Aug 26 2015

Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson

Raising Demons is perfect. There are two other books I can think of that I regularly describe as perfect – Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera — and now I have a third. It is possible that if I took out my jeweller’s loupe, I could find an imperfection, an infelicitous word here, an unnecessary phrase there, but I very much doubt it.

Raising Demons is Jackson’s memoir of a couple of years of life with four children, an ever-changing cast of animals, and moving into a different house in a small New England town. It is full of love and laughter, much of it droll and no small amount in exasperation. Jackson’s humor is never mean, but some of it is dark enough to clearly come from the pen of the author of “The Lottery.” The conversation among the mothers of sons on opposing Little League teams, for example, or what happens to some of her husband’s effects when he suggests that she get the house in better condition than usual for Sylvia.

…on Thursday my husband had received a letter from an old school friend of his named Sylvia, saying that she and another girl were driving through New England on a vacation and would just adore stopping by for the weekend to renew old friendships. My husband gave me the letter to read, and I held it very carefully by the edges and said that it was positively touching, the way he kept up with his old friends, and did Sylvia always use pale lavender paper with this kind of rosy ink and what was that I smelled—perfume? My husband said that Sylvia was a grand girl. I said I was sure of it. My husband said Sylvia had always been one of the nicest people he knew. I said I hadn’t a doubt. My husband said that he was positive that I was going to love Sylvia on sight. I opened my mouth to speak but stopped myself in time.

Here is how Raising Demons starts:

I do not now have the slightest understanding of the events which got us out of one big white house which we rented into another, bigger white house which we own, at least in part. That is, I know we moved, and I think I know why, and I know we spent three pleasant months in a friend’s summer home, and I am pretty sure we got most of our own furniture back. What really puzzles me, I suppose, is how a series of events like that gets itself started. One day I went to clean out the hall closet and the next thing I knew we were trying to decide whether to have all four phones put on one line, or leave them all in different numbers and list ourselves four times in the phone book. We decided wrong, by the way. What with the phone starting to ring for Laurie at eight in the morning and for Jannie about noon and for Sally in the early afternoon and every now and then—a high, uncomfortable voice, stammering and usually hanging up unexpectedly—for Barry, we know now that we should have left the four phones separate. We should have listed three of them for the children and kept the fourth one private, giving out the number to the two or three people who either have no children of their own or are still optimistic enough to try to telephone their friends.

Their family has growing, and has outgrown the house. How Jackson recognizes that they have outgrown the house is even funnier than the opening, and recognizable to anyone who has tried to organize a household, especially one with multiple children.

“We have to get a bigger house,” I said.
“Don’t be silly,” my husband said, reading. “There is no bigger house.”
“A new house?” said Jannie. “Can I have a room of my own?”
When I went down to the grocery the next morning the grocer said he had heard we were thinking of moving. We’d been in the old Fielding house quite a while now, he said; perhaps we were aiming to buy? He had heard, just by accident, that Mrs. Wilbur wanted to sell that big place on upper Main Street. …
When I went into the post office the postman said he heard we were thinking of moving. While we were about it, he suggested, we ought to think of getting a house closer in to town. … Did I know that Millie Wilbur was thinking of putting that big house on the market? The one upstreet, with the gateposts? Wouldn’t hurt the price of eggs to have a look at it.
Mr. Cunningham in the gas station said he heard we were thinking of moving, and that big white house with the gateposts would be a good buy if you knocked some off Millie Wilbur’s price.

Tidal forces at work in a small town. She goes to look at the Wilbur house and then comes home and goes into the study to speak with her husband.

“I understand we’re thinking of moving,” I said.
“We are not,” he said.
“Millie Wilbur’s putting the big old house with the gateposts on the market.”
“We are not interested. You may tell Millie Wilbur.”
“Must be twenty rooms in that house. And a barn. Trees. Two gateposts.”
“I’m sure whoever buys it will have plenty of space. Now I am working,” said my husband.
The phone rang, and when I answered it, it was a lady who introduced herself as a Mrs. Ferrier. She understood we were thinking of moving. I said we were not and she said oh, that was fine, because her husband had just been transferred to our town and they had been getting pretty desperate about a house. I said we were not moving and she said they were ready to take just about anything, and when could she come and look around our house? Because, she said, they were living at present with her cousin, all three children, and they were getting so desperate they really didn’t care what they got, so long as it was a roof over their heads. I said it was our roof and we planned to keep it over our own heads, and she said would it be all right to drop around tomorrow? I said no, and she said about three, then, and thank you, and goodbye.
… Before I could get back to the kitchen the phone rang three more times. The first was a local real estate agent, who had heard that I had been looking at the big old house with the gateposts. … The second call was from Mr. Gore down at the bank, who thought that before we went any further on this deal we ought to understand the principles of the mortgage; he said he would be up to see my husband that evening. The third call was from Mr. Fielding, our landlord, who understood that we were thinking of moving.

The rest of the book is every bit as good, as perfect.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2015/08/26/raising-demons-by-shirley-jackson/

2 comments

  1. I have now purchased Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, to be added to my ever-growing, never-shrinking, to-be-read pile. I blame you, and your review, for this ridiculous state of events.

  2. Amazon tells me that Life Among the Savages covers the earlier period of said demons. I will be reading that very soon, too. Raising Demons had me cackling all the way across Brandenburg.

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