The Really Good Witch

Shirley Jackson (1916–65) was a complicated woman—a hardworking faculty wife and mother of four and a productive writer both energized and enervated by a macabre sensibility that doubtless worsened the poor health that led to a fatal heart attack in her 49th year.

A college graduate, and the spouse of prominent academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson had profitably immersed herself in what Poe called the literature of the grotesque and arabesque—and seems to have quite enjoyed describing herself as an accredited and devoted practitioner of the dark arts.

And, as if H.P. Lovecraft had had a little of Erma Bombeck or Carl Hiaasen in him (a not unpleasing thought), she also produced charmingly funny accounts (in Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages) of the joys and frustrations of tending to a large, fractious family.

This rigorously selective yet perfectly satisfying gathering of Jackson’s best work begins with the complete contents of her seminal 1947 collection The Lottery. Almost every reader conversant with modern fiction surely knows its sui generis title story: a virtually reportorial, resolutely unemotional account of an annual ritual—presumably a sacrifice of sorts—observed in a remote yet seemingly ordinary New England village. Revealing any further details would be a crime punishable by…well, just read the story.

Other well-mannered bloodcurdlers include “The Daemon Lover,” which introduces the recurring character of James Harris (not a character in this story, as it happens), who’s either an unprincipled Lothario fond of charming lonely women, then blithely breaking their hearts, or an authentic visitor from Hell, bursting with romantic-erotic menace (he’d scare the bejesus out of today’s cute vampire teenagers).

Also, “The Witch,” about a voluble four-year-old boy’s encounter in a train car with a grandfatherly sadist; and, among 21 late-career “Other Stories and Sketches,” an anecdote in which Death, having assumed a pleasing shape, pays an unexpected visit to a lonely woman (“The Rock”); a story which gives a “fortunate” niece “The Little House” owned by her late aunt (who has vacated it, but may still “possess” it); and a memorable black-comic distillation of the ambiguities of good and evil as incarnated by a respectable suburban couple (“One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts”).

Also included are Jackson’s superb 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, wherein a member of a ghost-hunting team discovers that the eponymous mansion has been awaiting her arrival; and the final completed novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), the story of an insular family trapped in a nightmare that provides both sanctuary and raison d’être for the book’s deeply unconventional, quite possibly insane young narrator.

Parents and children, spouses and relatives, neighbors whose “normality” masks their disturbing complexities, relationships that promise then withdraw perfect happiness—the stuff of everyday life, rendered in plain colloquial prose whose homely accents wring puzzlement, fear and incipient madness from the simplest quotidian experiences. Here was Shirley Jackson’s world, and her unpretentious artistry made of it a fearful yet irresistible place to visit. Witchcraft indeed.

—Bruce Allen

Pub Date: May 27, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-59853-072-8

Page Count: 828

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: May 10, 2010

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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