Shirley Jackson and Me -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

When it comes to literary daydreaming, I’m not one for those imaginary dinner parties, with artisanally curated assemblages of Great Authors of All Time swapping deft bon mots between courses. Mostly, I’m sure, I’d end up worrying about Emily Dickinson’s food allergies and regretting having brought Nathanael West and Jacqueline Susann into the same room (hey, you choose your Great Authors, I’ll choose mine). Also, I don’t have a lot of chairs.

I’m a copy editor by trade—a tinkerer with commas, a corrector of faulty grammar, a watchdog against tics and clichés—and my notion of an ideal tête-a-tête with, say, Edith Wharton would run less toward swapping aperçus over canapés and more toward seeing if I could persuade her to stop loading the dreaded “the fact that” into every third paragraph, as she was wont to do. Or perhaps instead of keeping an anxious eye on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wineglass I might more valuably let him know that he needn’t hang an adverb on every goddamn speech tag in The Great Gatsby.

Well, we all have our particular ideas of fun.

But what happens when the copyeditorial fantasy comes to corporeal life and the presumptuous red pencil wielder is faced with a stack of very real pages written by a very real—and very dead—Great Author of All Time, a Great Author of All Time who happens to be his Favorite Author of All Time?

Let me tell you.

I don’t recall when I was first well and truly bewitched by Shirley Jackson. Sure, like just about everybody else in America, I read “The Lottery” in junior high, no doubt in that same short-story anthology with “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” and Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party,” and no doubt I liked it, but a steady diet of ABC Movies of the Week—Olivia de Havilland in The Screaming Woman!—had acclimated me to menacing story arcs and macabre twist endings, and I can’t say that reading Jackson’s exquisitely slow-boiling account of the day poor Tessie Hutchinson is not crowned Queen for a Day made a life-changing impression on me.

I can be pretty sure that I found my way to Jackson by way of a late-night telecast—back in the days when to catch a late-night telecast one actually had to stay up late—of The Haunting, director Robert Wise’s 1963 filming of Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. The movie features a scene, which I can still barely stand to watch by myself, in which Julie Harris and Claire Bloom are beset by a spectral something-or-other whaling away cacophonously at their hopefully locked bedroom door. But as nerve-racking as the movie is, I soon learned that the novel, which I first owned in a movie tie-in paperback that eventually fell apart from overreading, is even more effectively chain-rattling. In fact, the movie’s best moments, from the housekeeper Mrs. Dudley’s grisly deadpan greeting of doomed Eleanor—

“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.”
“I understand.”
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night.”
“I don’t suppose—”
“No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one will come any nearer than that.”
“I know,” Eleanor said tiredly.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

—to Eleanor’s aghast “Whose hand was I holding?” (I leave you to find your own way to that), are pure unadulterated pretty much verbatim Jackson.

I also learned, as I read the novel, reread it almost immediately, and have continued to reread it once a year or so for decades, the wonder of Shirley Jackson’s prose: unfussy, untricky, unhurried. Stately. Consider, please, the first paragraph (I almost called it “the celebrated first paragraph,” but I imagine Jackson, who liked adjectives, “particularly odd ones . . . the reader usually has to go and look up,” frowning at a modifier so feckless and cuttable) of The Haunting of Hill House:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I urge you to read that aloud, perhaps while typing it out—as I have done just now, for the pleasure of the action. Revel in the glowering “not sane” hard on the heels of the skeptical “by some,” and begin to feel yourself losing balance; tip your hat to the trio of semicolons (of which Jackson is an enthusiast, and in whose honor I have long championed them against the sneers of some writers who very much ought to know better). Note particularly that final comma—simultaneously unnecessary and essential, a fraction of a sliver of a pause in which the reader is given one final chance to put the book down and do something, anything, else—perhaps my favorite piece of punctuation in all of literature.

This is how we truly met, Shirley Jackson and I, and she’s been my steady companion since. I am almost always reading her: The Lottery and Other Stories lives on my nightstand, and the rest of her books have a place of honor in my best, glassed-in bookcase (safely behind a door but where I can keep my eye on them). I find reading Jackson an endlessly rewarding experience: the merrily subversive family memoirs, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons; the undersung novel of multiple personality disorder, The Bird’s Nest; the sage and charming lectures on writing you can find at the back of the volume containing the spooky and charming Come Along with Me, the novel Jackson was working on, and which she left unfinished, at the time of her death, fifty years ago this Saturday. Mostly I find myself returning to the stories, though, particularly those featuring the uneasy, unsettled women Jackson portrayed with equal parts compassion and mercilessness: Mrs. Walpole in “The Renegade,” whose neighbors offer no end of advice about how she can cure her dog of the habit of killing chickens; Clara Spencer, in “The Tooth,” who rides a bus to New York City for a dentist’s appointment and little by little loses her identity; the unnamed “she” in “The Daemon Lover,” waking up on her wedding day and finding herself playing an increasingly dire game of hide-and-seek with her fiancé, James Harris, whose name’s regular appearance in Jackson stories invariably signifies that an unpleasant situation is about to get much worse; or, my favorite, I think, the disappointed, grasping literary agent in “Elizabeth,” unkindly surnamed Style, who does a decent enough job bullying and conniving against everyone in her threadbare orbit but who is ultimately no match for Jackson herself, who after letting Elizabeth flutter haplessly for twenty-odd pages finally pins her to a board.


I’ve been working in publishing for just about a quarter of a century now, initially as a freelance copy editor, then in-house as a production editor supervising copy editors, and now, as managing editor and copy chief of the Random House division of what has evolved into Penguin Random House, as the person who supervises the people who supervise the copy editors. But I still try to get my hand in the game every now and then and choose a manuscript to spend time with, because there’s no pleasure quite like the intimate pleasure of getting cozy with the words. “Intimate” is, I’d say, just the right mot juste: I’m not sure that anyone, perhaps not even its author, ever reads a manuscript as closely as the person whose job it is to help polish it to the best possible version of itself it can be, who not only corrects typing glitches and misspellings but searches out and queries (or simply helpfully repairs) inadvertent rhymes, antecedentless pronouns, subject-verb dissonance, plot continuity problems, overuse of pet words and gestures (you’d be astonished at the amount of murmuring, head shaking, and nodding that goes on in the garden-variety precopyedited novel). A colleague once described copyediting as the action of burrowing into an author’s brain and doing to a manuscript what the author might have done had he or she had just a few more minutes to spend with every sentence—and hadn’t already read every sentence five hundred times. One author, I recall, compared getting copyedited to getting one’s teeth thoroughly cleaned. Myself, I’ve come to think of copyediting as something akin to a dance or a conversation, except that the partners meet only on the page. In the dance, a good copy editor remembers that it’s the author who leads; in the conversation, the wise copy editor knows when to shut up and listen.

The best writers I’ve worked with love to get copyedited—it’s the less best writers, I’ve found, who see copyediting as a provocation, an impertinent questioning of their skill—but that’s not to say that everything a copy editor does is embraced. “Check your ego at the door,” a former boss warned when she asked me to dust off one of my own copyediting jobs after the author had reviewed it. In my line of work, one learns to live with a lot of “Thanks but no thanks.”


It may not have been “clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day,” as Jackson conjures up the perfectly pleasant lottery morning, but no doubt it was a day like any other when I found out that Random House had under submission a volume of previously uncollected and/or unpublished stories and essays by Shirley Jackson. Had I had my checkbook handy, I’d have happily emptied my bank account to chip in to help close the deal; somehow even without my assistance we secured the rights to publish Let Me Tell You, which is the title of a story fragment that is just about the most Shirley Jackson–ish thing you could ever hope to read.

Normally I’d have assigned this manuscript as I’d have assigned any other, to one of my department’s production editors, who in turn would have hired a freelancer to—

Let’s not be silly. Anyone with the temerity to so much as reach a hand toward this manuscript was going to lose a digit or two. This one was mine.

The manuscript had arrived as a sheaf of photocopied pages, and before we neatened it up into an easily editable Word file I made my way, greedily, avidly, page-flippingly, through tearsheets of the long-ago published material, including pieces from the women’s magazines—Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s—that provided Jackson with a steady income. Mesmerized, I devoured copies of Jackson’s own typescripts, in the all-lowercase that I’d learned was her M.O. for first drafts. For me, even at several removes from the originals, this was a moment of awed magic. If I could see her typing, I could, by extension, see her hands. If I could see her hands, I was that much closer to being in the same room with her.

Even more magically, the material was not back-of-the-drawer stuff of interest only to the dire completist but first-rate and wholly characteristic Jackson: stories of strained family interaction and crushing social unease veneered with politeness; affectionate and monumentally wry essays about Jackson’s husband, her children, even her kitchen utensils; bracing insights into the craft and methodology of writing. And, I was delighted and relieved to discover, all of it, even the pages that had never made it to print, was in remarkably good shape: During my breathless first read—letting myself, as much as I’m ever able to, read like a reader rather than like a copy editor—I had been scarcely aware that there’d be, once I got to work, much to do.


coverIn preparation for my copyedit—and in anticipation of a credentials-establishing phone call I was to have with Jackson’s children Laurence Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt, who had compiled and edited the volume—I reimmersed myself in Jackson’s voice by going straight to the source: her own recordings of “The Daemon Lover” and “The Lottery,” which I’d stumbled upon a few years before. (Wait, what? I hear you exclaim. You can download the recordings here.) The recordings—at the time I had no idea under what circumstances they had been made—are notably low-tech, but Jackson’s voice—low and honey-thick, with a bit of an untraceable drawl, is everything you’d want it to be, and the bits of ambient noise, including the clinking of ice in a glass (some people hear whiskey; I hear a tumbler of lemonade), add to the you-are-there-ness. For some reason or other I’d decided to play Read Along with Shirley Jackson, so I hunkered down with my iPod and a copy of The Lottery and Other Stories, slapped on my headset, and was almost immediately shocked—pleasantly, unnervingly—to realize, as I turned over the first page, that the author and I were quite clearly reading from the same edition of the book: I turned the page, she turned the page. Crinkle of paper, crinkle of paper.

Not long afterward, on the phone with the Hymans, I thought I’d entertain them with my frisson. “Oh, I made that recording!” Laurence exclaimed. “My mother didn’t like to have her picture taken, and she didn’t like to be recorded, but one day I sat her down at the dining room table with my tape recorder and got her to read those stories.”

I also did my best to establish, on the phone, that this uncached material was in good hands. Not only, I insisted, did I know their mother’s voice as well as any copy editor possibly could, but I hastened to add that the material was in great shape and that I wasn’t expecting to do much besides correct the odd typo, shake out the punctuation—and, of course, hit the shift key and provide the capital letters that Jackson, in what I imagined as bursts of determined creativity, hadn’t provided. And if there were any little infelicities of prose or other problems, I said with studied vagueness, I’d query them carefully and respectfully and leave it to her heirs to decide what might or might not warrant repair. (Or did you think this process was going to occur via a Ouija board?)


I’m not much for telling tales out of school, so had I encountered any majorly irksome gaffes as I made my way through the manuscript, I’d likely be keeping them discreetly to myself anyway rather than spilling them here, but the God’s honest truth is that even at close scrutiny—very close: I like to copyedit more or less in Cinerama, with a document set in 14-point type and, furthermore, at 150 percent, so that I can barely see beyond the margins unless I turn my head—Jackson’s prose remained resolutely fine. I confess that I was oddly pleased to learn that my paragon was, in manuscript, not entirely infallible: Jackson goes to the well of “suddenly” and “and then” a bit too frequently (with the Hymans’ approval, there are now quite a few fewer of those in the finished book), and she occasionally puts more pressure on the worthy semicolon than a semicolon can bear. (I may well, though I will not confirm it, on occasion have yelled at my screen “A period, for pete’s sake, a period!”) But mostly, sentence after sentence, I was happily awed.

So happily awed that I quickly—and easily, I should stress—established a rule of self-restraint: Anything I felt the need to do that couldn’t be easily accomplished with a mild rejiggering of punctuation or the addition or deletion of no more than two words at a time would be weighed carefully before I even dared suggest it. As it turned out, I found maybe a half-dozen knotted-up sentences that were easily untangled—just as, I’m certain, Jackson herself would have untangled them on a subsequent run-through. At one point I spent a good fifteen minutes willing a sentence to move from the beginning of a paragraph to the end before I decided it was fine where its author had placed it. Once and only once did I venture to suggest that a couple of words more interesting than “that” or “the” needed to be added to fill out a resolutely unsatisfactory sentence, and the Hymans accepted my suggestion. It’s a heady thing for me that I actually contributed two whole substantive words to a Shirley Jackson story, but the truth is that if I did my job properly, if I did that brain burrowing that my colleague said was the real art of copyediting, they’re not my words at all; they’re Jackson’s. I just had to listen for them.

As I was working, quite a few fellow Jackson aficionados of my acquaintance (it’s a bit of a cult, actually) offered nudging variations on “Well, if there’s anything you’re doing that she’s not happy with, I’m sure she’ll let you know,” but so far, months later, there have still been no alarmingly blown-open windows or inexplicably smashed crockery, so I’d like to think that Shirley—because, yes, at some point in this process she went from being Jackson, or “Shirleyjackson,” as I think I always used to call her, to being Shirley—is content.

Benjamin Dreyer is the executive managing editor and copy chief of the Random House division of Penguin Random House. He is as well the author in progress of English: Some Notes on Clarity, Correctness, and Style. He lives in Manhattan and tweets as @BCDreyer.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again