertness to such dark possibilities was pretty close to the mark.
Jackson died much too young, at age 48, in 1965, but most of her work still seems contemporary. The brightly designed covers of my new Penguin Classics editions of “The Road Through the Wall” and “Hangsaman,” two of Jackson’s best novels, create the convincing illusion that she’s just arrived on the literary scene.
Here and there, though, Jackson reveals the influences of her 1960s heyday.
Many TV viewers enjoy watching “Mad Men,” the popular cable show about a 1960s advertising agency, because of its colorful glimpse of an era in which smoking and drinking raised few eyebrows in executive suites. Jackson’s stories have an equally nonchalant attitude toward health habits that now look like the surgeon general’s worst nightmare.
In “The Third Baby’s The Easiest,” Jackson’s comic tale of childbirth, she recalls swilling coffee and puffing a cigarette on her way to the maternity ward. That story is a reminder that in addition to her work as a master of the macabre, Jackson also wrote two humorous books about her life as a mother, “Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons.”
I wish that Jackson would have taken better care of herself. Her bad habits caught up with her, and she died of heart failure just as her career was coming into full bloom.
But as a consolation, we have her subtly chilling fiction, and those funny stories about parenthood.
Halloween’s over, I know, but one of America’s best horror writers might be with me through Christmas.