Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Filmed review.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life was written by Ruth Franklin. Franklin is an American literary critic who spent six years researching Shirley Jackson’s work and life to write this book. Once published, she was awarded several accolades for her efforts. Among those, the Bram Stoker Award for Best Nonfiction, the Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography. And after reading this myself, I can unequivocally say that she absolutely deserves the praise.

I am by no means a Shirley Jackson super-fan. Rather, I wasn’t, but that may have changed after reading this fantastic biography. I’ve read some of Jackson’s biggest works, the Haunting of Hill House, the Lottery short story collection, as well as both of her personal memoirs, Life Among Savages and Raising Demons. Of course, there are many other works I haven’t read, perhaps the biggest being We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Any hesitation I had about reading her other works has vanished. Franklin has inspired me to read Jackson’s entire list of work, and reread this biography when I’m done to fully appreciate the depth and significance of Jackson’s work.

I originally sought out this biography after reading Life Among Savages, Jackson’s first memoir, in October of 2019. I had hoped to get a look into Jackson’s psyche because I knew how significant her work (e.g. the Haunting of Hill House) is in the horror genre. Imagine my disappointment when I came to find out that it is less a memoir and more of an outtake of what it’s like to be a housewife in the 50s (or what you’re expected to be). There’s nothing really discussing her personal life outside of her kids; never is there a mention of her life as a writer. There is the hint of what might be satirical commentary on her life and society, but overall, the book comes across as somewhat antiquated. I couldn’t decide if the book is Jackson being cleverly critical or just doing exactly as it seems, trying to paint herself as the “perfect” housewife. I ended up thinking it must be somewhere in between. Franklin goes deep into what Jackson was trying to get at with these memoirs and what motivated her to write them, and it seems I was mostly right about it being a mix of critic and showcasing. My point here is that the memoir left me wanting. I realized it was never meant to be an honest peak into Jackson’s life.

I approached this biography hoping for a deeper dive into her personal life as well as into her mind. Thankfully, that is exactly what I got. This biography excels because it is more than just an outline of her life; it’s a detailed look at how her life fed into her work and vice versa. Franklin’s expertise as a literary critic really shines through in this aspect. This is as much a critical analysis of Shirley Jackson’s literary works as it is of her life. As someone who has come to enjoy reading memoirs and biographies of celebrities and other significant people in history, I must say this is one of the best that I’ve ever read. Sure, I am biased as a fan of Jackson, especially after learning more about her, but objectively speaking, there is so much here to love.

It is at times almost academic in its detail, but never is a dull. The hardest part is adjusting to just how dense the story is, but it quickly morphs into a compelling story of Jackson’s life. This book is very long—over 600 pages, but never was I bored. I found myself lying in bed at night listening to the audiobook eager to find out what happened next. Needless to say, this book is a masterpiece. I absolutely loved it.

That said, there are caveats. Because this is a literally analysis, Franklin walks us through every single significant work that Jackson wrote. That means spoiling the big reveals and walking us through the arc of Jackson’s books and stories. That includes how the story originates and how it eventually morphs into what we read today. Of course, if you haven’t read all of Jackson’s work and intend to, you absolutely should read those first. I’m not the kind of person who is bothered by spoilers. Plus, I’m often very forgetful, so hopefully it won’t affect my enjoyment when I get around to reading Jackson’s other works.

While I highly recommend you read Jackson’s works before this biography, the exception to that would be Jackson’s memoirs. I mentioned before how the memoirs felt very calculated and almost disingenuous. It’s interesting to hear Franklin discussion of these, and given the somewhat dated nature of these memoirs, I think that they would work better if read with Franklin’s analysis as a frame of reference. Sure you could read the memoirs, then the biography, and reread the memoirs for a complete experience. Except, I don’t think her memoirs are worth the added effort of rereading. The most fascinating side of it comes from Franklin’s analysis. Quite frankly, if you aren’t a Jackson fan working your way through all of her works, I don’t think they’re worth reading in the first place, but that’s your decision to make.

Memory and Delusion | The New Yorker

As a person, Jackson doesn’t come across as the most likable. There are aspects of her life that a very pitiful; she has “a rather haunted life” indeed. She suffered in a mediocre marriage with a husband who was not good to her. She had a mother who was insufferable and unfair, and that doesn’t even consider the everyday struggles of being a woman in a patriarchal society. As a result, she suffered with addiction to alcohol and drugs that were prescribed to her. She also struggled with her weight. All of this would lead to her untimely death before the age of 50.

There are other details that were interesting to learn about. One thing that really stood out for me was her friendship with Ralph Ellison. I never knew how close they were, and Franklin seems to suggest that the two’s friendship may have fed into their work. It makes me want to reread his book, Invisible Man (not to be confused with HG Wells the Invisible Man). Another thing worth noting is that there were moments in Jackson’s life where she expressed some homophobic ideas. Franklin says she is a product of her time, but it is disappointing nonetheless. I also find it hard to sympathize with someone who comes from wealth. At the same time, Jackson’s story is humanizing because it shows how even people of a higher class have their own struggles. Besides, Jackson wasn’t rich her entire life even if her parents were well off. They still struggled, and that was very much apparent throughout Jackson’s life.

No one is perfect, and that is especially true for Jackson. Nevertheless, I’m still left mesmerized by Jackson as a person and as a writer. This was a fantastic book as I’ve made abundantly clear. There are plenty of biographies I have loved reading, but few add as much to the conversation as Franklin’s work. What’s more, rarely does the person being discussed feel quite as significant as Jackson does. Part of that is Jackson herself, but it’s also a biproduct of Franklin’s hard work. 5/5 stars

The Halloween Movie Tag where I talk briefly about Jackson’s adaptions, among others.
Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery full short film adaption (1969)
Trailer for the largely praised, the Haunting, based on the Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
The trailer for the 2018 TV adaption (loosely adapted).

The Lottery and Other Stories, by Shirley Jackson ★★★★☆

Image result for shirley jackson the lottery and other stories
Introductory thoughts 10/10/19 (Jump to Table Contents)

I am reading this for Totathon 2019 as a “book” that I read and then watch the adaption of. AKA the Scary Movie challenge. I originally planned to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, also by Shirley Jackson. Then I got ahead in my schedule. I decided to allow myself to deviate from the plan (oh no!) and read Jackson’s first autobiography, Life Among Savages. It made me want more Jackson. It was so well written and charming, but it also felt like a commentary on society intentionally or not. That left me wanting more. Of course, the Lottery is a commentary on society, and I wanted more of that.

I’m also not that excited by We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the book or the movie. I also have the impression that it isn’t that scary. I am trying to remember why I had that idea because as I research it, everyone calls it creepy. In any case, I went with this collection instead.

This is composed of 26 stories (see table of contents). That is a lot of stories. At roughly ~300 pages, this isn’t very long nor are many of these stories. It makes it easier to read. Unfortunately, trying to blog about it is hard. The formatting to discuss each story takes time. Then the content begins to blend together if I don’t stop in between every story. Of course, I am not going to do that; this isn’t high school. I will rate each story, and discuss those that stick out.

Update 10/12/19

I love this collection. Sure, they don’t all do as well as others, but this is probably the most consistent collection of stories I have read all year. This is a collection of deliciously disturbing and unsettling stories based almost entirely in mundane human circumstances. At this point, I have read most the stories (some twice), but I have few left to read. Signature among them is the Lottery for which this book gets its name. I am glad it is last. I expect it to work fantastically as a closure to this collection. It fits perfectly in this collection, and I could see plenty of readers making the mistake of stopping with it were it first (probably even with it last).

I am amazed at Jackson’s talent. Fresh off of Life Among Savages, I am finally beginning to understand why she was such a significant writer of her time. Even the less impacting stories are satisfying to read.

Finished 10/13/19

This collection is easily one of my favorites of the year. I think a lot of these stories say a lot about Jackson’s take on society. Some of them are a little hit and miss, but many of them are very short. On average, this story gets 3.74/5 stars. I don’t think that score gives this collection justice, especially since so many of them are a lot longer than others. That’s why I decided to calculate the rating based on how long each story is. Essentially, each story is multiplied by the percent of the whole the story is. It brings the score up to 4.05/5 stars. I still feel like the story’s overall impact on me deserves more. I’ll give it an even 4.25/5 stars.

PS: I’ve got a physical copy in the mail. I’ll post an Instagram picture when it arrives!

Table of Contents

  1. The Intoxicated (Part I) 
  2. The Daemon Lover ★★★★
  3. Like Mother Used to Make ★★★★
  4. Trial by Combat ☆☆ (2.5)
  5. The Villager ☆☆☆
  6. My Life with R. H. Macy ☆☆
  7. The Witch (Part II)  ☆☆ (3.5)
  8. The Renegade
  9. After You, My Dear Alphonse ☆☆ (3.25)
  10. Charles ☆ (3.5)
  11. Afternoon in Linen ☆ (4.25)
  12. Flower Garden ☆ (4.25)
  13. Dorothy and My Grandmother And the Sailors ☆☆ (3.25)
  14. Colloquy (Part III) ☆ (4.25)
  15. Elizabeth
  16. A Fine Old Firm ☆☆ (2.5)
  17. The Dummy ☆  (3.75)
  18. Seven Type of Ambiguity ☆ (4.25)
  19. Come Dance with Me in Ireland ☆☆ (3.25)
  20. Of Course (Part IV) 
  21. Pillar of Salt ☆☆ (3.5)
  22. Men with Their Big Shoes ☆☆
  23. The Tooth ☆☆
  24. Got a Letter from Jimmy ☆☆ (3.5)
  25. The Lottery
  26. Epilogue (Part V)

1. The Intoxicated ★★★★☆

I listened to this story twice. Not out love per say but because I forgot what it was about. It is a good story; I just read a lot at once. I would actually say my opinion of it went down the second time around. Its a story about a drunk man talking to a 17 year old girl about her essay on how the world will end. Originally, it felt like a commentary on men who think they know better than women. That is definitely there, but it also feels like a commentary on today’s (yesterday’s ?) youth and their exaggeration of things. The sad thing is this could be written today about climate change and the still ever present sexism in society. 4/5 stars. (table of contents)

2. The Daemon Lover ★★★★★

This was one of the longer stories, but I read it twice because I loved it. This is a story about a young woman who is preparing to get married. Today is her wedding day, and naturally, she is nervous and wants everything to go smoothly. That’s when she becomes unable to locate her husband to be. What follows, is a sad desperate attempt to find him and convince herself what she fears isn’t the case. This story was fantastic. It was human and so terrifyingly real. Jackson takes us on a journey that we can guess the end of, but it’s the path she takes to get us there that is so enthralling. I never savored the woman’s pain. I just appreciate the ability to experience such a real yet unsettling occurrence of a human being losing them-self in madness because reality is too much to take. 5/5 stars (table of contents)

3. Like Mother Used to Make ★★★★★

This is another story I read twice because I loved it. It’s about an OCD man who is obsessed with cleanliness. We meet him as he prepares for dinner with a woman who lives in his building. To his surprise, she seems to have invited a man she works with. She begins to take credit for his nice apartment, his fine cooking, and everything that he did, probably in part for her, to impress this other man. What does this man do in response? He rolls over and takes it in the most infuriating yet repeatable way possible. I’d like to think I am not as bad as him, but I understand the instinct at times to be agreeable, especially when it involves someone you want to like you. Even if it means losing your own self respect. 5/5 stars (table of contents)

8. The Renegade ★★★★★

This was another favorite story of mine. It’s a story about a dog who supposedly kills a bunch of chickens. There is no proof, at least not at first. All we have is an angry call from a neighbor complaining to the dog owner. Denial turns to apologies and attempts to repay the damages. Unfortunately, neighbor isn’t interested in payment. They want the dog put down.

The story of the dog quickly makes it way through town, and before long every person is playing sad and sympathetic. Although beneath the surface, there is air of sick satisfaction that people seem to be having with this idea of this dog being put down. The story make great use of the mob mentality of small town and how people like to relish in the pain of others. As if, the pain of others reflects somehow on the quality of their own life. It is disgusting, and I am here for it! 5/5 stars. (table of contents)

10. Charles ★★★★☆ (3.5)

This story was in Jackson’s Life Among Savages. It’s about a boy named Charles in Jackson’s son’s class who keeps getting into trouble. He’s “fresh” with the teacher; other times he does and says obscene things that too much to even say out loud. That is, until the end of the story when we learn the stories her son has been telling aren’t exactly true. I think it works better in this collection because there is less context, so the implications of the ending are broader. Is it all fabricated? Was Charles her son all alone? Or was it something more sinister and supernatural.

If you haven’t read the story, hopefully this is making senses because I am trying not to overtly spoil the story. Overall, the story reflects the imagination of children and how sometimes even an innocent mind can go to pretty dark places. I enjoyed it. 3.5/5 stars. (table of contents)

14. Colloquy ★★★★☆

This is one of the weirder stories. It’s about a woman who, for lack of a better word, is hysterical. She is going mad over the slightest of phrases. Things like “stock markets” or “inflation” are driving her insane with fear. It all felt too extreme to be real. I got the impression that the woman in the story was a caricature of what society expects women to be. It is as if they aren’t capable of discussing politics or dealing with worldly issues. Because it is so weird, I wonder if I’m reading into it, but I enjoyed it even if I’m wrong. 4.25/5 stars. (table of contents)

16. Elizabeth ★★★★★

This is definitely one of my top stories of the collection. Which, I am glad because it’s also the longest. This is a story about a women who works in publishing with a man who doesn’t respect her nor does anyone else. Whats more, the man is incompetent and incapable of handling problems. I found myself quickly siding with the woman, Elizabeth. That eventually changed as she becomes as much a part of the problem of women being mistreated and dismissed. I don’t know if Jackson intended this character to be unlikable; her treatment of this young pretty assistant who was hired for her looks comes with a tinge of satisfaction. Although, that sharp stinging attitude is misplaced. It isn’t the assistants fault that Liz’s business partner is a imbecile. Sure, I want Elizabeth to get the respect she deserves, but that doesn’t give her the right to continue this cycle of abuse. There are so many levels to this story, and I love it. 5/5 stars. (table of contents)

18. Seven Types of Ambiguity ★★★★☆ (4.25)

This is a story about a young boy who is an avid reader who helps an older man find several great books. The older man has lived a busy life that hasn’t allowed him the time to read. Now he is older; he can afford and has more time. The boy on the other hand, comes to this store to read what he can’t afford. I really liked this story because the man feels fake. Its as if he wants people to have this perception of him as a well read man. He has no real interest, nor is likely to read any of these large book hauls. He fails to appreciate the young boys passion and love for books.

In particular, there is one book the boy comes back to read over and over. After the boy has gone out of his way to help the man to become a better reader and find books he is likely to like, the man goes on to purchase the very book the boy has been reading during each of his visits to the book store. The reason I enjoyed this story so much is because I find the man very realistic. He is infuriating, and he represents whats wrong with so much of society. People are so self absorbed in perception that they don’t appreciate true passion. The man fails to realize the love the boy has for reading because if he did, he wouldn’t mindlessly purchase the book the boy has been avidly reading. I hate him, but I love the story. 4.25/5 stars. (table of contents)

21. Of Course ★★★★☆

Of course! That is obligatory remark to any sort of obvious statement or situation. Even when you don’t recognize something as such, perhaps you will resort to it so people won’t think you daft or unusual. That’s the case of main character here. She is moving or has a new neighbor (I forget), and she goes to introduce herself. She tries to be friendly; she invites her son to go to the movies with her child. But of course, this family doesn’t go to movies. They don’t watch TV. They don’t read newspapers. What an absurd concept! But of course!

She tries so hard to be welcoming and friendly, but in doing so our main character just goes along with every pompous and absurd thing her new neighbor spits out. It is insanity. At some point, you just have to accept these people are assholes, but that is not an option. Social niceties must be obeyed in this weird yet entirely real scenario. Real life and the expectations society puts on us is truly unnerving. 4.25/5 stars. (table of contents)

26. The Lottery ★★★★★

I’m not sure if this really deserves 5 stars. It isn’t my favorite, but it is a classic. I think part of it was the lack of a surprise made it have a slightly less jarring impact. It’s still interesting reading it knowing where it’s going because appreciate the subtle details you would likely overlook the first go around. That is, knowing the premise because I didn’t remember any hard details. It starts out very calm and slowly reveals the dark and twisted nature of the story. It’s unnerving and insane, but it’s presented as normal because it’s tradition. What I think many people may fail to see here though is that there are plenty of absurd traditions or beliefs that people abide by that could easily be seen as absurd to an outsider (e.g. think religious services or rituals). I love that I reread this the same summer-fall season as the release of Ari Aster’s new film Midsommar that shares a lot with this story in my opinion.

I definitely want to read this story again, and I’ll be watching the short film adaption of it for the Trick-or-Treatathon. It’s dated, but it’s short and I remember enjoying it (I think) in high school. 5/5 stars. (table of contents)

The Lottery 1969 adaption
Trailer for Midsommar.

Life Among Savages, by Shirley Jackson ★★★★☆

Read 10/8/19 – 10/10/19

I read this on a whim. I’d only read The Haunting of Hill House and the Lottery by Jackson, but I wanted to learn more about her life and her mind. Rather than jump ahead in my TBR (which I was already ahead of schedule on), I choose to give this a shot. I am glad I did.

It’s odd going from Hill House to this because the tone is so different. This is a story about a mother and author. What we get is an inside look at her attempts to be proper and pristine in her doings, told over the course of a series of short stories originally published separately. It almost reads like a Doll House, by Henrik Ibsen, which is about a housewife who lives the life society expects of her until one day she decides she’s going to leave and make a life for herself. There are roughly 70 years between that play and this collection, and I can’t help but think the tone is deliberate and intended to convey commentary on her life.

Admittedly, there were moments where I wasn’t sure. I was maybe half way through and thought how delightful it was to read this book. It is funny and charming. She so eloquently conveys the innocence of her child and the indifference of her husband in so many things. Nevertheless, I found myself asking, what am I getting out of this? Sure I enjoy reading it, but if I am going to invest my time I want some overall substance to take away. I was ready to give it 4 stars for solid writing. I’ve since begun her collection of short stories, the Lottery and Other Stories, which includes one of the stories in this collection. It has solidified my belief that this is a commentary on life in her times.

I am not sure it is revealing enough. It leaves me wanting to know more, and I’ll probably read a more revealing biography (e.g. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life which I am very eager to read). Personally, I think I can get a better sense of her view of society in her short story collection. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed reading this. 4.25/5 stars.