Benjamin Dreyer

The home life of Shirley Jackson, queen of horror

The only chilling story in Jackson’s charming memoir of domestic chaos involves her malfunctioning refrigerator

Shirley Jackson. Credit: AP/Shutterstock

‘One of the nicest things about being a writer,’ Shirley Jackson once noted in a lecture titled ‘How I Write’, ‘is that nothing ever gets wasted. It’s a little like the frugal housewife who carefully tucks away all the odds and ends of string beans and cold bacon and serves them up magnificently in a fancy casserole dish.’

In Raising Demons, newly reissued as a Penguin Classic, Jackson, perhaps best known for her definitively macabre — and, on its publication in the New Yorker, riotously controversial — 1948 short story ‘The Lottery’ and for her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, most recently wrenched (‘adapted’ would scarcely be the right word) into a Netflix mini-series, gathers up the odds and ends of her young family’s life and serves them up as a genial series of comic sketches, taking in the mundanities of moving house, attending on the fly to surprise guests and laboriously planning for visitors who ultimately do not deign to arrive, putting up a Christmas tree, and, throughout, attempting to corral her four rambunctious (and beautifully individualised) children — Laurie, Jannie, Sally and baby Barry, known for a time as Beekman — and laissez-faire husband, not named here but known to those who know Jackson’s life as Stanley Edgar Hyman, literary critic and, during the run of this book, teacher at Bennington College in Vermont. Plus, to be sure, the assorted dogs and cats so necessary to this homely genre.

Raising Demons, first published in 1957, is, like its predecessor volume, Life Among the Savages (1953), neatly cobbled together from the stories Jackson had published — and with which she had largely supported her family — in the women’s magazines of her era, including Good Housekeeping, Mademoiselle and Redbook, and it is a pleasingly aimless, essentially plotless book — ‘soft’, as a writer of my acquaintance once described a short story of his he especially doted on in which, basically, nothing happened.

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