One of my favorite dedications by an author is the one written by Stephen King for his novel Firestarter. In it King states that the book is dedicated, “to Shirley Jackson, who never had to raise her voice.”
If you have ever read any of Shirley Jackson’s books or short stories – The Lottery, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House to name a few – you know that King spoke the truth. The subtle terror Jackson wove through her stories was enough to leave you wondering if you were mad, if she was mad, or if you even existed at all. You doubted everything you saw, whether it was the tranquility of the New England village you drove through on a Sunday afternoon, or if you should really accept a cup of tea from a neighbor.
Shirley Jackson was, in a word, magnificent.
Not only was she a master of terror (and for an excellent explanation of the difference between terror, horror, and the ‘gross out,’ please read Stephen King’s On Writing and Danse Macabre, two excellent works on both the craft of writing and horror in literature), she was also a master of humor. There is a pair of books about her family and their time in Vermont. The two books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, are pieces that show the breadth and depth of her abilities.
Shirley Jackson’s works are subtle, with plots and characters that are believable enough to keep you thinking for decades, which I feel was the point.
Stephen King was absolutely correct when he said she never had to raise her voice. It’s up to us to listen for what she’s saying, and to try to understand what she means with each carefully chosen word.
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