December 14: ShirleyJackson was born on this day in 1919. In “All I Can Remember” (usedas a preface for Just an Ordinary Day:the Uncollected Stories of Shirley Jackson), Jackson says that she recalledonly two things about being sixteen. One was the day in her new school—she hadjust moved East from hometown San Francisco—when her Chemistry teacher stoppedthe class so that everyone could go outside to watch her enjoy her first snowfall. The other memory was of her first story, a murder-mystery written in suchhaste that she chose her murderer lottery-style by putting the names of all hercharacters in a hat. After finishing off her victim and her story as best shecould, she looked about for an audience:
My mother was knitting, my father was reading a newspaper,and my brother was doing something—probably carving his initials in the coffeetable—and I persuaded them all to listen to me. I read them the entiremanuscript, and when I had finished, the conversation went approximately likethis:
BROTHER: Whaddyou call that?
MOTHER: It’s very nice dear.
FATHER: Very nice, very nice. (to my mother) You call theman about the furnace?
BROTHER: Only thing is, you ought to get all those peoplekilled. (raucous laughter)
MOTHER: Shirley, in all that time upstairs I hope youremembered to make your bed.
It is a scene that might have come from Life Among the Savages or RaisingDemons, Jackson’s parenting chronicles (and might have contributed to the”anarchic housekeeping” described in Private Demons, the 1988 Jackson biography by Judy Oppenheimer).And it is not too far from the opening to Jackson’s Gothic suspense tale, We Have Always Lived in the Castle:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen yearsold, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with anyluck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingerson both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what Ihad. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance,and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanitaphalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.