Sunday, July 22, 2012
ReaderCon: Being Shirley Jackson's daughter
Our presenter for this talk was none other than the daughter of Shirley Jackson herself, Sarah "Sadie" Hyman DeWitt. Sadie was a lively and captivating speaker, regaling us with tales of growing up Jackson. Her mother died when she was only 16 years old, but those years gave her many vivid memories to pull from, to which she added all she had learned since in poring over the archives at the Library of Congress, which houses the bulk of Shirley Jackson's papers.
One of the first things she mentioned was that she and her siblings were educated at the dinner table by Shirley and her husband, Stanley Hyman. Each year a number of topics of improvement were decided upon, and the relevant texts were read aloud in order for the entire family to absorb this academic nutrition as they ate the evening's fare in food.
Throughout the talk, Sadie would whip out one of a stack of handwritten notes, and read for us some of Shirley's unpublished work, including a rousing poem featuring a 9-foot butler as a character.
Another topic discussed was the influence of cats on the family. At one point there were 16 gray-and-black cats in the house. Stanley allowed Shirley to keep only 4 cats at a time, but they all looked so similar he never knew the difference. Shirley would occasionally creep Sadie out by sitting down next to her with one of the pets, saying, "The cat told me what you did in school today." Yikes! Omniscient cats + mom = terror
Sadie recounted Shirley's fondness for houses, and all the care she took in hunting for the perfect "nasty enough" house to represent the monster manse of her famous book, The Haunting of Hill House.
Shirley was also apparently a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft (I had no idea!), and used to tease their father because he was too scared to read Lovecraft's stories.
Sadie was very forthcoming, and encouraged attendees to approach her throughout the weekend, as she had brought along with her an assortment of family photos and copies of other rarely seen items to share with anyone with an avid interest in her mother's work. She herself attended many other panel discussions and readings as a longtime scifi/fantasy reader.
Next I headed onto the panel discussion for "The Works of Shirley Jackson," which featured among others folklorist and New England historian Faye Ringel. I have been a fan of her excellent thesis, New England's Gothic Literature: History and Folklore of the Supernatural from the 17th Through the 20th Centuries since I had the pleasure of reading it several years ago. Leading the panel was Maine's own Elizabeth Hand.
The discussion gave me some food for thought, and ideas on a few texts and collections to keep my eye out for. Andy Duncan made an interesting comment likening Shirley Jackson's imaginative work to that of Philip K. Dick, a thought which never occurred to me but which does make sense and bears further pondering. I also want very much to sit down and read Jackson's essay "Experience and Fiction."
Part 1 of my ReaderCon report is here if you missed it: