Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Raising Demons - Shirley Jackson

Raising Demons is the 1957 sequel to Shirley Jackson's hilariously wonderful memoir/novel about being a wife and mother, Life Among the Savages (1953).  I paid a steepish amount for a hideous paperback (pictured), and thus managed to secure Raising Demons, saving it for a treat - and I read it whilst recently beleaguered with a cold.  It is an absurd indictment of the publishing industry that these books are so difficult to find, especially on this side of the ocean.  They are brilliant, and deserve to be classics (please, some publisher or other, please!)  I don't often laugh out loud while reading, but with Raising Demons (as with Life Among the Savages before it) I sat in the corner giggling away to myself, getting curious and worried glances from my housemates.

I went back and read what I wrote about Life Among the Savages (you can do the same thing if you click here) and basically everything I said for that book is true of this one.  Funny, warm, happy, funny, clever, and did I mention funny?  But I shan't be lazy; I shall write a new review for this book, and not just send you back to that review...

Despite my enthusiasm for Life Among the Savages, I'm well aware that Shirley Jackson is much more likely to make you think of Gothic, creepy, psychological novels - like the excellent We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  She does that sort of thing incredibly well.  But she also excels at this sort of gentle, family-orientated, self-deprecating writing - a genre which many would dismiss, I'm sure, but which I (and many of you) adore.

By the time Raising Demons starts there are six in the family, plus attendant animals, and they have outgrown the house which was so amusingly bought at the beginning of Life Among the Savages - and so they start hunting for a new house.  Or, rather, everyone tells them which house they should choose - the one with the wonky gatepost, converted into four self-contained flats.  Despite insisting that they don't want to move, nor rent their house, they find themselves sending all their belongings into storage, and converting the flats into one house.  It is here that they live out their ordinary, hilarious lives.

Jackson has a talent for two types of humour at once: the knowing grin we grant to the recognisable, and laughter at the bizarre and unexpected.  These initially seem like opposite sides of the coin; that authors would have to pick one or the other - but Jackson manages both at once, by taking the everyday, identifiable dynamics of the family home... and exaggerating them.  And then putting them in a pattern, so that events pile on events, creating a surreal outcome.  Yet one which seems entirely possible - had, perhaps, happened to Jackson herself.

Having written about illustrative quotations yesterday, I should provide excellently evocative ones today, shouldn't I?  I liked this one, about the mother preparing her son for his first Little League game - obviously rather more nervous than he is:
As a matter of fact, the night before the double-header which was to open the Little League, I distinctly recall that I told Laurie it was only a game.  "It's only a game, fella," I said.  "Don't try to go to sleep; read or something if you're nervous.  Would you like some aspirin?"

"I forgot to tell you," Laurie said, yawning.  "He's pitching Georgie tomorrow.  Not me."

"What?"  I thought, and then said heartily, "I mean, he's the manager, after all.  I know you'll play your best in any position."

"I could go to sleep now if you'd just turn out the light," Laurie said patiently.  "I'm really quite tired."

I called Dot later, about twelve o'clock, because I was pretty sure she'd still be awake, and of course she was, although Billy had gone right off about nine o'clock.  She said she wasn't the least bit nervous, because of course it didn't really matter except for the kids' sake, and she hoped the best team would win.  I said that that was just what I had been telling my husband, and she said her husband had suggested that perhaps she had better not go to the game at all because if the Braves lost she ought to be home with a hot bath ready for Billy and perhaps a steak dinner or something.  I said that even if Laurie wasn't pitching I was sure the Braves would win, and of course I wasn't one of those people who always wanted their own children right out in the centre of things all the time but if the Braves lost it would be my opinion that their lineup ought to be revised and Georgie put back into right field where he belonged.  She said she thought Laurie was a better pitcher, and I suggested that she and her husband and Billy come over for lunch and we could all go to the game together.
That also gives an example of my favourite technique in the book.  It's simple, but I find it endlessly amusing: it is what Jackson doesn't write.  So much of Raising Demons is left to the reader's imagination.  Not much is needed, to be honest - any reader is likely to deduce that the mother is distrait, and the son calm.  Jackson isn't trying to be super-subtle with that point.  But I love that it is never quite spelt out - and that other characters thus often miss what is so obvious to the amused reader.  Here's an example in that vein:
By the Saturday before Labor Day a decided atmosphere of cool restraint had taken over our house, because on Thursday my husband had received a letter from an old school friend of his named Sylvia, saying that she and another girl were driving through New England on a vacation and would just adore stopping by for the weekend to renew old friendships.  My husband gave me the letter to read, and I held it very carefully by the edges and said that it was positively touching, the way he kept up with his old friends, and did Sylvia always use pale lavender paper with this kind of rosy ink and what was that I smelled - perfume?  My husband said Sylvia was a grand girl.  I said I was sure of it.  My husband said Sylvia had always been one of the nicest people he knew.  I said I hadn't a doubt.  My husband said that he was positive that I was going to love Sylvia on sight.  I opened my mouth to speak but stopped myself in time.

My husband laughed self-consciously.  "I remember," he said, and then his voice trailed off and he laughed again.

"Yes?" I asked politely.

"Nothing," he said.
Lovely!  I really can't recommend this book, and Life Among the Savages, enough.  It's such a shame they're so difficult to find - but I promise they are worth the hunt to anybody who likes Provincial Lady-esque books.  (Hopefully you'll find a nicer copy than mine - I quite like the other image featured, yours for $500.)  Like the PL et al, I know I'll be returning to this family time and again.  I'm rather bereft that only two were written... and on the hunt for other, potentially similar, books.  And more on that before too long...

18 comments:

  1. Have you read Betty MacDonald? She has four books of memoirs, starting with The Egg & I. There is a sharper edge than in Life/Demons but she's just as funny, even in a book set in a TB sanitarium (The Plague & I). She's better known now I think for her children's books (the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series).

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    1. I haven't, but thank you for reminding me that I have some of her books! I've been meaning to read them for ages. I can never remember which ones I have, but it's two '& I' books :)

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  2. These both sound so conversational, and I love love LOVE these covers. They're fantastic.

    I'm actually teaching Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" [of course, I know it seems like the only one of hers that is ever taught, but it's in our text] next week, and I'm excited about it.

    Thanks for reviewing these. I'll see if perhaps my library has either.

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    1. I do hope you can find one or other of them!

      The Lottery isn't very famous in the UK, but everyone in the US seems to have read it at school, and it's how SJ is known. This really couldn't be more different!

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  3. I studied Shirley Jackson's The Lottery in a Michigan high school in 1967. Everyone did. Required reading. The books you have reviewed though sound like fun.. I also remember watching the old film of the Egg and I re: your other comment and as kids we loved it. Really funny that portrayed life on the farm. Good memories. Will try to get the two novels by S Jackson as have not read them.

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    1. Good luck, hope you manage to find them, Pam!
      I hadn't realised The Egg and I was a film - once I've read it, I'll keep an eye out for that.

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  4. I studied Shirley Jackson's The Lottery in a Michigan high school in 1967. Everyone did. Required reading. The books you have reviewed though sound like fun.. I also remember watching the old film of the Egg and I re: your other comment and as kids we loved it. Really funny that portrayed life on the farm. Good memories. Will try to get the two novels by S Jackson as have not read them.

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  5. The 'Sylvia' exchange is perfect! I'm really looking forward to both Life Among the Savages and this since I know I will love both.

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    1. Isn't it wonderful? The books are full of things like that - can't wait to read what you thought about Life Among the Savages, when you've got to reading it.

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  6. As a lover of the provincial lady (thanks for pointing me in her directing!) i am going to have to read these!! I'm off to scour the internet to find a battered copy :-)

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  7. I wondered how you got hold of a copy. I haven't managed to yet as they are SO prohibitively expensive and/or falling apart. I really do wish they'd get reprinted. I love Shirley Jackson in her funny mode.

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  8. I read them both a while back, and last year realized I wanted to own them. I went to ebay and my copies are not good either. I think she is quite brilliant in both these books. Interesting about the letter. Her husband in real life was quite the slime. There's a wonderful biography of Shirley Jackson called Private Demons by Judy Oppenheimer. I've read it twice, and I've never done that before with any piece of nonfiction (well, except for A Moveable Feast). It is sad, but really excellent.

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  9. Karin, Sweden9 June 2012 12:36

    I´m right now reading a book including both Jacksons Savangers and Demons -and they are just wonderful so funny. Thank god todays families don´t have to rely on their mothers to get anyting done!

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    1. They're so wonderful, aren't they! I think I'll be re-reading them many times.

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  10. My favorite story here is "The Daemon Lover." Herein, Jackson offers one of the most poignant, touching looks at loneliness, desperation, and fragility I have ever read. In the story, we spend a day with the protagonist as she prepares for her wedding, having become engaged just the night before to a James Harris. It is a depressing yet beautiful story, and I actually rate it higher than "The Lottery." The character of James Harris actually flitters throughout several of these stories, a phantom of sorts haunting several of Jackson's more memorable female characters.

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  11. Charming, witty and warm would be my choice of adjectives to apply to Raising Demons. I'd also say 'over too soon'! :)

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  12. I just found your blog(s) and anticipate many happy hours spent here. I've loved both of these Shirley Jackson books for 30+ years, so it's delightful to see them getting some love here. I actually have that nice copy of Raising Demons with the dust jacket (somewhere.... hmm....), and I'm sure I didn't pay more than a few dollars for it, so don't lose hope. It has a photo of the four kids on the back of the dust jacket!

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    1. Welcome! Sadly those books are much harder to find in the UK, but I did manage to get a two-in-one which is rather nicer than this edition.

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