Raising Demons is the 1957 sequel to Shirley Jackson’s hilariously wonderful memoir/novel about being a wife and mother, Life Among the Savages (1953). I paid a steepish amount for a hideous paperback (pictured), and thus managed to secure Raising Demons, saving it for a treat – and I read it whilst recently beleaguered with a cold. It is an absurd indictment of the publishing industry that these books are so difficult to find, especially on this side of the ocean. They are brilliant, and deserve to be classics (please, some publisher or other, please!) I don’t often laugh out loud while reading, but with Raising Demons (as with Life Among the Savages before it) I sat in the corner giggling away to myself, getting curious and worried glances from my housemates.
I went back and read what I wrote about Life Among the Savages (you can do the same thing if you click here) and basically everything I said for that book is true of this one. Funny, warm, happy, funny, clever, and did I mention funny? But I shan’t be lazy; I shall write a new review for this book, and not just send you back to that review…
Despite my enthusiasm for Life Among the Savages, I’m well aware that Shirley Jackson is much more likely to make you think of Gothic, creepy, psychological novels – like the excellent We Have Always Lived in the Castle. She does that sort of thing incredibly well. But she also excels at this sort of gentle, family-orientated, self-deprecating writing – a genre which many would dismiss, I’m sure, but which I (and many of you) adore.
By the time Raising Demons starts there are six in the family, plus attendant animals, and they have outgrown the house which was so amusingly bought at the beginning of Life Among the Savages – and so they start hunting for a new house. Or, rather, everyone tells them which house they should choose – the one with the wonky gatepost, converted into four self-contained flats. Despite insisting that they don’t want to move, nor rent their house, they find themselves sending all their belongings into storage, and converting the flats into one house. It is here that they live out their ordinary, hilarious lives.
Jackson has a talent for two types of humour at once: the knowing grin we grant to the recognisable, and laughter at the bizarre and unexpected. These initially seem like opposite sides of the coin; that authors would have to pick one or the other – but Jackson manages both at once, by taking the everyday, identifiable dynamics of the family home… and exaggerating them. And then putting them in a pattern, so that events pile on events, creating a surreal outcome. Yet one which seems entirely possible – had, perhaps, happened to Jackson herself.
Having written about illustrative quotations yesterday, I should provide excellently evocative ones today, shouldn’t I? I liked this one, about the mother preparing her son for his first Little League game – obviously rather more nervous than he is:
As a matter of fact, the night before the double-header which was to open the Little League, I distinctly recall that I told Laurie it was only a game. “It’s only a game, fella,” I said. “Don’t try to go to sleep; read or something if you’re nervous. Would you like some aspirin?”
“I forgot to tell you,” Laurie said, yawning. “He’s pitching Georgie tomorrow. Not me.”
“What?” I thought, and then said heartily, “I mean, he’s the manager, after all. I know you’ll play your best in any position.”
“I could go to sleep now if you’d just turn out the light,” Laurie said patiently. “I’m really quite tired.”
I called Dot later, about twelve o’clock, because I was pretty sure she’d still be awake, and of course she was, although Billy had gone right off about nine o’clock. She said she wasn’t the least bit nervous, because of course it didn’t really matter except for the kids’ sake, and she hoped the best team would win. I said that that was just what I had been telling my husband, and she said her husband had suggested that perhaps she had better not go to the game at all because if the Braves lost she ought to be home with a hot bath ready for Billy and perhaps a steak dinner or something. I said that even if Laurie wasn’t pitching I was sure the Braves would win, and of course I wasn’t one of those people who always wanted their own children right out in the centre of things all the time but if the Braves lost it would be my opinion that their lineup ought to be revised and Georgie put back into right field where he belonged. She said she thought Laurie was a better pitcher, and I suggested that she and her husband and Billy come over for lunch and we could all go to the game together.
That also gives an example of my favourite technique in the book. It’s simple, but I find it endlessly amusing: it is what Jackson doesn’t write. So much of Raising Demons is left to the reader’s imagination. Not much is needed, to be honest – any reader is likely to deduce that the mother is distrait, and the son calm. Jackson isn’t trying to be super-subtle with that point. But I love that it is never quite spelt out – and that other characters thus often miss what is so obvious to the amused reader. Here’s an example in that vein:
By the Saturday before Labor Day a decided atmosphere of cool restraint had taken over our house, because 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 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.
My husband laughed self-consciously. “I remember,” he said, and then his voice trailed off and he laughed again.
“Yes?” I asked politely.
“Nothing,” he said.
Lovely! I really can’t recommend this book, and Life Among the Savages, enough. It’s such a shame they’re so difficult to find – but I promise they are worth the hunt to anybody who likes Provincial Lady-esque books. (Hopefully you’ll find a nicer copy than mine – I quite like the other image featured, yours for $500.) Like the PL et al, I know I’ll be returning to this family time and again. I’m rather bereft that only two were written… and on the hunt for other, potentially similar, books. And more on that before too long…