Today marks the 100th anniversary of Shirley Jackson’s birth. Jackson was a writer known for the creeping menace in her stories, the way that evil slips in among ordinary people—her most famous story, “The Lottery,” being an excellent illustration. To mark her centenary this year, FSG published a graphic novel adaptation of that story by her grandson, Miles Hyman. Below is her story “The Intoxicated,” which appears in the same collection as “The Lottery.” In it, you will see some of the hallmarks that have made Jackson a celebrated writer for so many years.
He was just tight enough and just familiar enough with the house to be able to go out into the kitchen alone, apparently to get ice, but actually to sober up a little; he was not quite enough a friend of the family to pass out on the living-room couch. He left the party behind without reluctance, the group by the piano singing “Stardust,” his hostess talking earnestly to a young man with thin clean glasses and a sullen mouth; he walked guardedly through the dining-room where a little group of four or five people sat on the stiff chairs reasoning something out carefully among themselves; the kitchen doors swung abruptly to his touch, and he sat down beside a white enamel table, clean and cold under his hand. He put his glass on a good spot in the green pattern and looked up to find that a young girl was regarding him speculatively from across the table.
“Hello,” he said. “You the daughter?”
“I’m Eileen she said. “Yes.”
She seemed to him baggy and ill-formed; it’s the clothes they wear now, young girls, he thought foggily; her hair was braided down either side of her face, and she looked young and fresh and not dressed-up; her sweater was purplish and her hair was dark. “You sound nice and sober,” he said, realizing that it was the wrong thing to say to young girls.
“I was just having a cup of coffee,” she said. “May I get you one?”
He almost laughed, thinking that she expected she was dealing knowingly and competently with a rude drunk. “Thank you,” he said, “I believe I will.” He made an effort to focus his eyes; the coffee was hot, and when she put a cup in front of him, saying, “I suppose you’d like it black,” he put his face into the steam and let it go into his eyes, hoping to clear his head.
“It sounds like a lovely party,” she said without longing, “everyone must be having a fine time!’
“It is a lovely party.” He began to drink the coffee, scalding hot, wanting her to know she had helped him, his head steadied, and he smiled at her “I feel better,” he said, “thanks to you,”
“It must be very warm in the other room,” she said soothingly.
Then he did laugh out loud and she frowned, but he could see her excusing him as she went on, “It was so hot upstairs I thought I’d like to come down for a while and sit out here.”
“Were you asleep?” he asked. “Did we wake you?”
“I was doing my homework,” she said.
He looked at her again, seeing her against a background of careful penmanship and themes, worn textbooks and laughter between desks. “You’re in high school?”
“I’m a Senior.” She seemed to wait for him to say something, and then she said, “I was out a year when I had pneumonia.”
He found it difficult to think of something to say (ask her about boys? basketball?), and so he pretended he was listening to the distant noises from the front of the house. “It’s a fine party,” he said again, vaguely.
“I suppose you like parties,” she said.
Dumbfounded, he sat staring into his empty coffee cup. He supposed he did like parties; her tone had been faintly surprised, as though next he were to declare for an arena with gladiators fighting wild beasts, or the solitary circular waltzing of a madman in a garden. I’m almost twice your age, my girl, he thought, but it’s not so long since I did homework too. “Play basketball?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
He felt with irritation that she had been in the kitchen first, that she lived in the house, that he must keep on talking to her. “What’s your homework about?” he asked.
“I’m writing a paper on the future of the world,” she said, and smiled. “It sounds silly, doesn’t it? I think it’s silly.”
“Your party out front is talking about it. That’s one reason I came’ out here.” He could see her thinking that that was not at all the reason he came out here, and he said quickly, ”What are you saying about the future of the world?”
“I don’t really think it’s got much future,” she said, “at least the way we’ve got it now.”
“It’s an interesting time to be alive,” he said, as though he were still at the party.
“Well, after all,” she said, “it isn’t as though we didn’t know about it in advance.”
He looked at her for a minute; she was staring absently at the toe of her saddle shoe, moving her foot softly back and forth, following it with her eyes. “It’s really a frightening time when a girl sixteen has to think of things like that.” In my day, he thought of saying mockingly, girls thought of nothing but cocktails and necking.
“I’m seventeen.” She looked up and smiled at him again. ”There’s a terrible difference,” she said.
“In my day,” he said, overemphasizing, “girls thought of nothing but cocktails and necking.”
“That’s partly the trouble,” she answered him seriously. “If people had been really, honestly scared when you were young we wouldn’t be so badly off today.”
His voice had more of an edge than he intended (“When I was young!”), and he turned partly away from her as though to indicate the half-interest of an older person being gracious to a child: “I imagine we thought we were scared. I imagine all kids sixteen—seventeen—think they’re scared. It’s part of a stage you go through, like being boy-crazy.”
“I keep figuring how it will be.” She spoke very softly, very clearly, to a point just past him on the wall. “Somehow I think of the churches as going first, before even the Empire State building. And then all the big apartment houses by the river, slipping down slowly into the water with the people inside, and the schools in the middle of Latin class maybe, while we’re reading Caesar.” She brought her eyes to his face, looking at him in numb excitement. “Each time we begin a chapter in Caesar, I wonder if this won’t be the one we never finish. Maybe we in our Latin class will be the last people who ever read Caesar.”
“That would be good news,” he said lightly. “I used to hate Caesar.”
“I suppose when you were young everyone hated Caesar,” she said coolly.
He waited for a minute before he said, “I think it’s a little silly for you to fill your mind with all this morbid trash. Buy yourself a movie magazine and settle down.”
“I’ll be able to get all the movie magazines I want,” she said insistently. “The subways. will crash through, you know, and the little magazine stands will all be squashed. You’ll be able to pick up all the candy bars you want, and magazines, and lipsticks and artificial flowers from the five-and-ten, and dresses lying in the street from all the big stores. And fur coats.”
“I hope the liquor stores will break wide open,” he said, beginning to feel impatient with her, “I’d walk in and help myself to a case of brandy and never worry about anything again.”
“The office buildings will be just piles of broken stones,” she said, her wide emphatic eyes still looking at him. “If only you could know exactly what minute it will come.”
“I see,” he said. “I go with the rest. I see.”
“Things will be different afterward,” she said. “Everything that makes the world like it is now will be gone. We’ll have new rules and new ways of living. Maybe there’ll be a law not to live in houses, so then no one can hide from anyone else, you see.”
“Maybe there’ll be a law to keep all seventeen-year-old girls in school learning sense,” he said, standing up.
“There won’t be any schools,” she said flatly. “No one will learn anything. To keep from getting back where we are now.”
“Well,” he said, with a little laugh. “You make it sound very interesting. Sorry I won’t be there to see it.” He stopped, his shoulder against the swinging door into the dining-room. He wanted badly to say something adult and scathing, and yet he was afraid of showing her that he had listened to her, that when he was young people had not talked like that. “If you have any trouble with your Latin,” he said finally, “I’ll be glad to give you a hand.”
She giggled, shocking him. “I still do my homework every night,” she said.
Back in the living-room, with people moving cheerfully around him, the group by the piano now singing “Home on the Range,” his hostess deep in earnest conversation with a tall, graceful man in a blue suit, he found the girl’s father and said, “I’ve just been having a very interesting conversation with your daughter.”
His host’s eye moved quickly around the room. “Eileen? Where is she?”
“In the kitchen. She’s doing her Latin.”
“‘Gallia est omnia divisa in partes tres,'” his host said without expression. “I know.”
“A really extraordinary girl.”
His host shook his head ruefully. “Kids nowadays,” he said.
Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), the author of The Haunting of Hill House, Hangsaman, Life Among the Savages, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is considered one of the masters of modern gothic fiction. She is perhaps best known for her short story “The Lottery.”
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