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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Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

BAREFOOT

Privileged 30-somethings hide from their woes in Nantucket.

Hilderbrand’s saga follows the lives of Melanie, Brenda and Vicki. Vicki, alpha mom and perfect wife, is battling late-stage lung cancer and, in an uncharacteristically flaky moment, opts for chemotherapy at the beach. Vicki shares ownership of a tiny Nantucket cottage with her younger sister Brenda. Brenda, a literature professor, tags along for the summer, partly out of familial duty, partly because she’s fleeing the fallout from her illicit affair with a student. As for Melanie, she gets a last minute invite from Vicki, after Melanie confides that Melanie’s husband is having an affair. Between Melanie and Brenda, Vicki feels her two young boys should have adequate supervision, but a disastrous first day on the island forces the trio to source some outside help. Enter Josh, the adorable and affable local who is hired to tend to the boys. On break from college, Josh learns about the pitfalls of mature love as he falls for the beauties in the snug abode. Josh likes beer, analysis-free relationships and hot older women. In a word, he’s believable. In addition to a healthy dose of testosterone, the novel is balanced by powerful descriptions of Vicki’s bond with her two boys. Emotions run high as she prepares for death.

Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

Pub Date: July 2, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-316-01858-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2007

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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