Vermont Women: Shirley Jackson

03/25/08 7:55AM Deborah Clifford
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(HOST) As VPR's week honoring women who have contributed to the life and culture of Vermont continues, we hear from historian Deborah Clifford about writer Shirley Jackson and the years she spent in southern Vermont.

(CLIFFORD) Sometimes it takes an outsider to spot Vermont's quirky underside, and Shirley Jackson, the writer, did just that. Back in the 1950s her name was a familiar one. Today, however, she's remembered chiefly as the author of "The Lottery," a grim little tale of an annual folk ritual in a small town where, every spring, one person chosen by lottery is brutally stoned to death.

When "The Lottery" appeared in 1948, it made Jackson an overnight literary sensation. Within a week the quantity of mail arriving for her at the post office in North Bennington, where she and her family lived, was so great she was forced to rent the largest mailbox available.

Born in San Francisco, Shirley published her first story while a sophomore at Syracuse University, so impressing her fellow student Stanley Hyman that he decided on the spot to make the author his wife. Within a few years they were married and living in New York, where Shirley began publishing stories in the New Yorker and the New Republic., Then in 1945, Stanley took a job teaching at Bennington College, and they moved north with their two small children (two more would be born in Vermont).

In the 1950s came two popular family chronicles based on Jackson's own life in Vermont -- Life Among the Savages in 1953, and Raising Demons in 1957. These were followed by several widely acclaimed ghost stories. When The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1959, the New York Herald-Tribune hailed it as a "goose pimple horror story, and a good one," and Stephen King himself cites it as "one of the greatest horror novels of all time."

Did she have, as she claimed, a special relationship to the forces of darkness? Learning that the New York publisher Alfred Knopf, with whom she'd had a falling out, was coming to Vermont to ski, she made a wax image of him, and broke its leg. Within days, Knopf had taken a spill on the slopes, breaking his leg not in one, but in three places. It was not the first time, Shirley was heard to boast, that she had enjoyed such a triumph with her magic.

By 1962, when her second horror novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, appeared, she didn't have much time left to write. In the late summer of 1964 Shirley Jackson died of cardiac arrest. She was only 45.

Shirley Jackson was not your run-of-the-mill Vermont writer. Many of her stories, with their unmistakably Vermont settings, were less than flattering to the local inhabitants. As "The Lottery" shows, Shirley was capable of seeing the dark underside of life in the kind of small town that others might idealize - where, according to the New York Times - quote - "cruel and lustful conduct is not far below the surface in those who count themselves normal and respectable." Two days after her death, the Times wrote that Shirley Jackson was - quote - "at bottom a moralist,"

 

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