Monday, August 19, 2019

Rachel Small on Shirley Jackson

A massive part of my identity growing up was being the angry girl, stomping around in black boots. I used to carry banned books under my arm in high school like they were the holy grail, because I liked the sense of morbid anger that came with my actions.

For the longest time, I was known as the girl to be scared of, and that was a positive element in my life, despite it turning me into something of a recluse. I was sent to the guidance counsellor several times for the stories I wrote for class assignments. Horrifying little creations, of houses drenched in the blood of a woman, and witches who demanded blood for revenge. 

People liked my work, but it terrified them. I liked creating that reaction. It always felt like a challenge, forcing space to exist for my work. There was something powerful in creating such an emotional response that it blinded readers with bright white fear.

Like most people, I discovered Shirley Jackson when I was sixteen, reading The Lottery for a class assignment. I devoured the piece not just once, but over and over again. I read it on the bus to and from school, during the brief breaks between classes. I memorized entire sections of the short story, obsessed by the clever storytelling. Jackson was able to terrify readers so effectively that they sent both her and the magazine mountains of hate mail in response to her concept of sacrifice. She was a revolution wrapped up in domestic packaging, making housewives fear her name alone.

I loved her. Jackson was the queen of the angry girls. She knew what it was like to have a heart so broken, that the only way to preserve it was to dip it in formaldehyde and lock it away. How to burn bridges and write a short story while standing in the aftermath, beneath a horizon of grand mansions built by her hand.

I grew up in a small town and her books never popped up in the local used bookstore. Instead, I came home with books by Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, King and Lockhart. Every man who ever tried to write the great American novel, or to redefine the genre of horror. It was exhausting, trying to find a different voice against a sea of yellowed books, with their broken spines and dog-eared pages. It wasn’t until I started university that I found her dark little books in a store by the market, tucked amongst the J authors. Suddenly, there was a space for her in this world again.

Working my way backwards, I traveled from We Have Always Lived in the Castle to The Road Through the Wall. Together, her entire body of work stands as a mosaic of life. Of her agoraphobia, difficult marriage. Her relationships each had a unique impact on her writing, and she unveils her pain through a series of elaborate plots. I reread The Lottery over and over again, and felt the same thrill from the very first time I read it in high school. This was a woman who understood what it was like, being exhausted by the concept of love. 

There is a power in fear, and Jackson knew that. She was the kind of woman who could be disappointed by Salem for becoming a tourist trap, while leaving an obscene number of short stories that bent traditional domestic roles into a collection of dark twists. Jackson designed a legacy for herself, even when saddled with the responsibilities that came with being a housewife rearing a small herd of children. Her writing was endless, of tense suburban landscapes and devilish desires, and in the end, managed to reserve a space in the American Gothic genre for her own voice.

People are still terrified of my work. I still feel a thrill thinking about this reactionary backlash, but I also feel respect for those emotions. I gave up angry black boots and took on different challenges, and managed to grow up some. Jackson never changed the world, but she changed mine. I’m a different woman that I was six years ago, and I’ll be different again six years from now.

Jackson taught me many things. To find kinship where I can. How to throw elaborate parties. To demand space for my voice. Respect other women. That there is joy to be found in yellow paper, and I have to find that joy for myself. 

Rachel Small writes in Ottawa. A post-undergrad student from Carleton University’s History program, she is currently a writer and editor for AtticVoices. Her writing has appeared in The Hellebore, Bywords, War Crimes Against the Uterus, and The Shore. You can find her on twitter @rahel_taller.

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