Marie’s Reading: “Life Among the Savages” by Shirley Jackson

lifeThe woman who brought us The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Lottery, all benchmarks of psychological horror, terror in the domestic, and repression in all its forms, was also extremely funny and wrote charming pieces about her children, like this collection called Life Among the Savages (1953).

No, really!

While it’s true that she pretty much just wrote this kind of “women’s magazine” stuff to pay the bills, it’s a testament to Shirley Jackson’s talent and range that she could write in such different genres.  Though it’s also fascinating to see how similar ideas and themes crop up across her work.  Houses with personality, for one.  A sense of the grotesque and shocking and supernatural in everyday things.  People, particularly girls and women, who are outsiders for whatever reason.  Here, all of the above are played for laughs instead of creeps.

On a personal level, I really identify with Jackson’s anthropormorphization of her household goods.  And her house itself.  Take this section, where she’s talking about moving into her old house in North Bennington, Vermont:

…we gave in to the old furniture and let things settle where they would.  An irritation persisted in one particular spot in the dining room, a spot which would hold neither table nor buffet and developed an alarming sag in the floor when I tried to put a radio there, until I found completely by accident that this place was used to a desk and would not be comfortable until I went out and found a spindly writing table and put a brass inkwell on it.

Houses, especially old ones, are alive, with feelings and energy and preferences.  Jackson gives that idea a sweet, homey spin in her magazine writing.  In her other work, this kind of idea turns into The Haunting of Hill House.

But there are so many funny episodes which Jackson brings such immediacy and life to.  A trip to the department store with a toy-gun-wielding son and a daughter toting around twelve invisible daughters of her own was one of my favorites.  Every anecdote is mined for the best possible mix of day-to-day family insanity, in a house with lots of fierce personalities.   It’s a revealing snapshot of what it was like to be a housewife and mother in the 1940’s and 1950’s, too, right down to the trip to the hospital to have her third child:

“Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.

“Name,” I said vaguely.  I remembered, and told her.

“Age?” she asked.  “Sex?  Occupation?”

“Writer,” I said.

“Housewife,” she said.

“Writer,” I said.

“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.




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