As the author of “The Haunting of Hill House,” “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” “The Lottery,” and numerous other spine-tinglers, the late author Shirley Jackson was a master of Halloween fright.
What’s less known is that Jackson, who earned a great deal of fame by writing fiction about haunted houses, might have lived in a haunted house, too.
That eerie part of Jackson’s past has been brought back to light with the recent publication of “Let Me Tell You,” which assembles a number of pieces from the Jackson vault that haven’t been published in book form before.
In addition to her horror tales, Jackson wrote two comic memoirs of motherhood, “Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons.” She died in 1965 at age 48 while taking an afternoon nap. This year marks the 50th anniversary of her death. Next year, W.W. Norton plans to publish a new biography of Jackson by Ruth Franklin.
Among the selections in “Let Me Tell You” is “Good Old House,” an essay in which Jackson recalls the odd happenings at the home she shared in New England with her English professor husband and their young children.
Shortly after moving in, Jackson learned of the home’s reputation. Prospective housekeepers refused to work there. Painters and plumbers had asked for extra pay to take jobs at the house. The local grocer had trouble finding a delivery boy willing to bring an order to the door. People around town claimed the place was haunted.
Odd things started to happen. The clock stopped every afternoon at five minutes before 5. A new window pane, perfectly clear when it was installed, instantly became opaque.
“Still another troubling thing was the way small articles disappeared,” Jackson writes. “I realized that in a large house with small children, things are always disappearing anyway, but this was different; it was as though there were pockets of time in the house into which things dropped for a little while and then came back.”
Several times, Jackson left groceries on the counter, returning to find them all put away. There was no obvious explanation for how this happened.
“Once, buttons appeared, newly sewn onto my son’s jacket, and another time my daughter’s stuffed lamb had a blue ribbon removed and a pink one substituted,” Jackson tells readers. “A day or so later the blue ribbon was back, washed and ironed.”
Jackson’s daughter talked of a faraway voice that sang to her at night. The family came to accept whatever presence might have been among them.
“Once I went into the kitchen and found a still-warm pumpkin pie on the table, covered with a clean cloth,” Jackson reports. “We had it for dinner and praised it in voices that we hoped would carry throughout the old house.”
A house that might be haunted by a ghost who makes pumpkin pies?
We should all be so lucky this Halloween to be as haunted as Shirley Jackson, that great queen of the macabre, once claimed to be.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”