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Shirley Jackson: Witchcraft, madness, and the uncanny dangers of writing


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From a long and  uncommonly engrossing essay by Victoria Best at Open Letters Monthly about the relationship between life, art, madness, and the occult in the work and person of Shirley Jackson:

She believed [writing] had a protective function, too, a kind of mental hygiene that allowed her to be herself: “The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, so long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. […] So long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.”

. . . Witchcraft and magic had oddly analogous functions to writing, in the way they were transformational and protective. And their appeal was just as compelling. By sixteen Jackson had set herself the task of reading everything she could find on the subject, and the research was combined with her own uncanny sixth sense and her eagerness to stick pins in wax dolls. “That’s not a good way for a girl to grow up,” she wrote in her last, unfinished novel, Come Along With Me, which was the closest she came to reproducing her childhood under the guise of fiction. “How can anyone handle things if her head is full of voices and her world is full of things no one else can see?”

. . . Jackson encouraged an occult atmosphere around her; she surrounded herself with a collection of amulets and charms, she liked to freak people out. But she was often tight-lipped or diversionary when asked direct questions. “She wanted very much to find provable magic,” her daughter, Sally, said. “And I think by the time I met her she’d gotten to the kind of point where she pretended she already had, and she wouldn’t talk about it because her mystique would be blown.”

However ‘real’ her experiences of the supernatural may have been, the practice of witchcraft, which was where Shirley began, was, if nothing else, an appeal to a different kind of potency. As the strong-willed daughter of a controlling mother, Shirley was always interested in power, and particularly in subversive forms of it. She was clear-sighted enough to know that power was always elusive, sinuously resistant, sometimes autonomous; in her good, strong adult years she wielded it unflinchingly, never afraid to dominate her own family. But in troubled times, she felt fragile and undefended, acted upon by forces that seemed to come from outside of herself, out of control in fundamental and terrifying ways.

We_Have_Always_Lived_in_the_Castle_by_Shirley_Jackson. . . It is no wonder that Shirley Jackson was unable to leave her house while she was writing herself into a vindication of her own neuroses [with her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the writing of which brought her to a state of nervous collapse and creative block]. No wonder, when her mother crossed the invisible boundary and attacked Shirley in her most vulnerable place that the trap sprang shut with Shirley inside it. Her mantra that “so long as you write it away regularly, nothing can hurt you,” had been proved false, and writing itself had followed the uncanny pattern that she had written about all those years: it had turned out to have danger lurking at its core.

COMPLETE ESSAY: “Nothing Like Being Scared

(UPDATE May 2014: The complete essay is no longer freely available; it can only be read by subscribers to Open Letters Monthly.)