Sunday, July 22, 2012

ReaderCon: Being Shirley Jackson's daughter

This post continues my report on the recent bookish goings-on at ReaderCon 2012. We have just left the panel discussion "At School with Peter Straub," and are ready to commence with "My Mother, Shirley Jackson."

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Throughout the talk, Sadie would whip out one of a stack of handwritten notes, and read for us some of Shirley's unpublished work, including a rousing poem featuring a 9-foot butler as a character.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:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

ReaderCon: Arrival & Peter Straub discussion

When one of my regular customers (now good friend), cartoonist Jeff Pert, started coming to the shop shortly after it opened, he frequently mentioned ReaderCon, a literary conference that focuses on fantastic literature of all sorts. Last weekend, I got a chance to see what he was talking about for myself.

ReaderCon 23 ( was held July 12-16, 2012, in Burlington MA, just outside of Boston, an easy drive from Portland. I can't recommend the event highly enough. To spend a weekend hobnobbing with a big crowd of fellow book geeks, attending panel discussions and book readings by some truly great authors, was the best working vacation I've ever had -- honestly, a pure joy throughout. Even the hotel itself was pleasantly appointed and yet affordable at the convention rate.

The authors I talked to were approachable and personable, and everyone seemed to get along with everyone else on the panels and when loitering in the lobby. The atmosphere was relaxed but somehow charged.

The bulk of my time was spent between the panel discussions and the "bookstore" or dealers' room. There was no lack of excellent topics to choose from in between the panels and the readings. In fact, I often found myself wishing I could be in more than one place at a time, and never did find time to read through the excellent essays contained in the 120-page souvenir booklet (the schedule booklet was another 82 pages of info), as many of the panels and readings ran into the evening, until well after 10:00pm.

While the conference focuses on the fantastic in literature (scifi, fantasy, and horror, with all their offshoots), the real focus is on the literary, and panels weave together practicing authors, editors, academics, and other persons of interest. The focus this year was on guests of honor Peter Straub and Caitlin R. Kiernan, with memorial guest of honor Shirley Jackson represented by her daughter, Sarah "Sadie" Hyman DeWitt. Oh, did I mention the conference hosts the Shirley Jackson Awards, awarded each year since 2007 for "outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic" ...? To my great delight, at the award ceremony Maine's own Elizabeth Hand won Best Novella for her story “Near Zennor.” To see the rest of this year's winners, go to

We arrived on Friday the 13th (how appropriate) and dove right in with the panel "At School with Peter Straub," wherein the 6-person panel held forth on what it was like to have their literary minds twisted by Peter Straub, many at an early age. His novels Koko, Shadowland, The Throat, and Ghost Story were mentioned repeatedly as formative influences on the writers of the panel. With Straub himself perched in the audience as a bonus, participants had little trouble entertaining the crowd with their attempts to figure out what makes him such a mammoth and mind-warping presence in the literary stream.
John Langan, author of House of Windows and Mr. Gaunt, described the pervasive feeling of "expansiveness and restlessness" that infuses him as he reads Straub. Caitlin Kiernan, author of The Drowning Girl and The Red Tree (among others), observed that like Danielewski's House of Leaves (found as a central character in the novel of the same name), Straub's books are bigger on the inside than on the outside. I think it was Paul Tremblay who in talking about Straub's novel The Throat mentioned the idea that "the known story is not the real story." This theme of revelation and mystery reoccurs in most of Straub's other work as well. (Paul Tremblay is an editor, and the author of The Little Sleep and others.)

This was just the first of many discussions I attended over the weekend. I'll keep posting installments about the rest of them here on the blog rather than drowning you in them all at once!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

New bookmarks by David Wolfe!

WOW! Feast your eyes on the shop's stunning new bookmarks, designed and letterpress printed by David Wolfe of Wolfe Editions here in Portland, Maine. Or better yet -- come on into the shop to pick one up for yourself!