Emily Collins

Emily Collins is a writer and teaching artist in NYC.

Shirley Jackson and the Ordinariness of Evil

In the classic supernatural thriller The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson writes,

“‘Don’t do it,’ Eleanor told the little girl; ‘insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again.

It was this basic fear of conformity—the prospect of becoming someone else’s idea—that compelled Jackson to divulge not only the supernatural but the wickedness of the everyday. To read Jackson is to dismantle the familiar and become on nodding terms with the void that will gladly take its place. With an unerring eye that exposed the macabre in domesticity and domesticity in the macabre, Jackson achieved a body of work that continues to validate the harmless eccentric.

Many of Jackson’s stories are written with alarming simplicity resonate the works of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie: stories so deceptively minimal the reader initially feels cheated and remains so until she returns to those curt, stripped down sentences and discovers their enchantment. Unlike the stories of Carver and Beattie, which are heralded for their linear simplicity, Jackson’s stories read like Hitchcock gazing out of one of Hopper’s windows, projecting the loneliness and suspense of the times with all the wry humor that ignites our curiosity. Whether faced with film or prose, it takes courage to fully embrace characters living in a world of their own making, particularly Jackson’s characters, which center their readers in the drifting emotional mist.

The Lottery

Jackson wrote over sixteen works during her short life but only one story continues to hold such subversive impact. First published in The New Yorker in 1948, “The Lottery” is now the most widely anthologized American short story of all time and a staple of school curriculum. Yet, outside the used literature books crafted for the middle and high school classroom exist stories too risky for the syllabus. A prime example of this being the formidable reaction to the publication of “The Lottery,” an act that both undermined and mythologized one of America’s forthcoming influential writers.

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Initially, “The Lottery” was received more as an insidious platform than the tour de force it is championed as today. To the surprise of Jackson and the editors of The New Yorker, “The Lottery” was subject to relentless vitriol and arrogance regarding the author’s intent. The mass, brutal reactions toward “The Lottery” are laughable today but the shameful aspects of such Salem-like judgments are undeniable. When the collective fears of a subculture are not addressed properly, well-meaning people may turn to the seductive lure of fable and conjecture. But what’s rarely addressed concerning the critical and cultural reception to such a work is the devastating toll it took on Jackson as a writer.

After The New Yorker debacle, the conflicting fear and dream of all writers was, for Jackson, in full tilt: the realization that total strangers are reading your work and doing so candidly. What made Jackson’s experience so unique was the writer-sized pigeon hole it left her in the aftermath. After all, such cataclysmic success is like an ill fitting coat of many colors. It drowns the artist and eventually the coat itself is all anyone chooses to see. The artist once capable of many hues is now imprisoned by the lurid fabric of unexpected grandiosity. It is the most devastating of exits.

The story that, for better or for worse, transformed Jackson into a literary icon was likely inspired by North Bennington, Vermont where she and her husband lived for the majority of their adult lives. As the wife of a literary critic and unapologetic egoist, Jackson lived a double life determined not by the ungovernableness of the psyche but by a hostile village of people that one would assume could exist in solely, well, a Shirley Jackson story. Naturally, Jackson was quickly assailed by insular, small town mentality and the young writer was often accused of elitism, paranoia, and the more titillating: witchcraft.

In an early biography she was described as an amateur witch, a possible publicity stunt that eventually functioned as a double-edged sword for Jackson considering she could never rescind the mischaracterization of her own writing. There was even a rumor she used a broomstick for a pen. In actuality, the only broomstick Jackson used was the one she wielded across the floor to renounce the dirt of the day-a day full of herding small children from dinner tables to bathtubs before sitting down to enjoy the solitary pleasures of writing. Although many of Jackson’s themes match those of upscale horror writer Patricia Highsmith, Jackson’s revelations focus on how hierarchical fixations alienate those who choose to wear spectacles of a slightly different colored lens. This specific type of alienation is perpetuated by a gloomy realm that denies the shared parts of human darkness and persecutes others for their differences. Such treatment is even bestowed onto children.

We see this in Eileen, the speculative teenager in the story “The Intoxicated”, who is writing a paper about the future of the world. “I don’t think it’s got much future,” she laments, “at least the way we’ve got it now.” The older and nameless male narrator of the story dispassionately tells Eileen that girls her age would be far happier if they traded Caesar for magazines and worried about nothing but “cocktails and necking.” The narrator caught between something carnal and paternal and forever doomed to say the wrong thing, is sympathetic in Eileen’s eyes.

Jackson’s Young Women

Young women in Jackson’s stories are either good, know-better souls like Eileen, or crypto-feminist icons like the indomitable Merricat Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Their diluted sexuality is like a botched fresco restoration glossed over to the point of caricature with all the original foundations underneath as raw and present as ever. Because sex is so remarkably absent in Jackson’s stories, it exists in all the spaces it has been denied. This, however, does not mean Jackson’s heroines are meek. These girls, feral in spirit and on the cusp of adulthood, confront the gritty realities that await them and ignore the trajectories of a more sedated human experience. It is their failure to compromise that ignites the hostility of those undeserving of their trust.

However bleak the lives of Jackson’s young characters may be, there are factors that render them victorious. Through disassociation cradled by a rich inner life, children can achieve a sort of cryptic independence free from adult scrutiny. These same children, however, are not free from reaching conclusions grounded in the external. Due to the burning loneliness of childhood experiences, it’s easy for a child to view the grim subtleties of the world in high relief. But children do not reach such conclusions on their own, and there comes a time when the adults who once chiseled away at a child’s life must accept these conclusions with dignity and grace.

Jackson’s characters, particularly her young heroines, seldom encounter a supportive elder brave enough to face them. What they find instead is the power to take the ordinariness of evil and reveal it for what it is: pervasive and extraordinary.

In Jackson’s work the inability to conform trumpets alienation. It is an inevitable occurrence that will cast shadows onto the world that tries to suppress the peculiar. For the sake of human intimacy, let us be content with all Jackson has given us. May we toast her wicked ways, the cups of our choosing running over plenty. As Merricat Blackwood tells us in the opening of We Have Always Lived in the Castle,

“I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.

On Sandra Cisneros’ A House of My Own

In New York City, a place I’ve longed to live since childhood, I wrestle with unattainability. One evening on my friend’s rooftop, I watched the sun set over the Manhattan skyline. How ecstatic I was to finally see this in the horizon. The scene felt almost scripted. Two girls sit on a rooftop and talk each other weak. They are both new to New York. Wrapped in fleece blankets, they raise their wine glasses to the skyline. The sky darkens and the city awakens. 

It feels strange to attribute so much to one moment, but it was there on that rooftop, while aware of what I had, a peculiar desire for the homes I’d fled unfurled within me. I found that I didn’t want to leave and I didn’t want to stay. This ambivalence frightened me.

***

In her 2015 memoir, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, Sandra Cisneros writes of flesh and shelter. These collected essays, written over the course of Cisneros’ life, are rooted in her desire for a house to call her own. A writer’s house shelters her interiority when the body is not enough. It wills her to create in solitude while providing a similar refuge to likeminded people. For Cisneros these people were relatives, friends, and the writers who functioned as both. These new and collected essays are ofrendas, offerings to her loves and influences, bits and pieces of a large life claimed, forming a rich mosaic of one compelling writer.

In the introduction to the collection, Cisneros writes, “We tell a story to survive a memory in much the same way the oyster survives an invading grain of sand. The pearl is the story of our lives, even if most wouldn’t admit it.” Through Cisneros’ writing I discovered that most stories blossom from a need to protect that hidden pearl of our lives.

In her essay “The House on Mango Street”, Cisneros recounts her journey of finding her voice as a young graduate student far from home. At twenty-one, Cisneros left her father’s house to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. Unmarried and Chicana, this departure was, at the time, a radical act. Cisneros said she lived her independence, her sexuality “like a white girl” in the then absence of Latina writer role models. Throughout graduate school, Cisneros was acutely aware of this “otherness” that distinguished her from her classmates. Ultimately, grad school taught her to write the book her classmates could not, allowing her most private idiosyncrasies to manifest in her writing.

She says, “Writing in a younger voice allowed me to speak, to name that thing without a name, that shame of being poor, of being female, of being not quite good enough, and examine where it had come from and why, so I could exchange shame for celebration.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Cisneros’ childhood home was crowded with television noise and siblings, of parents who didn’t know how to bring her out of her own head. She eventually moved to San Antonio, a city of stunning Mexican heritage, and Cisneros was able to connect with a home and identity that sustained her. “You can tell I’ve been poor,” she says. “I over-glamorize my body, my house. I take my house personally. I take my art collection personally, too.”

In the essay “¡Que Vivan los Colores!” Cisneros writes about the house she purchased in San Antonio. Believing that color speaks its own language, she painted the house periwinkle to evoke the color of Mexican jacaranda trees. When the paint faded to a dull lavender, Cisneros’ home rose to local iconography. The community dubbed her place “the Purple House” calling to mind Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul. The Purple House was a thing of play, an homage to the tenderness of spirit. It was also the place for Cisneros’ self-reinvention.

In the Purple House, Cisneros found artistic merit in simplicity and excess. It’s where she collaborated with notable Latina writers such as Carla Trujillo, Salima Rivera, Helena Maria Viramontes and many others. It’s where she founded the Macondo Foundation, a series of workshops designed for socially-conscious writers who view their work as an outlet for community building.

If Cisneros’ writing has taught me anything, it’s that there is no limit to self-reinvention. A girl raised dirt-poor in a Chicago brownstone becomes an award winning writer and patron. She grows into the art world and lives a life in fierce color.

A recipient of numerous awards including a MacArthur Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowships, Cisneros now resides in San Miguel. She sold the Purple House, the house she swore she’d never sell, to seek spiritual refuge elsewhere. When she told her U.S. friends she was moving to Mexico, they asked if she was afraid. In the collection’s epilogue, Cisneros mentions she was asked the question again when her Mexican friends heard she was traveling to visit the U.S.

I suspect these friends’ fears have little to do with Cisneros’ destinations. Our fibers yearn for destination. It’s the search that mystifies. Cisneros’ search for a house of her own was manifold in its distinct effects on her. As a writer and homeowner, she lived it all: The joys and the headaches, the company and the isolation. Everything that rises when independence beckons us to fall heart-first for the very process of our lives. Home is about the path not the furnishings. It’s about story too. Our stories and the distances we are willing to go to tell them.

***

As the city darkened into its twinkling silhouette, I told myself I was living my truth. I didn’t know what that truth was, I still don’t, but I believed in the stories I told myself to get there. When I arrived in New York last year, I was certain I had found my place on this side of things. Yet, there on the rooftop, I felt misplaced, vaguely wounded. I realized I had discovered the trails of my own wandering heart and saw there was no end in sight. My real home is not planted. Much like the writer in Cisneros’ essays, I live to keep on searching.

The Empathy of Gina Berriault

Outside an old hotel in the Swiss Alps, an elderly writer fearing the end of his literary career watches two figures climb the steepest side of a distant mountain. Miles away, the climbers are visible as blackened specks against a glorious sheet of snow. They vanish then reemerge while the writer watches with a deepened wondering about this foreign couple braving the atmosphere. Suddenly the specks fall one after the other as if purposefully brushed off and the writer is left to process this casual ending of things. When he notifies the hotel manager of the climbers’ fate, he is assured that “No one is climbing and no one is falling”. Stunned, the writer returns to his room and writes down the first word he’s written all trip into his notebook on faint lines he “likened now to infinitely fine, blue veins”.

This lone writer is one of many broken souls that appear in Gina Berriault’s award winning collection of short stories Women in Their Beds. After a failed marriage, a daughter returns to her aging mother in the desert and reveals a devastating secret while a nearby wilderness fire lights the barren world around them. The neglected son of a sculptor travels the world to see the homes of his father’s famous works of art so he may make peace with loss and abandonment.

These are characters who brave the unknown. It is not from a sense of duty or romance that guide them from one difficult place to the next. With a direct and defenseless empathy, Berriault writes of humans on their way back into life, of characters returning after long departures from the self with old hearts racing close behind bursting with grief.

A recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the 1997 Rhea Award for the Short Story, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a Pen/Faulkner award finalist, Berriault somehow remains, as Andre Dubus once said, “One of our best and most neglected of writers.”  This is likely because Berriault was more concerned with writing as her contribution to the world than with the outward recognition that immortalized her contemporaries. Content with obscurity, of being as unknowable as the world itself, Berriault wrote to manifest the unseen.

Born in Long Beach, California to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Gina Berriault’s childhood was marked by an early love for literature. As a girl, she typed stories standing at her father’s typewriter with the meditative precision of her self-assigned mentors, Gogol and Chekhov, in mind. Those years at the typewriter would eventually lead to a fruitful literary career in adulthood affirming her belief that stories “seem to be blessing all children, even those who can’t read a word”.

It is no surprise that children are often the subject of Berriault’s work. The serious intimacy she brings to the private life of a child goes beyond careful observation. It’s as if, while writing, her eyes had rolled inward. Consequently, her characters remain children even when we meet them in the midst of their adult lives. They are children in their pressing desire to connect with the unloved, to lift the inadequate weight of the lost cause even when no one is climbing and no one is falling.

In “Sublime Child” Ruth is eighteen years old and coping with the recent loss of her mother Alice. Her grief distances her even further from passive relatives and the only way she can conceptualize survival is by hanging on to her mother’s married boyfriend Joe.

“Joe and Alice and herself,” Berriault writes, “they knew what love was because they had only one another.” When it becomes clear that the bond between Ruth and Joe cannot last, Ruth begs for her mother’s forgiveness and rains “her fists upon her own face.” Ruth’s new loss at the end rings louder and longer than the first. At the story’s end, we feel a completeness in the wake of disunion even when her characters, God help them, do not.

In many of Berriault’s stories, grief is a traveler’s companion. In “The Island of Ven” bereaved couple Noel and Eleanor venture to a Swedish island to visit an observatory of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. This is one stop of many on their “healing quest” to visit the homes of the world’s famous astronomers. There is something both poignant and harrowing about their journey, this mission to chase those who chased the stars. Perhaps it’s because of Nana, the daughter they lost long ago. Perhaps this is a quest for distraction and acceptance.

As with other stories throughout the collection, “The Island of Ven” is onto something. Maybe there is a patina of hope in the sky we can’t help but lift our faces to see. Above, there is a vastness that puts our sorrows into perspective. If only we could pass our sorrows onto the stars. After all, the farther the distance of things, the faster we are left behind. Eleanor briefly ponders the immeasurableness of grief in this gorgeous passage:

“She was thinking that there was an everywhere that Noel and the others could never measure, even with their perfect and indisputable instruments, even with the finest device of all which was their minds, and this everywhere, always beyond them, was grief and was what inconsolable meant. She was thinking that someone, somewhere in the world, goes out into that everywhere and never comes back. Noel touched her knee, bringing her back.

In Berriault’s stories there is company in the inconsolable, in this everywhere. The places her characters go are scary, but they’re also where we find the crux of Berriault’s fiction: a genuine attempt to understand the unresolved. Her characters, though on the cusp of self-pity, are never sensationalized in their brutal discoveries. This is what makes Berriault’s writing so powerful. She takes us into the depths of invisible strangers whether our faculties are capable of understanding them or not. 

As of today much of Berriault’s work remains out of print. Lydia Davis recently wrote, “I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top, like cream, sooner or later, and will become exactly as well-known as they should be.” With any luck, new generations of readers will discover Berriault again and again. Their grand circle of concern will widen at the mercy of her prose as they too embrace the tragic of the everyday-the climbs and the falls.