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Shirley Jackson's Son On His Mother's Newly Discovered Short Story


Shirley Jackson may not be a household name, but if you've taken an English class anywhere in the U.S. or cracked an anthology of best short stories, then it's very likely you've read "The Lottery." Published in 1948 in The New Yorker, Jackson's story about an unnamed, unremarkable village in America that slowly reveals an unspeakable ritual got more reader mail than the magazine had ever received to that point for a work of fiction.

Although she often didn't get much love from her critics during her lifetime, Shirley Jackson is having a bit of a moment now with a new film based on her life out earlier this year and recent film adaptations of her work and fresh thinking about what it must have been like for her as a woman writer, not to mention mother, in her time.

And now a new story of hers will likely add to that renewed interest. It's called "Adventure On A Bad Night," and it was just published for the first time in The Strand, a quarterly magazine of short fiction. It's about a housewife, Vivien, who helps out a young pregnant woman trying to send a telegram. The young woman doesn't speak much English and is being mistreated by a store clerk.

I talked about the story with Shirley Jackson's eldest son, Laurence Jackson Hyman. He is a writer and editor who manages his mother's literary estate. And he started our conversation by telling me how he found the story.

LAURENCE HYMAN: Well, this all started a number of years ago, frankly, when I was still living in San Francisco. And I came out of my front door one day, and I found a large, tattered box with the corners kind of frayed and addressed to me, no return address. And I didn't know what to do with it. I kicked it, and it was very heavy, and I left it alone for a few hours. But finally, I had to open it. And I discovered in it the original manuscripts of two of my mother's novels plus a stack of short stories.

And I looked at them, and I didn't recognize the short stories. And once I read one or two of them, I realized, these have never been published, and they're good. So we assembled a lot of stories, and we published, over the years, two books of previously unpublished and uncollected stories by our mother.

MARTIN: That's wild. Did you ever figure out who sent you that box?

HYMAN: Well, it was found by a friend in a barn in Vermont just being stored there. I'm not sure how it got there. And it was given to someone who mailed it to me. But again, I didn't - I never knew (laughter). It was a mystery for a long time - and a wonderful mystery. It's the kind of thing Shirley herself would have loved.

MARTIN: Yeah, that was my thought, too. So, you know, the story resonates on so many levels. I mean, first, with the woman stepping up to help the immigrant woman who can't express herself very well in English, that sense of the treatment - her poor treatment by this clerk. But the way she describes Vivien, the protagonist - I mean, it seems like she's almost - it feels like she's suffocating, you know? And you know what I mean? And there's these sort of very telling little details.

HYMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, there's this incredible anecdote of your mother going to the hospital to deliver your sister, her third child, and telling the clerk she was a writer, to which the clerk is said to have replied, I'll just put down housewife.

HYMAN: Yep. Yep. She loved to tell that story. And it happened. It was true.

MARTIN: I was just going to ask you'd if you ever hear her elaborate on this feeling herself - that she was suffocating?

HYMAN: Well, in her - not suffocating, no. You know, certainly in her letters, especially in the later letters, she's much more frank about her feelings, sometimes resentment, but usually just her delight in the whole process of writing and creating stories. I mean, she - that's what she loved to do more than anything.

And she didn't talk much about the stories to us. She - if one of us would walk by in the kitchen, she might call us aside and say, hey, Laur (ph), what do you think of this, and spin out a scene. And I'd think for a minute and say, yeah, it sounds pretty good...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HYMAN: ...And go off and play baseball. And she would do that often. She loved to - she had a red stool, her beloved red stool in the kitchen, that she would sit on and make notes when she would be cooking, for example. She'd - you know, food is simmering away on the stove, but she's scribbling notes. And in the middle of a grocery list that she's making out, she suddenly issues warnings to her characters. You know, look out. Don't do that.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HYMAN: So it's - yeah, she was very intense about her writing. She couldn't write all day the way many writers are fortunate enough to be able to do because she had four children and a husband who needed constant tending because he - my father didn't know how to make coffee and didn't drive, so she had to drive him to his - to the college where he was teaching, Bennington College, and then come pick him up at the end of the day and take kids to dentist appointments and scout meetings and dance classes.

And you know, she was very busy as a housewife and a mother. And yet she would find four or five, six hours a day or evening to sit at the typewriter and do her thing. And she wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.

MARTIN: So why do you think Andrew Gulli, who's the managing editor of The Strand - why do you think he was attracted to this story?

HYMAN: Well, I think that Andrew felt that this story resonates. It certainly does today with, you know, animosity in many places towards foreigners. So it's - it just exposes that side of humanity that is very troubling and exposes the malice that people direct towards each other for no particular reason. And my mother was very concerned with those things. She was hugely against any sort of violence or abuse and really recoiled from it. But she had to describe it because it's part of life.

MARTIN: That was Laurence Jackson Hyman, writer Shirley Jackson's eldest son and the executor of her literary estate. It's called "Adventure On A Bad Night." It was just published for the first time in The Strand, a quarterly magazine of short fiction.

Mr. Hyman, thank you so much for joining us.

HYMAN: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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