Shirley Jackson: The magic box

“The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.”

That’s a line from one of the most unsettling stories from one of America’s most unsettling writers: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. Jackson specialised in the odd, the inexplicable, and the off-key. So perhaps it is not surprising that when it came to the matter of her manuscripts, something decidedly odd happened, also involving a mysterious box, and also unexplained.

Shirley Jackson died in her sleep, in 1965, at the saddeningly early age of 48. Her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, donated around 50 boxes of Jackson’s manuscripts to the Library of Congress. And that was that.

The world would just have to live with what Shirley Jackson had already given it, including: the insane house in The Haunting of Hill House, the most unreliable narrator of them all in Mary Katherine Blackwood of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the charms of Life Among the Savages*, and that story. “The Lottery”, when first published in The New Yorker in 1948, prompted more mail to that esteemed publication than it had ever received about a work of fiction. While some were outraged, most correspondents were merely baffled. What did it all mean?

We could discuss that for ever. So, that was that.

Well, that was almost that.

For years, it was that. Then there was a sudden flurry of interest in Shirley Jackson. A new biography has just come out (2016) and we are being treated to previously unknown stories and writings. Where did they come from?

According to her children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart, it was “a carton of cobwebbed files discovered in a Vermont barn” that changed things. Cobwebbed cartons are not unknown on the planet of lost manuscripts, but a barn in Vermont is more of a rarity.

As Laurence Jackson Hyman explained to The New Yorker, the box arrived on his porch with no return address. “After hours of suspicious avoidance, I opened it to find the manuscript of one of my mother’s novels, lots of notes, and half a dozen of her unpublished stories.”

Who sent the box? No-one knows.

The arrival of the box prompted the “children” to consider publishing a new book containing the uncollected stories. They hunted down other Shirley Jackson pieces in library archives, chivvied relatives for copies of now out-of-print magazines which contained one of her stories, and opened the boxes in the Library of Congress. Just an Ordinary Day, published by Bantam, came out in 1997 and brought 54 stories back into the world. (It’s in the introduction to that book that the children describe the genesis of the collection.)

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, which came out in 2015, mixes the eeriness of Jackson’s fiction with humorous bulletins from the front-line of family life. Thus we have “Here I Am, Washing Dishes Again” bustling up against “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. (I’m waiting for my Kindle edition — 2017.)

All because of a mysterious box. Something out of a Shirley Jackson tale all by itself.

life_savages

The blurb on the back cover of my copy of Life Among the Savages. Back in the 1950s, the expected answer was “no”

* Seems less likely you could get away with calling your children “savages” these days. Also, her follow-up collection of domestic despatches was entitled Raising Demons. Social services would be called.

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