My Visit with Shirley

I fell asleep last night reading a collection of Shirley Jackson’s recently published short stories and essays.  I woke up this morning, poured a cup of coffee, and went back to reading.  Blissful morning and the coffee helped.  Sans coffee, I might not have taken notice of a few facts about Shirley’s life.  I hope no one minds that I call her by her first name.  I feel a bit like the character in Julie and Julia, haunting the life and works of someone I greatly admire.

Shirley Hardie Jackson was born in San Francisco on December 14, 1916.  Today is her birthday and she was a Sagittarian!  Like me!  She died on August 8, 1965 in North Bennington, Vermont at the young age of 48. Not only do we share a Sun sign, but Shirley spent her life in places that I have been intimately connected with on both sides of the continent.

Perhaps it’s because of the Zodiac Mysteries that I’m writing, I became curious about her natal chart.  Of course, without a birth time only a solar chart is possible, but here it is. shirley-jackson

The solar chart gives her a Pisces rising.  Maybe that is actually accurate.  Notice her large eyes and the open, sensitive expression.  If Pisces was rising at the time of her birth, she wouldn’t have had a very tough exterior in dealing with the world.  jacksonA grand trine in fire signs between her Sun, Moon and Jupiter indicates that SO much came easily to her.  The grand time is a fabulous, blessed natal aspect.  I wish I had one in my chart.  The downside of all this “ease” in life is that it can incline to laziness and an assumption that one need do nothing and wait for the blessings of life to arrive.

In contrast, Pluto is in Cancer.  She was of the misogynistic generation (is there only one?) that elevated “motherhood” to the level of sainthood and invented Mother’s Day.  Such nonsense!  But Pluto opposed her Mercury in Cancer — a dark, tortured and obsessive mind.  Perhaps even an indication of harsh criticism by early reviewers and readers.

astro-bookThen there’s the conjunction between Saturn in late Cancer and Neptune in early Leo.  Faith and optimism were not one of her natal gifts in spite of her fire sign placements.  She was fearful and tended toward depression.  Reality for her was not at all trustworthy.  She would have suffered from a lack of confidence, fits of anxiety, even a tendency to sacrifice herself for others.  She was a conflicted soul, at the mercy of addictions and agoraphobia but pouring her brilliant and perceptive observations into her stories.  She was a woman who yearned for freedom and greener pastures (Sagittarius) and more time to write, yet unable to escape her own very personal prison.  Note the placements in Capricorn – Mercury, Mars and North Node of the Moon.  Her status in the world and how things appeared to others were important to her.  Perhaps that’s why freedom and independence eluded her.  This was a conflicted woman who drew upon that pain to write her stories. magical-book

One reviewer (Eliot Fremont-Smith) called her “. . . a master of complexity of mood, an ironic explorer of the dark conflicting inner tyrannies of the mind and soul.”  The New York Times Book Review said of her: “Shirley Jackson knew better than any writer since Hawthorne (one of my personal faves) the value of haunted things.”  Another reviewer said “. . . she wrote ‘with a broomstick’ instead of a pen.”  Yet another called her “. . . a kind of Virginia Werewoolf.”

stonesI first read The Lottery in a creative writing class in college.  I had no interest at all in creative writing at that time, but the class was a handy escape from organic chemistry and chordate morphology.  I was stunned when I read this story.  The Lottery resonated with me in ways that are hard to explain.  I thought, yes, someone who really “gets” New England — the bigotry, the xenophobia.  When I first moved to the West Coast, I was taken aback when strangers on the street would nod and say ‘hi.’  That would never have happened in the New England I grew up in.  At the time of its publication The Lottery was tremendously shocking.  The magazine received hundreds of letters from angry readers.  Subscriptions were cancelled.  Today perhaps, no one would bat an eye.  I can’t say, but I loved the story, still do.  It illustrates so much about New England and human nature.

cemeteryAt Malice Domestic last May, I sat on a panel called “Murder in New England” with several wonderful New England authors – Kathy Lynn Emerson, Lea Wait, Barbara Ross and Sherry Harris, our moderator.  I was invited because of my Soup Lover’s Mysteries set in Vermont and written as Connie Archer.

Our first question was “Why?”  Why New England?  We all had different comments and takes on the subject, but I was reminded that as a child, I was sure I could smell the blood that had soaked into the earth for generations.  The sense of it was everywhere and I couldn’t understand why no one else noticed it.  My parents were fond of taking long rides around the countryside.  I was usually car sick.  I didn’t like those meandering rides at all.

Shirley, a native Californian, was completely creeped out by New England.  There were the obvious reasons – anti-Semitism directed at her husband and her family, isolation as a housewife raising four kids and trying to find the time to write, the damage caused by a cold and critical mother and a bullying, controlling, vain and philandering husband.

villageI wish I could have known her.  I wish I could have hung out with her in that New England town, preferably in a soup shop.  If she had been my friend, I would have advised her to pack up the kids and get on the next plane, train or bus and hightail it back to California.  That’s the true Sagittarian response!  She didn’t need him.  After all, it was her money from writing that kept the family afloat.

In spite of her life and her personal demons, she still managed to create some of the most brilliant literature ever published.  If you’re a fan, as I am, you might want to know a new biography has just been released by author Ruth Franklin:  Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.  I want to read it, but part of me hesitates.  I wish Shirley had had a happier life.  I wish she had lived longer and written more.

No astrologer can or ever should predict death (unlike mystery writers) but I did happen to notice that Jupiter in Gemini was transiting in opposition to her Sun sign on that fateful August day.  Perhaps she finally found the escape and freedom she longed for.

8 Responses to My Visit with Shirley

  1. Connie, I’m always impressed by the research you do when working on a new book and now I see you do that when reading about an author you enjoy as well. Thank you for sharing Shirley’s story. I remember reading The Lottery years ago and the theme of the book still haunts me. Her insights into the twisted thoughts few share made her work as remarkable as it is unforgettable.

    • Thanks, Ellen ~ Yes, The Haunting is an amazing film. I can still remember the first time I saw it. And I was truly shocked when I learned Shirley had died, and died so young. Her new biography looks very interesting, doesn’t it?

  2. What a fabulous, spot-on interpretation of her horoscope, Connie! I vividly remember her stories but I never knew anything about her life. Her insight really came from somewhere. Though I agree with you about the bio.

    • Thank you, Karen! Coming from you especially, that’s a wonderful compliment! When I read her stories years ago, I was very curious about her life, but there wasn’t much information available, much less honest information. Some readers were very offended by her stories, and actually, her husband (a literary critic) was better known than she. But Shirley has stood the test of time, hasn’t she?

  3. I’ve read Ruth Franklin’s biography, and I not only love it, I want to own it. Franklin does an excellent job of showing us Shirley Jackson’s life, but puts all her work in the context of that life. I have owned Shirley’s eight novels since the 70s, and it was a joy to read how they each came into existence. As you know, Shirley wrote hundreds of short stories. I’m now reading “Let Me Tell You,” a collection assembled by two of her grown children from unpublished works of Shirley’s. I hope you like the biography as much as I did, Connie!

    • That’s so good to hear, Sandra. I’ll definitely have to find that book as well. Talk about synchronicity, my daughter gave me (for my birthday) that very same book — Let Me Tell you — which is what sparked my little post about Shirley. Let Me Tell You is absolutely wonderful and I can’t wait to read this biography!

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