Magazine article New Criterion

Jackson's Macabre

Magazine article New Criterion

Jackson's Macabre

Article excerpt

Jackson's macabre

Ruth Franklin

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.

Liveright, 624 pages, $35

In a nearly empty train coach, a charming male passenger, smoking a cigar, sits beside a young boy and his mother. The boy is looking for witches, and the inquisitive stranger asks him if he has seen many. The boy does not answer the question, instead saying his father smokes cigars. All men do that, the stranger replies, and a rapport is immediately established between them. The boy responds to every question put to him with a lie. He says his name is Mr. Jesus and that he is twenty-six. The mother offers the truth. His name is Johnny, and he is four. To the stranger's question about the age of Johnny's baby sister, who has been playing with her rattle when she is not crying and laughing, Johnny responds she is twelve and a half. When the man asks Johnny if he loves his sister, Johnny does not answer. Then the man asks if Johnny wants to hear about the man's sister. Excited, Johnny asks if she was a witch. "Maybe," the man responds. The little boy laughs as the man begins, "Once upon a time," a phrase that seems to reassure the anxious mother, who has obviously been wondering about this stranger's attention to her son. Then the man explains that lie put his hands around his sister's neck,

"And I pinched her and I pinched her until she was dead."

The little boy gasped and the mother turned around, her smile fading. She opened her mouth, and then closed it again as the man went on, "And then I took and I cut her head off and I took her head--"

"Did you cut her all in pieces?" the little boy asked breathlessly.

"I cut off her head and her hands and her feet and her hair and her nose," the man said, "and I hit her with a stick and I killed her."

"Wait a minute," the mother said, but the baby fell over sideways just at that minute and by the time the mother had set her up again the man was going on.

"And I took her head and I pulled out her hair and--"

"Your little sister?" the little boy prompted eagerly.

"My little sister," the man said firmly. "And I put her head in a cage with a bear and the bear ate it all up."

"Ate her head all up?" the little boy asked.

The mother put her book down, and came across the aisle. She stood next to the man and said, "Just what do you think you're doing?" The man looked up courteously and she said, "Get out of here."

"Did I frighten you?" the man said. He looked down at the little boy and nudged him with an elbow and he and the little boy laughed.

"This man cut up his little sister," the little boy said to his mother.

Here you have the Shirley Jackson effect: horror in the midst of the commonplace. Jackson's conventional mother wanted to know why she wrote about such gruesome episodes. Her husband, the distinguished critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, fretted that such stories earned both of them a living while he toiled on tomes like The Armed Vision and The Tangled Bank, investigating the great literary modernists and the likes of Darwin and Freud. …

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