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For a generation of high school students, from the fifties to the seventies, Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” was a beacon of dark light in a bland curriculum. Like Poe’s short stories, it was literary enough for teachers to include it, while it’s message carried a Twilight Zone punch shocking enough for adult readers to want the story banned. Jackson’s tale of small-town judgment found its roots in the Puritanical vigilance of the Salem Witch Trials, but is surprisingly relevant now, in a culture that eschews stoning as primitive, but avidly flings pointed tweets and shaming verdicts via social media.
Jackson was a prolific writer. Her work included tales of both domestic horror and humor in housewifery and childrearing, a la Erma Bombeck, a dichotomy many of readers found puzzling. Ruth Franklin’s recent bio, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life fills in some of the gaps. Despite Jackson’s talent, she lived in a time when women were judged by their husbands, their looks, and their husband’s salaries. Jackson often made more than her husband, critic Stanley Hyman; not only did she support the family, she ran the household and raised their four children. Hyman cheated on her and she felt deeply shamed by her own mother, who harassed her, calling her ugly and overweight, despite her world fame as an author. Depressed and frustrated, Jackson tried to squelch her pain with cigarettes, booze, and pills. It’s the stuff of Madmen without the makeup, backed by a soundtrack of the Rolling Stones “Mother’s Little Helpers” and “19th Nervous Breakdown.”
Much of the darkness of Jackson’s stories emanates from these stuffed anxieties of post-war America, and the strict gender roles of the fifties and sixties. Jackson turned everyday domestic norms–houses, jobs, a trip to the dentist–into horror stories by exposing the hidden sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism lurking under a blanket of conformity.
Edited by queer cartoonist and writer Robert Kirby, this book is a combination of biographical pieces and comics referencing Jackson’s stories. Michael Fahy’s gorgeous cover art and Josh Simmons’ illustrated quotes frame the book. Annie Murphy’s superb opening piece melds an overview of Jackson’s life (helpful for readers unfamiliar with her story) with Jackson’s love of the occult. Eric Orner, Jon Macy, Colleen Frakes, and Ivan Velez Jr. share stories of how Jackson’s stories influenced their own lives, while Jennifer Camper (this reviewer’s sister) intertwines Jackson’s life with the character James Harris, a dark figure from the popular Scottish ballad “The Daemon Lover.” Maggie Umber retells Jackson’s short story “The Tooth,” using wordless black and white vignettes, like a silent movie. W. Woods details powerful objects and poisonous mushrooms from The Haunting of Hill House. Michael Fahy, with Robert Kirby, consider character archetypes (“The Pompous Windbag,” “The Devouring Mother,”), while Katie Fricas focuses on some of Jackson’s female characters. Other pieces explore the role of domesticity in Jackson’s stories (Asher and Lillie Craw), the symbolism of houses (Dan Mazur), and recipes for poisoned food (Gabrielle Gamboa).
The black and white artwork is stellar throughout, and adds a fitting somber note. From Annie Murphy’s spiral staircase (or is it a spiral of DNA?) to Robert Triptow’s penciled sketches of a suburban haunted house, the artwork holds its own.
This isn’t a book for readers unfamiliar with Jackson’s work; you can’t read these comics without wanting to know more about both her creations and her life (the inclusion of a bibliography encourages this too). It would make a superb text for any class studying her work, Mid-Century modern culture, or feminist literature. This is an exquisite example of how comics could be incorporated into academia and used to teach in a way traditional textbooks fail. Shirley Jackson, domestic horror, and female horror writer’s fans–snatch this up! But I strongly recommend academic libraries adding it to their collections as well.
The Shirley Jackson Project: Comics Inspired by her Life and her Work
Edited by Robert Kirby
Paperback, 9780990343363, 128 pp.