I don’t really mind being haunted by the ghost of Shirley Jackson

Written by Maddie Evans

Now that I’ve submitted all my assignments for the first semester of uni and there’s still a few weeks before teaching commences again, I’ve dug out my 2021 ‘must-reads’ list. I’ve drawn little biro-ed stars next to the most anticipated ones, or next to those I should have probably read three years ago. The star is the hieroglyph for priority. Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation sits amidst an entire constellation (unfortunately, I still have to wait until March to read it). 

I prefer not to work through a list chronologically, for no reason other than I am plagued by indecision, so what was once absolutely certain yesterday is undecided today. There is no way I could have a definitive order to follow. I started three-quarters of the way down: Shirley Jackson, “Adventure on a Bad Night” – written in block capitals, a pink star tagged on the end.

Published in Strand Magazine in late December last year, the formerly lost story – “Adventure on a Bad Night” – was discovered by Jackson’s son, Laurence Hyman, “among many others haphazardly stuffed into 52 cartons at the Library of Congress.” After Jackson died in 1965 at the age of 48, all of her papers were donated to the Library of Congress by her husband, Stanley. (The library holds records of Jackson’s diaries and journals, manuscripts, typescripts, books, and short stories; college notebooks; family papers; watercolours, and ink drawings.)

Hyman, who manages his mother’s estate, believes the piece was written shortly after the second world war. “My mother at that point was developing her ‘noirish’ voice, and was writing many short stories that were by then being published in magazines like the New Yorker and the New Republic,” he explains. “It obviously takes place in New York during the war years because there is reference – though crossed out by Shirley – to ration books. The story is interesting; it drips with tension from the first sentence onward, and ends with a beginning.” 

The story follows Vivian on an evening trip to a convenience store, momentarily escaping the monotonous and unfulfilling life she shares with her husband, George. A trip on which she meets a pregnant immigrant who is being verbally abused by a shop clerk after asking for help.“I know that kind,” the clerk tells Vivian. “You think they can’t understand a word, but you say to them ‘Sure I’ll do it for you’ and they understand right off. All I do is yell at them till they go away.” 

Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle have, deservedly – in recent years – been given modern classic status. Jackson is primarily recognised as a writer of gothic fiction but to recognise her as only that would vastly underestimate the complexities of her work. Her stories and novels channel the tensions and hypocrisies of post-war America. Her work probed at repressed intellectualism, lambasted the casual racism and antisemitism rife in 1950s America, and openly embraced anger towards the patriarchy. “Adventure on a Bad Night” is a cleverly crafted cultural critique. “Jackson uses a convenience store to represent a microcosm of US society, where indifference, racism, and the marginalisation and distrust of immigrants are rampant,” remarked Andrew Gulli, managing director of The Strand Magazine

Jackson was a masterful storyteller, not a word falls out of place. Her sentences are smooth, glassy, and restrained. The first time I read The Haunting of Hill House, I did so in one sitting: frozen in place, my blood moving around my body at twice the speed, feeling a curious mix of euphoria and terror. It frightened me to such a degree I had to move it from my shelf so I could sleep at night. Jackson’s words linger in the reader’s consciousness long after reading, for stories such as “Adventure on a Bad Night,” the potency of her words stand as something rather significant. It is a story of shared humanity, exposing the incipient horror that skulks in everyday life. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, and sexuality is still, disgustingly, an everyday reality. What is most terrifying about “Adventure on a Bad Night” is that the story feels so recognisable and so easy to trace that it would slot inconspicuously into current news. It’s a stark and sobering reminder that progress towards equality remains only surface-level, racial injustice is systematic. 

We’re moving towards the end of January, and so far 2021 feels like a painful extension of the year before, lockdown ensuing within the first few weeks and death rates soaring beyond numbers previously untouched. Any event that I can reconstruct as symbolic hope, no matter how implausible, I will do in an instant. In an age of wounding and widening division, Jackson’s “Adventure on a Bad Night” – a story of solidarity and friendship and giving a voice to the voiceless – fluttering from the chaos of disorganized papers, seems like something pretty hopeful. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century continues to haunt us, and she has just made her presence beautifully clear.