Shirley Jackson’s Unfinished Novel Revealed the Truth About Her Marriage
In her early and late works, the master of horror reflected her feelings about her long, troubled relationship
Each “Unfinished Business” will examine an unfinished work left behind by one of our greatest authors. What might have been genius, and what might have been better left locked in the drawer? How and why do we read these final words from our favorite writers — and what would they have to say about it? We’ll piece together the rumors and fragments and notes to find the real story.
In the spring of 1965, author Shirley Jackson embarked on a cross-country college lecture tour, in a new MG sedan. The cost of the car would be completely covered by the speaking fees she was earning for the five lectures she’d be delivering. After the tour, she settled back at home with intentions to rest and continue working on a new novel, Come Along with Me. In one of her last diary entries, she described it as “a funny book. a happy book.” She wrote about getting over a long bout of writer’s block that had settled in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, as well as an affair she suspected her husband, critic Stanley Hyman, was involved in. She ended the diary with these repeated words: “laughter is possible laughter is possible laughter is possible.”
A few months later, in August, 1965, Shirley Jackson passed away during an afternoon nap. Doctors would later give the official cause as “coronary occlusion due to arteriosclerosis, with hypertensive cardiovascular disease as a contributing factor.” Her death was met by an outpouring of affection from readers and publishers. Her last two books, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle had been great successes, though her most significant claim to fame was (and probably remains) one short story, “The Lottery,” published in the New Yorker in 1948.
Come Along with Me, the “funny … happy book” that Jackson had described in her diary, was at the time of her death only about 75 manuscript pages—six brief, mostly-connected episodes. Three years later, Stanley Hyman would publish it along with a selection of her essays and stories—including “Janice,” the story that had made him fall in love with her 27 years earlier.
Hyman praised these shorter works effusively in his preface to the posthumous collection, but of Come Along with Me he wrote only that it was “the unfinished novel at which Shirley Jackson, my late wife, was at work at the time of her death in 1965. She rewrote the first three sections; the remaining three sections are in first draft.”
To better understand why Hyman might have found Come Along with Me so uninspiring, one must go back to the very beginning—to 1938, and Syracuse University, when Hyman and Jackson first joined literary forces.
Shirley Jackson transferred to Syracuse University from the University of Rochester. Officially, she was at Syracuse to study journalism, but according to Ruth Franklin’s biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, young Jackson dedicated much of her time and energy to writing poems and short stories, the first of which were soon published in a class magazine, The Threshold, put out by her professor, poet A.E. Johnson.
Jackson’s 250-word story “Janice” opened the magazine. It opens with the narrator describing a casual phone call from a friend, Janice, who wants to tell them that her mother can’t afford to send her back to school. Almost as an afterthought, Janice adds that, earlier in the afternoon, she tried to kill herself by sitting in the garage with the car motor going, but was thwarted by the man mowing the lawn, who came and got her out.
Later, at their friend Sally’s party, the narrator asks her, “How did it feel to be dying, Jan?”
Janice replies, laughing, “Gee, funny. All black.”
She then turns to their friend and explains, “Nearly killed myself this afternoon, Sally…” And the story ends.
Possibly the story was inspired by her time as a student at Rochester, where she’d felt alienated and done poorly in her classes, eventually suffering a major depressive episode. But in Syracuse, things would turn out differently.
“Janice” immediately caught the attention of Jackson’s classmate Stanley Hyman, who in the preface to the Come Along with Me collection, wrote that his “admiration for it” led to their meeting.
This is apparently an understatement. According to friends who spoke to Ruth Franklin, “Stanley closed the magazine demanding to know who Shirley Jackson was. He had, he said, decided to marry her.”
Jackson and Hyman did meet, and soon became a couple. Hyman was a well-liked, self-styled bohemian who loved to debate the merits of Communism with his classmates. As his companion, Shirley Jackson initially flourished. Hyman encouraged her to keep writing fiction, something he had long desired to do himself; after meeting Jackson he realized he “could not compete.” One friend recalled that he “wrote painfully, it was a tedious, forced thing, whereas she—the thing flowed like you turned on a faucet.” Another friend agreed. “He talked a lot, but she wrote better.”
Hyman soon began to focus his efforts on becoming a literary critic, giving Jackson detailed pages of notes on her stories and, later, her novels. They debated their views on the role of politics and art, with Hyman an admirer of “the gritty realism of John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos” and Jackson more interested in the “esoteric high modernism” of Djuna Barnes.
The following year, Jackson was elected to the post of fiction editor of the long-running campus magazine Syracusan. But the other editors suddenly decided that the magazine should stop publishing fiction entirely.
An article in the student newspaper The Daily Orange that December described Jackson as having “recently resigned from her post as short story editor of the Syracusan.” Another Daily Orange article, written a number of years later, clarified that the position “became superfluous following a change in the magazine’s format” with the Syracusan becoming “strictly a humor magazine.”
Jackson had a simpler take on the matter. “I got fired from the Syracusan,” she wrote in the editor’s note to the very first issue of the new literary magazine that she and Hyman soon created, which they named Spectre, alluding to a couplet from a William Blake poem.
With hand-drawn images and typewritten pages, Spectre had an edgy, homemade sensibility, almost as if it had been run off in secrecy behind enemy lines. From the start, Hyman and Jackson wanted their magazine to invite controversy.
Franklin describes how Jackson and Hyman commissioned a sketch of a male nude for the cover of the first issue. They then cajoled an English department advisor into publicly criticizing it, so that they and Spectre could turn around and rail against the hypocrisy that only female nudes were considered to be of artistic value.
With Jackson as editor and Hyman as managing editor, Spectre soon became a conversation piece in the literary community on campus. Likely thanks to Hyman’s influence, the magazine frequently criticized the politics of the University. In the first issue, Jackson and Hyman, writing together in an introduction called “We the Editor,” took on the topic of campus anti-Semitism. In the third issue, they wrote scathingly of the campus policy to house black students separately from white students—pointing out that conveniently this allowed the university to admit fewer black students since there was such limited housing available for them.
Recently, I got to spend time with an incredibly rare copy of the third issue of Spectre, at Honey & Wax Booksellers in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. The blue, hand-drawn cover shows two women in feathered hats, sitting at a diner counter. A sign on the wall advertises the daily special: “HASHED MANAGING ED WITH BAKED ONIONS” (Hyman is listed as the Managing Editor) and at the bottom the issue is: “Vol. 1, No.3 SPRING TRA-LA 1940” and declares itself to be the “OFFICIAL MAGAZINE OF SYRACUSE ENGLISH CLUB.”
Honey & Wax owner, Heather O’Donnell, told me that surviving issues are very rare, aside from preserved copies at Syracuse University’s Special Collections. Her issue, described as a “Quarto, side-stapled dark blue pictorial wraps, beige cloth tapebound spine,” is priced at $2,200.
This third issue contains a poem of Hyman’s, “Ill Fares the Land” and one short story of Jackson’s, “Had We But World Enough”—the title apparently suggested by Hyman. (According to Franklin, Hyman and Jackson often published other pieces in the magazine under pseudonyms.)
Jackson’s three-and-a-half-page story is mostly dialogue, between a “boy” and a “girl” sitting on a park bench on a snowy day watching children tobogganing. The young couple talk about how they’d like to get married, if only the boy can find a job, which the girl jokes might take years.
“Someday,” she said. “When I’m an old old lady in a wheel chair and you’re an old old man, you’ll come staggering up to me and trip over your beard and fall flat on your face and say: ‘Hey, kid, hey, listen! I got a job!’ And then… with me in my wheel chair and you with your beard, we can go get married.”
The boy suggests he might become a detective, but she says she won’t be married to anyone working nights. Or, he says, there is an ad for a job as a “Deisel Engineer” where he could make “fifty a week.” (The word “Deisel” is charmingly misspelled throughout their conversation).
The girl imagines having a house, and a telephone of their own. The boy says they’ll have children too.
“The hell with you,” she said. “You think I’m going to have children and ruin my whole life?”
They laughed. “Twenty children,” he said. “All boys.”
“Nineteen boys and a girl. And a brown and yellow living room… I hate yellow.”
“You’ll have it and like it,” she said…
In Jackson’s unique style, the story manages to have both a lightness and a foreboding air, at least partly because it presages the issue of children, which would eventually become a major source of friction between Jackson and Hyman—clearly a model for the couple in the story.
But as they neared graduation, the major obstacle to their future together was not money, or children, but the fact that both Hyman’s parents were Jewish, while Jackson’s were Presbyterian. Both sets of parents were very much opposed to the Stanley-Shirley relationship.
Friends of the couple, who called them “S & S,” told Franklin of a tempestuous relationship, a “symbiosis” that “was always in danger of turning parasitic.” S & S broke up several times, but always came back together in the end.
Often, they fought about politics: as Europe lurched into the second World War, Hyman had become more and more of an ardent Communist. Meanwhile Jackson wrote in her diary that politics interested her “less than does Sanskrit.” Hyman insisted that she write more politically, declaring that “you must show misery and starvation” to create lasting art.
Specifically, he pointed to “Janice”—the story that had supposedly made him want to marry her before they’d even met. Only two years later, he told her that it was “a finger exercise, well done, but meaningless.” (It wasn’t her fault, he later conceded, that she’d had a “sheltered upbringing.”)
At other times the issue was, according to Franklin, Hyman’s “persistent interest in other women, which he saw no reason to hide.” Stanley’s interpretation of the teachings of Communism extended to a disavowal of monogamy, and in lurid detail, he wrote letters to Jackson about his attraction to other women he’d encountered, and once he even brought a girlfriend over and introduced her to Jackson. He insisted that she was, of course, welcome to see other boyfriends as well, but by and large she did not.
A friend told Franklin that at one point Hyman gave Jackson a “cheap engagement ring” but that it was soon lost during a fight, because she “bounced it off Stan’s skull.”
Then, just before graduation in 1940, their wonderful literary collaboration, Spectre, was ended after its fourth issue.
The university claimed that the reason for shutting down Spectre was because it included a harsh review of a new book of poetry by the couple’s once-admired professor, A.E. Johnson. Jackson and Hyman wrote that his poems “advocate retreat and weakness […] Professor Johnson is hidden away from the world and happy in his illusion.”
Franklin points out that this was hardly a harsh critique, given Hyman’s abilities, and that the anger over the review was almost surely a pretext covering the University’s actual displeasure about the magazine’s political criticisms.
But Jackson and Hyman were off to greener pastures. Hyman soon landed a summer job in New York City for The New Republic, for which he was paid $25 a week—not quite as good as being a “deisel engineer,” but much more in his wheelhouse.
A few months later, Jackson married Hyman in a “brief three-minute” informal ceremony at a friend’s apartment, attended by a “small, motley group of friends,” and they began wedded life in Greenwich Village.
Hyman would soon end up working for The New Yorker, while Jackson wrote more stories, which he would meticulously critique. They yearned for a quieter life, outside of the city, and began to travel to New Hampshire to work, finding “country life suited productivity.” But in the winter of 1942 their uninsulated cabin became too cold to work in, and so they returned to Syracuse together.
There, they saw old friends, and reminisced about the good old days working on Spectre together. Jackson and Hyman began to keep a shared diary, and held their door open for company. Soon there was a daily salon of visitors, for whom Stanley would play jazz records and provoke with political conversations and talk about involvement in the War in Europe.
During this period, a doctor told Shirley she was likely pregnant; she jokingly referred to the baby as “Simon Hyman.”
But being back in Syracuse again also “triggered a relapse” of Stanley’s infidelity. Once, while Jackson was out of town, he immediately set off to seduce an ex-girlfriend—the same one he’d introduced to Jackson in college. Jackson was apparently worried about exactly this occurring, and so spent her entire time away filled with anxiety.
When she returned home, Hyman happily showed her the diary entry he’d written describing how badly his attempted seduction had gone—the ex-girlfriend had gotten so drunk on Sauternes that she became ill and he’d had to throw her into a shower.
Jackson rebuked herself for her jealousy in a subsequent diary entry, saying that if she had married a “gay dog” she couldn’t well “expect him to be housebroken so quick.” Of the ex-girlfriend, Jackson wrote that despite being “coarse and vulgar” she had “a beautiful body and after all i am too fat.”
Jackson had long struggled with anxiety and depression, but now she began to experience panic attacks, leading her to worry that she was psychopathic or insane. She eventually decided to sleep with a heartbroken friend of Hyman’s to try to settle the score, only to end up feeling that it had just given Hyman more license to cheat again.
Franklin cites one of Jackson’s diary entries during this period as evidence that Hyman may have even forced Jackson to have sex with him: “‘If it is sex I can’t do anything about it […] He forced me God help me and for so long I didn’t dare say anything and only get out of it when I could and now I’m so afraid to have him touch me.”
Later, Jackson wrote that she should never have married him at all: “Tantrums and hatred and disgust—what a married life—” But she was hopeful that motherhood would be better. “Maybe when I have my baby […] I can talk to it and it will love me and won’t grow up mean.”
Jackson and Hyman eventually settled in North Bennington, Vermont, after he was hired as an instructor at Bennington College. They would have four children together, not 20—two sons and two daughters (none of them, thankfully, named Simon).
Jackson kept the house and lived in relative anonymity in the town, known to most as “Mrs. Hyman,” the quiet wife of the boisterous, quirky new professor.
It was an incredible struggle for Jackson to balance writing with the demands of raising the children. Meanwhile Hyman, continued to insist on their marriage being “open” and carried on public affairs, including with his own students—one of whom even moved in with them for a time.
Just a few years into their life in North Bennington, Jackson wrote what would become her most famous short story, and probably her most famous work of any kind, “The Lottery” about a group of residents in a small town gathering to stone a randomly selected citizen to death, as a way of ensuring a good harvest. The story kicked up a near-immediate furor, just a few days after it was published in The New Yorker. Jackson received over 300 letters from horrified readers that summer alone. Even her mother wrote of her distaste. “…it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?” Jackson was most disturbed by several letters from people who believed The Lottery was real—and wanting to know if they could come up to watch.
Jackson was relieved that most people in North Bennington did not read the New Yorker and largely had no idea that “Mrs. Hyman” had stirred up such a national scandal, especially because Jackson had considered real people in the community as models for the townspeople in her story. But after a few months, the story became so widely-discussed that even her neighbors began to hear about it. The “general consensus” in town was that the “nasty story [made] them all look bad and uncivilized.” Jackson began to experience bouts of agoraphobia, and began chain-smoking and rapidly gaining weight.
Hyman, meanwhile, had been effectively fired from his position at Bennington (others in the faculty found him to be “abrasive”). His first major book of criticism, The Armed Vision, was published without much impact, just as Jackson’s story was becoming more and more celebrated in prize issues and anthologies. In 1949, she sold three stories to Good Housekeeping for $1000 a piece. Hyman was making only about $35 a week writing for The New Yorker. The money from Jackson’s literary career continued to vastly outweigh Hyman’s income. Nevertheless, Hyman controlled the family finances, and gave his wife money only as he saw fit.
As Jackson withdrew farther from public life, her work returned to some of her favorite youthful fascinations, including witchcraft and the occult. Her turn to “gothic horror” was a huge success. In 1959, The Haunting of Hill House was nominated for a National Book Award and reviewed by The New York Times as evidence that Jackson was “the finest master currently practicing in the genre of the cryptic, haunted tale.”
Three years later, her final completed novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, centered on sisters Merricat and Constance Blackwood, who live alone in a gothic mansion with their doddering uncle after the mysterious poisoning of their parents. They are surrounded by a Bennington-esque town full of suspicious and hateful villagers, who eventually come to try and destroy them and their home. It was named one of 1962’s Ten Best Novels by Time Magazine. Along with The Haunting of Hill House, it is today cited as a major influence by writers authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Lethem and Carmen Maria Machado.
As Jackson’s literary successes mounted, she began experimenting with automatic writing and generating new ideas for novels and stories. What might she have written, had she lived beyond her 48 years?
Thanks, in part, to Stanley Hyman, we have some idea.
Soon after Jackson’s passing, Hyman began to respond to the outpouring of affection from readers and publishers, with what Franklin calls “efforts on behalf of Shirley’s reputation.” He wanted people to see her as more than just a writer of ghost and horror stories—to “dissipate some of the ‘Virginia Werewoolf of seance-fiction’ fog.”
To this end, in 1968, Hyman agreed to publish a posthumous collection of Jackson’s work that would include “Janice,” “Biography of a Story,” and the only known pages of a novel-in-progress called Come Along With Me.
This unfinished project gives us a rare glimpse into the writer, and the woman, that Shirley Jackson was so close to finally becoming.
The novel begins with a nameless woman arriving in an unfamiliar city, shortly after the death of her husband “Hughie.” About Hughie’s sudden death she says she feels “a fine high gleefulness; I think you understand me; I have everything I want.”
She happily recalls clearing all of Hughie’s papers and books from their barn, including the half-finished canvas he was working on when he died: “It was just as lousy as all the rest; not even imminent glowing death could help that Hughie.” She unloads everything, despite her fears that “Hughie might turn up someday asking, the way they sometimes do […] knowing Hughie it would be the carbon copy of something back in 1946 he wanted.” It takes “one thousand and three trips back and forth” but eventually she has sold all her old things to their disingenuous neighbors and is finally free to leave.
A series of random encounters leads her to take a room on Smith Street with a woman who has a disabled son. She decides to call herself “Mrs. Angela Motorman” almost arbitrarily, after chatting with a trolley car operator (a motorman) on the way there.
The chapter ends with an abrupt shift into third-person perspective: “So Mrs. Angela Motorman walked slowly and decently up the walk to the fine old house with the sign in the window saying ROOMS. […] As she set her foot on the steps, she put her shoulders back and took a deep breath: Mrs. Angela Motorman, who never walked on earth before.”
Her landlady, Mrs. Faun is also recently widowed, and the two soon bond over it.
“I’ve just buried my husband,” I said.
“I’ve just buried mine,” she said.
“Isn’t it a relief?” I said.
“What?” she said.
“It was a very sad occasion,” I said.
“You’re right,” she said, “it’s a relief.”
Like much of Jackson’s work, there is an eeriness to Motorman’s narration; she explains several times that she “dabbles in the supernatural” and continues to speculate about Hughie coming back. At the end of the third chapter she sits alone in her room and looks outside at the place where she’d stood earlier, picking out her new name.
“It’s all right, Angela,” I said very softly out the window, “it’s all right, you made it, you came in and it’s all right; you got here after all.” And outside the dim nameless creature named herself Mrs. Angela Motorman and came steadily to the door.
In the fourth chapter the narrator describes her childhood, where she learned that she is a clairvoyant, able to see people everywhere that no one else can see.
After marrying Hughie, the ability left her, but now that he’s dead it has returned. Eventually, she gives a séance in the main room of the house for the other tenants, explaining that she can speak to their dead loved ones that way that others might take a long distance call on the telephone. They all drink sherry and ask questions; Angela is dismayed at the end at how little they tip her and that all they want to talk about is “death and dying.” Mrs. Faun says they all just want someone to tell them what to do, and that they’ll listen to any crackpot at all willing to tell them.
The final chapter shows Jackson in a large department store where she goes shopping because the small boutique in town doesn’t carry blouses in her size: “…my age and size—both forty-four, in case it’s absolutely vital to know.”
With humor, she notes the way that men ignore or avoid her, particularly the motorman in the streetcar (from whom she’s absorbed her name), who first tells her his wife has asthma and then when she asks after the wife later says he’s not married, “thank God.”
“I’m trying my hand at shoplifting,” she tells the salesgirl in the department store—and they both laugh. Later she says it again and they enjoy another laugh, at which point Angela really does set off to shoplift a candle that she plans to give to Mrs. Faun. When the salesgirl sees her put the candle in her bag, she asks if she can help her, and Angela replies again, “No, just trying my hand at shoplifting,” and they laugh a third time before Angela puts the candle back and leaves the store.
The novel ends here, with myriad possibilities still unexplored, but the key themes already clear. While We Have Always Lived in the Castle examined the crushing agoraphobia of the Blackwood sisters trapped and isolated in a small town, Come Along With Me has an older female protagonist, not isolated but unbound by death—not fearful of the villagers, but footloose and happy in the big city.
Franklin writes that the narrator sounds like the charming but isolated and vengeful sister, Merricat from Jackson’s previous novel, but “a Merricat who somehow managed to grow up, leave the house, and get married.”
From her diaries, we know that Jackson had increasingly moved towards leaving Stanley Hyman in her final months. That with the help of friends and therapy, she’d embraced her rising popularity as a writer and left Bennington to tour colleges in her new MG Sedan—bought by herself, with her own money—and that she felt she was heading into a new phase in her life at last. You can tell, reading the pages of Come Along with Me, that Jackson was, as Franklin notes, “thoroughly enjoying herself.”
There is something of a vengeance, and a mirth, in Angela Motorman, of which we can only imagine the full power. With the netherworld communicating to her again, she is alive and well, seemingly ready to wreak a bit of havoc on everyone as she passes through. “There is a comfort in largeness,” Franklin adds, that “never appeared in Jackson’s work.” Angela Motorman is not anxious, or panicky. She is a laughing spirit, newly freed, and in full control of her supernatural powers for the first time in a long, long time.
Special thanks to Syracuse University and librarian Nicole Westerdahl, as well as Heather O’Donnell of Honey & Wax Booksellers, for their help with the research for this column.