Shirley Jackson : A Rather Haunted Life
By: Ruth Franklin
Read by: Bernadette Dunne
Runtime: 19.4 Hours
Release date: 9.27.2016
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Genre: Nonfiction/Biography & Autobiography
Courtesy Audiobook Jukebox
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin is a major biography of one of the most famous writers of the twentieth century. While I have not read all of her work, her short story “The Lottery” is one of my favorites and one of these best short stories ever written. The Haunting of Hill House is THE haunted house story that all others are measured against and found wanting. Not only did she write perfect thrillers and horror, she also wrote a very popular pair of comedic looks at motherhood, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Her talent also extended to children’s books. It is mind boggling that it has been more than thirty years since the last major biography of her was written.
Ruth Franklin does a fantastic job of covering Jackson’s life in detail without getting bogged down in minutia or losing the reader's attention. She begins with a look at Jackson’s family. There is a freaky coincidence in her fascination with houses. Three generations of the men in her family dating from her grandfather and back were architects. They built some of the top show houses in the San Francisco area. Unfortunately many did not survive the great quake. When Jackson was looking for a physical embodiment of her Hill House, she asked her mother to find her pictures of millionaire houses that were no longer standing. In one of those ironic moments, the picture Jackson picked was found to be built by her ancestors.
Jackson’s family was about as WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) as could be. Their prejudices were a product not only of their time but their socio economic set. In 1933, the moved from California to Rochester, NY due to Jackson’s father’s job. They settled into the best neighborhood, sent Jackson to the best schools, and the future was set. There were several holes in Jackson’s parent’s plans. Number one was Shirley Jackson never did what she was commanded to do. Number two was worse than any fiction Jackson could event.
Jackson’s mother was an evil woman. That is my opinion, not the author Ruth Franklin’s. Franklin relates the facts. I made the judgement just as Jackson’s mother judged her each day. Jackson was told on consistent basis that she was fat, unattractive, unintelligent and would not amount to anything. She fought back by not accepting her parent’s positions on social issues, education or life in general. But toxicity, no matter how hard you try to combat it, has a cumulative effect. Jackson she suffered from depression and did attempt suicide more than once.
Jackson was fortunate in that her life turned around in some aspects when she attended Syracuse after dropping out of University of Rochester. She found people like her for the first time in her life. She also met her future partner, in marriage and creativity, Stanley Hyman. While Hyman was Jackson’s chief critic and editor, he was not a true partner in marriage. He habitually cheated on her even while dating in college and continued to do so during their marriage. He assured Jackson that he only loved her and his sexual wanderings meant nothing but they did to Jackson.
The picture Franklin paints of Jackson is a woman capable of empathy, love, and humor but injured by those who should have loved and protected her. If you ever wondered how Jackson’s characters seemed so real or her stories so horrifying about simple things like a house or a village, Franklin’s wonderful biography holds the answers.
Bernadette Dunne, as usual, does a fantastic job narrating the book. While she never “performs” in the sense of creating different voices or adding drama, she conveys Franklin’s work faithfully. It was listening to a passage about Jackson’s mother’s never ending criticism of her that created my opinion of her mother as evil. Another listener may hear that same passage and not come to the same conclusion. That is a great nonfiction narrator and author’s gift, to present the facts and let the reader decide for themselves. Read Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Then reread Jackson’s work with your eyes opened.