This Man Who Disappeared Was The Devil: Shirley Jackson’s Lottery Collection and The Occult
A friend of mine—whose last name is literally ‘Friend’, because sometimes the Universe feels the need to make things obvious for us—contacted me early one morning to say, “Reread the short stories in The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and watch out for James or Jim Harris,” and I, sufficiently intrigued, and not having read much Jackson since finishing We Have Always Lived In The Castle, opened the book and recalled, vaguely, the details of the first story. “The Intoxicated”, with its understated atmosphere which seems just one unspeakable degree off from normalcy, is not the strongest or most compelling story in the collection, but it is most representative of the universe of Shirley Jackson’s writing, an eerie place where something is just not quite right; the drunk party guest and his conversation with the daughter of the host seems a little too intense for the guest in question, who retreats from it, and in so doing observes a detail we might miss entirely if we don’t know to look for it— but we’d ought to be looking at every detail, because Jackson was not a woman for a wasted word. So when a story ends thus
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 omnis 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. [pg 7-8, “The Intoxicated”]
we would do well to recognize that something has begun to creep in— into the collection, into Shirley Jackson, and into us, as readers. This glimpse of a tall, graceful man in a blue suit will go unnoticed by most, but when one delves in with an eye towards Jackson’s works in the occult, a most interesting story begins to unfurl itself.
I would draw the reader’s attention to the host’s quote in Latin, a reference to Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War, which opens with the cited phrase, translated as “Gaul is a whole divided into three parts.” The choice of this particular phrase is of particular interest: in prior essays we have discussed the alchemical trinity and the quaternity into which it resolves, as represented by the classic Axiom of Maria (‘One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth’); we have also described the hidden quaternity available in plain view of the Christian cross; we have also discussed, in brief, Jung’s thoughts on the ‘whole’ as being a symbol unto itself, as the stone, as the microcosm, etc. We have also discussed previously the appearance of the Spirit Mercurius in works of art— Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, Goethe’s Faust— as being largely that of a kind of psychopomp, that which both guides the process of transformation and its prima and ultima materia. While it is possible that Shirley Jackson was not necessarily conscious of the magical workings of the written Word, such a thing is unlikely; Jackson, in an early dust cover, referred to herself as a ‘practicing amateur witch’. Her interest inspired by The Golden Bough lead to tarot card readings and facetious claims that she caused publisher Alfred Knopf to break his leg in a skiing accident, but the reportedly tight-lipped author was doubtless (looking at only The Lottery collection and her final book, We Have Always Lived In The Castle, as well as The Bird’s Nest and the apocalyptic flood imagery of The Sundial), more deeply involved with working with her unconscious than all that; indeed, she put great stock into the act of writing, believing it to be a kind of power by which one could write away one’s ills. How well she understood that power, however, is another question entirely.
That is what brings us back, then, to the appearance of one James Harris, the man in the blue suit. Is he one man? It’s hard to say— each time he appears he’s a little different, although there are many similarities. In several stories, he is a writer; in one, he’s a clerk in a basement bookshop; in others, he is a scholar. In all of these, however, he plays an invaluable role, even as early as his sly first appearance in “The Intoxicated,” arriving like a whisper. The conversation between the girl and the guest, wherein the girl bleakly assesses a future which can be nothing to her bu apocalyptic, leads to the appearance of James Harris, the way an orchestra tunes to herald the lifting of the stage’s veil.
Of the 26 stories appearing in The Lottery collection, Jim is mentioned in 10; this does not include the epilogue, nor the two stories in which the Harris surname is used without direct connection to Jim, nor the two stories which do not feature Jim or the Harris family, but still place heavy emphasis on the color blue. According to the front of my copy of The Lottery collection, this one titled The Lottery And Other Stories, the stories “A Fine Old Firm” and “Trial by Combat” appeared in 1944 in the New Yorker; the former is a Harris-only story, the latter is a story which we will discuss in detail in a later essay, one of the blue stories. The most vivid public appearance of the man himself is in his arrival as the bookstore clerk in “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” published in 1948, the same year “The Lottery” was published in the New Yorker; finally, the collection, now referred to as The Lottery and Other Stories was published in 1949, under the most telling, original name: The Lottery or, The Adventures of James Harris.
The format of the book is such that it is broken into five sections including the epilogue, four ignoring it, and three of those sections have epigraphs we would be fools to discount; we will discuss the epilogue and epigraphs, each in their own time, but for now let us focus on the appearances of Jim Harris in order of their placement in the collection; in a longer form of this essay saved for publication in a book of them we will also spend time on “Trial by Combat” and “Come Dance With Me In Ireland”, as well as her final four novels. The direct James Harris stories are, in order of appearance so far as I have been able to discern:
- The Intoxicated
- The Daemon Lover
- Like Mother Used to Make
- The Villager
- The Witch
- Seven Types of Ambiguity
- Of Course
- The Tooth
- Got A Letter From Jimmy
One gets rather a clever little chill when one realizes after reading the collection entire that “Seven Types of Ambiguity” occupies the seventh position. This list does not include the two stories which only reference the Harris surname— “The Renegade”, which follows “The Witch,” and “A Fine Old Firm”, which follows “Elizabeth”. What unfolds as we read the stories in order with careful attention to the quiet (and sometimes less than quiet) appearances of the man in question is a caricature of a sort of a psychopomp with trickster qualities and neutral—or perhaps even, at times, sinister—inclinations. Before we are able to delve into the character of James Harris, however, we had ought to speak specifically about a few notable features of Shirley Jackson’s writing.
In previous essays we have discussed the import of domiciles in occult-related fiction, specifically utilizing the example provided us by Bulgakov’s fictionalized apartment in The Master and Margarita. However, in terms of writing stories to take advantage of the psyche, Shirley Jackson may be the unconscious poster-girl— and I do say ‘unconscious’, because I am not entirely certain she was aware of the true power of the symbol set she utilized.
The symbol of the domicile in fiction— the house, the apartment, and more especially the tower, the spire, the clocktower, any tall building in particular— seems, most commonly, to represent the sum total of the author’s self, body included. To better understand this metaphor, consider the operation of a building: it stands,stationary, while figures, human or animal, operate within it. The psyche of the artist is much the same way: the artist is a domicile within which one finds a family of psychological principles at varying levels of consciousness and thus humanity.
Most every story in The Lottery collection—save, ironically, for the eponymous one—deals, to a point of near obsession, with domiciles: coming in and out of them, people moving, people getting lost or stuck on the way to domiciles, people borrowing the domiciles of others, specifically, and commonly, people unhappy with their domiciles and pining for other, better domiciles. The same is true of all of Jackson’s work, truly— her domestic, torn-from-life comedy Raising Demons begins with an anecdote about a move undertaken by herself and her husband, overwhelmed as they are by all the books and clutter which comes with three children and two people involved in publishing; her most powerful and famous novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived In The Castle, likewise deal with domiciles, in their titles and in their stories.
Why, one might ask, is the domicile (among other symbols) representative of the author as a whole when domiciles are (excluding Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves) static entities which are not operating characters with wills or personas? Should we not be trying to find the character who is most thoroughly Jackson-esque?
Jackson’s novel The Bird’s Nest, about a woman with multiple personalities, is a book greatly reflected of her as a person and of her development of characters in her writing. In Jonathan Lethem’s fantastic introduction to We Have Always Lived In The Castle, he mentions, “In a strategy she’d been perfecting since the very start of her writing, that of splitting her aspects among several characters in the same story, Jackson delegates the halves of her psyche to two odd, damaged sisters.” It is often inevitable that a writer shall do this in some form or another, whether consciously or unconsciously; one is in essence fictionalizing a point of view, a sort of principle, even if that principle is just a viewpoint by which to experience a story or an externalization of a character’s thought required to move a story forward, for in the course of the story we must see some growth or change in order to have satisfaction, and thus we must have a principle to change, as well as helpful or hindering principles to be dealt with in one way or another.
Characters represent these principles, though psychological principles are often represented by more than that— they arise as motifs, objects, plots and anything one can think of within a story which plunges will within the writer’s mind well enough to touch upon the pool of the unconscious. In the ground of the story, all things are a part of Jackson; all characters are a part of her, a principle within her mind, an issue with which she is grappling, and because of that they are imbued with great power. This sort of activity is something which Jung labeled “active imagination”. One of Jung’s students, Marie-Louise von Franz, authored several books on the subject of his symbolism in fairy tales, particularly The Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales; in it, she goes into the work of active imagination in greater detail, describing that:
“…active imagination, if done in the right way, really has an impact on the unconscious. It has a much stronger effect than only dream interpretation, and the [case of von Franz’s patient cited in the book] shows how creating the right symbolic figure in a symbolic dialogue caught the cynical shadow and exerted an actual influence on the unconscious. Naturally, this is on the same level as age-old magic which has always been used to influence the psychological situation—it is really the same practice, but magic has an outer purpose…We draw a distinction between white and black magic, which would be that the latter is used for egotistical purposes…There is also white magic in the form of exorcism, but that serves an ecclesiastical purpose. Active imagination is produced entirely from within and is looked at in the same way, though it has sometimes an outer effect; indeed, one should only do it for one’s own inner sake.” [von Franz, Marie-Louise, “The Shadow And Evil In Fairy Tales”, pg 89]
I find for my own personal background and symbol set that the best way to split principles is into threes and fours; even if a story features only two characters, there is still a third figure, the writer or reader, to consider. Alchemy would split the psycho-spiritual principles into Sulphur, Mercury and Salt; it could be said that the character with whom Jackson most identifies in any particular story, or around whom the events of the story revolve, can typically be the ‘Salt’, as this principle is the Salt of the earth, the ground of the story without whom it could not exist, that which binds the events of the story to the words of the writer and allows for manifestation of the final tale. Unfortunately we will not have time to discuss Jackson’s short story, “Pillar of Salt”, whose Biblical, alchemical and psychological connotations should hardly be ignored. We will, however, observe that in greater detail at a later time; for Salt by itself is meaningless. It must be given something with which to interact; and much as the sperm of Uranus and the salted sea produced our Aphrodite as so eloquently pointed out in Aaron Cheak’s article on the subject, so too must the Salt be engendered with the Sulphuric principle in order to produce the stable Herm-Aphrodite in one form or another, whether masculine or feminine or perfectly balanced. There is one problem with Jackson’s work, however, and that is a consistent rejection of the masculine principle.
FAILURE TO INTEGRATE
It is highly evident to anyone reading the works of Shirley Jackson that the masculine was as thoroughly alien to her as the feminine is so thoroughly alien to many male authors, posing at once a mystery and a curse, the anima emerging at times as a temptress, at others as a pussycat, but always as a driving force. The animus, however, is close to the shadow of sulphur as the anima is to the ground of salt; for that reason he commonly adopts sinister aspect, as described in a passage of Jung’s Mysterium quoted in the article Alchemical Devilry IV, wherein he refers to a “chronic eclipse of the sun” of the woman’s unconscious principle; he failed, however, to recognize the potential for alleviation of that eclipse, as did Shirley Jackson, who wrote in the same era.
We all as individuals and then as a greater culture have a clear idea of what a ‘woman’ should be, of what a ‘man’ should be. It can be challenging to identify as one and avoid projecting the ideals for the other upon the other; one may be perfectly cognizant of one’s own well-balanced (or not so well-balanced) traits of masculinity and femininity within oneself but be resentful of one’s partner for not living up to the expectations of the mystical ‘other’ gender set forth by one’s own anima or animus. This can be a cause of great stress upon an individual who feels they are not living up to the social standards of their sex, or who feel of a different gender, or neutral towards the principle of gender entirely. This same pressure to be the way one’s own gender demands can also prevent one from learning properly the other gender, from careful and objective study. This failure to integrate the anima or animus, to purify and extract from it the Spirit Mercurius as one might mercury from cinnabar, is one which may in extreme cases prove fatal.
As we progress through our very brief survey of a few pieces of Jackson’s literature, I urge readers to keep an eye on the reaction of feminine characters to masculine ones. One inevitably finds that the masculine principle— and in one extreme example, a doctor, though in this case one of philosophy, but nonetheless a sign of an unhealthy psyche rejecting its own attempts to resolve and heal itself— is expelled from the feminine-run domicile, shunned, or otherwise rejected, lost or a spirit of some measure of evil— and yet the Sulphuric aspect of the Spirit is embraced. This failure to integrate and to extract from within the Sulphuric aspect of the animus the Mercurial aspect is, I think, part of the unconscious reason for Shirley Jackson’s position left floating on the edges of the American literary canon despite the success of “The Lottery”; and it is almost certainly, in tandem with her careless treatment of domiciles in her fiction, where her so-called literary witchcraft seems to have gone most awry.
The color blue has near-limitless symbolism: we see it, and we think of the sky, and of Mary, Mother of God, and of our lover’s eyes, and of the surface of the ocean. It is a color which seldom arises in the collection, and never, it would seem, without distinct purpose; in one story we will not have time to cover in this form of the essay, the new neighbor of the viewpoint narrator has in the center of her living room a blue bowl, to which she draws attention and around which, she confesses, she always ends up decorating her house— yes, the symbol of the Self always has a great impact upon the psyche’s state, and this symbol of the Self happens to be the same color as the suit of James Harris. Blue is also a historically rare and valuable color; when we see blue in early works of art, we should take that to mean that what has been painted blue is in some way valuable, special; it is also unnatural, for true blues are very rare to find in nature, and so there is something of the uncanny in it.
These motifs outlined, let us move onto a survey of Jackson’s most outstanding works in their order of publication, with emphasis on this essay on The Lottery.
THE LOTTERY OR, THE ADVENTURES OF JAMES HARRIS
We have already described in some brief detail the first story in the collection, in which James Harris appears as little more than a blue suit, but we are not yet wholly convinced that a blue suit is indication of anything awry. Are we not simply being paranoid, perhaps, or imagining things? This feeling of uncertainty arises vividly in the story “The Daemon Lover”, the second in the collection, and the first time we get a true sense of the sinister nature of James Harris.
THE DAEMON LOVER
In this story, our unnamed protagonist, a woman on her wedding day, waits for her lover, “Jamie”, to come to her so that they may finally be married. Alone in her apartment, she writes a letter to her sister, Anne, then stops this and begins instead agonizing over what dress to wear, trying to choose between a blue dress and a print dress which is “overly pretty, and new to Jamie, and yet wearing such a print this early in the year was certainly rushing the season…when she looked at herself in the mirror she remembered that the ruffles around the neck did not show her throat to any great advantage, and the wide winging skirt looked irresistibly made for a girl, for someone who would run freely, dance, swing it with her hips when she walked.” [pg 11]
As von Franz puts it in her book, clothes refer, typically to one’s persona (one considers “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, for instance, and the nature of the Spirit Mercurius as a tailor of men) or to one’s attitude—and how much of our attitude, after all, determines our persona! Our protagonist is trying to renew herself, unconsciously, and that is what the alchemical marriage represents, of course— a kind of renewal. What she had ought to be doing instead of focusing on her renewal, however, is attempting an integration which will lead naturally to a renewal— there is no telling if James would have shown up had she selected the blue dress and clothed herself in the attitude and persona of that with which she intended to wed, but doubtless, our protagonist will long after the story ends be haunted by such magical thinking, wondering forever what she did wrong. Either way, we are told on no uncertain terms “There was nothing even remotely suitable for her marrying Jamie,” and so, early in the collection, the Salt is psychologically or philosophically unprepared for union. This rejection of the Salt by the Spirit—or vice versa, on an unconscious level—will, we will see, leave it wholly dissatisfied by its need to marry itself to the masculine principle, a step necessary, for this particular author, at any rate, in realizing Salt. We must think of the literary chemical marriage as a two-step process in order to acquire a quaternity, a gradual growing of consciousness as new facets are integrated: thus, the feminine principle must marry the masculine, and this marriage begets a true Salt; and this Salt, then, may integrate with Sulphur to produce Mercury, may be engendered by Sulphur to produce Mercury.
Interestingly, there is special note of the abstract nature of the animus’ personage before it has been made conscious, and even after: “Reconciled, settled, she tried to think of Jamie and could not see his face clearly, or hear his voice. It’s always that way with someone you love, she thought, and let her mind slip past today and tomorrow, into the farther future, when Jamie was established with his writing and she had given up her job, the golden house-in-the-country future they had been preparing for the last week.” [pg 12] But as their meeting time of ten o’ clock passes, and by eleven she has sewed a ripped seam in her own dress, she feels increasingly ill, putters in and around her apartment, and finally begins desperately searching the city for him, carrying a blue pocketbook with a tin full of aspirin within. At Jamie’s given address, she makes it clear she has never been there before, indeed does not even know which apartment he lives in. His name does not appear outside the building, which is described as “pleasant and old”, and which contains a superintendent and his wife, neither of whom recognize the name “James Harris”. It is in their conversation that we receive our first static description of James Harris:
“What did he look like?” the woman said wearily, the door still only part open.
“He’s rather tall, and fair. He wears a blue suit very often. He’s a writer.”
“No,” said the woman, and then, “Could he have lived on the third floor?”
“I’m not sure.”
“There was a fellow,” the woman said reflectively. “he wore a blue suit a lot, lived on the third floor for a while. The Roysters lent him their apartment while they were visiting her folks upstate.”
The Roysters, upon investigation, hardly know the man; Dottie Royster picked him up at “one of her meetings” and her husband apparently didn’t say a word against lending him the apartment for a month, which they reclaimed that very morning without a thing out of place. Following that horrific discovery, our protagonist rushes downstairs to the nearby deli, asks a newsstand man, and a florist, and everyone she can think of, asking after her James Harris, tall man, blue suit, carrying flowers. Her search for James Harris mimics the feminine plight of finding the animus in the world while still being true to themselves:
There was a policeman on the corner, and she thought, Why don’t I go to the police—you go to the police for a missing person. And then thought, What a fool I’d look like. She had a quick picture of herself standing in a police station, saying, “Yes, we were going to be married today, but he didn’t come,” and the policemen, three or four of them standing around listening, looking at her, at the print dress, at her too-bright make-up, smiling at one another. She couldn’t tell the many more than that, could not say, “Yes, it looks silly, doesn’t it, me all dressed up and trying to find the young man who promised to marry me, but what about all of it you don’t know? I have more than this, more than you can see: talent, perhaps, and humor of a sort, and I’m a lady and I have pride and affection and delicacy and a certain clear view of life that might make a man satisfied and productive and happy; there’s more than you think when you look at me.” [pg 23]
Finally, the trail leads her from the florist to an old man asleep at a shoeshine stand, and his directions lead her to encounter a boy who she must bribe for information—the boy has seen James entering a stranger’s apartment house, the stairs of which our main character ascends to hear voices on the other side of a closed door; outside of the door lays a florist’s ribbon, “like a clue, like the final clue in the paper-chase.” On her knock, the voices silence and do not answer her; going to the only other door on the top floor, from which emanates a sound like laughter, she finds an empty attic room, and realizes the noise which she has been hearing has been a rat, which startles her out of the apartment so quickly that her print dress catches and tears on her way out. She returns to knock on the other apartment door many times, but no one comes. This particular principle has proven unsuitable; but a masculine principle is shown equally unmatched in its ability to deal with the Sulphuric principle, whether in male or female manifestation.
LIKE MOTHER USED TO MAKE
Yet another very apartment-centric story is that of David Turner, a man who lives in an immaculate apartment across the hall from a girl with a far more barren apartment named Marcia, who has little more to furnish her place than a piano and papers blown about by the wind of her open window. David, on the other hand, is immaculate, a thoughtful decorator (using the xanthosis colors of yellows and browns) is notably described as having been “gradually, tenderly buying himself a complete set of silverware,” and we are told that by now he has a service for more than four, though not quite a service for six. Silver, of course, is a symbol of the feminine principle. After making painstaking efforts for dinner, he entertains Marcia, which seems, based on their relationship, to be a semi-regular affair for them; she is perpetually late, and loud, and obnoxious and has not been by since he got the silverware. Marcia laments that she doesn’t keep her home neater or isn’t as talented a chef as David, and further applauds his abilities as a baker, for he has baked a cherry pie, like mother used to make. David himself criticizes the pie (a round object, mind) as being a little sour because he’s run out of sugar, but Marcia declares it perfect, if anything, not sour enough, and as the table is clear, the doorbell of Marcia’s apartment rings and disrupts them: the visitor is none other than James Harris, who works in Marcia’s office. Throughout the following events, Marcia feeds James the pie which David made and takes credit for it, and progressively (and hilariously, might I add) takes over David’s apartment until eventually, rather baffled, David finds turned out of his own apartment and into Marcia’s, one for which he has particular dislike, which is cold, dirty and covered in scraps of paper that he then begins to sort out.
In light of what we know about Jackson and her motifs, what does this mean? In this instance, James Harris plays more a Mercurial role than a Sulphuric one, but that is mostly due to the fact that our protagonist is a heterosexual male and so from his perspective the Sulphuric principle is likely to be closer to a masculine expression of the Mercurial aspect than an aspect unto itself. Whether Sulphur or Mercury, he still inserts himself into the relationship of the fastidious, orderly, masculine logic as it endeavors to influence the emotional conscious dominant represented by the interactions of David and Marcia; she, the feminine Salt, takes advantage of his creation and his domicile in order to court the masculine aspect, which she perceives as the Sulphuric animus. There are layers within layers, you see; one must analyze a particular character’s psyche within the psyche of the writer, and compare their positions against the positions of other characters. We are, in essence, constellating fiction, and by constellating fiction, we constellate parts of our unconscious and conscious minds.
At any rate, I have digressed: the masculine principle of logic, unconscious, unembraced and used by the conscious feminine aspect, ends up ejected from his orderly apartment with which the Salt clothes herself, and is left with little more choice than to order the papers of the glib, emotional, nymphetic figure of Marcia scatted in the dirty and cluttered apartment of Shirley Jackson’s conscious aspect. Every writer would do well to consider the contributions of his so-called silent right brain, or the impersonal unconscious, or the Lord, or whatsoever one would call it; that is what David’s penchant for pie-baking represents. He has baked two pies before, but says this one has turned out better than the others; it is this pie for which Marcia, the conscious feminine persona, takes credit. It would be better to think of Marcia as “Left Brain”, David as “Right Brain”, and the pie as either a very good story or a very good novel. Indeed, a more purified form of James Harris might resemble David— caring, fastidious and diligent, and already worth trusting with a key to Marcia’s apartment in case a workman needs letting in while she is out. James Harris, however, comes from outside of the building, from Marcia’s workplace (Shirley Jackson is a writer and that ‘James Harris’ is a Devil character as taken from a children’s ballad, we will discover at the collection’s end), who usurps the caring aspect for a more Faustian one. The aspect of David becomes relegated to the unconscious and the feminine, emotional ego inflates while taking credit for its accomplishments. We have seen, in a sense, the birth of an inner motivating editor as forced by the Mercurial Spirit’s arrival, and his suppression to try to attract and bond with the Spirit, rather than trying to balance the two in some way; I also wonder if this story was not perhaps written during a time of writer’s block for Jackson, as an effort, conscious or unconscious, at renewal.
A Greenwich Village resident, Miss Clarence, a thirty-five year old who wanted to be a dancer but settled into a career as a stenographer at a “coal and coke concern”. She commonly takes pains to justify her life to herself— “When Miss Clarence gave the matter any thought at all, she was apt to congratulate herself on her common sense in handling a good job competently and supporting herself better than she would have in her home town.” Of course, she is deeply dissatisfied. We meet her on her way to a house just west of Sixth Avenue:
Miss Clarence lived in a picturesque brick and stucco modern; this house was wooden and old, with the very new front door that is deceptive until you look at the building above and see the turn-of-the-century architecture. [pg 50]
Yes, the facade of her life is fine, but she has given up her passion for the sake of being a Villager. At apartment 4B, she discovers an empty apartment with a note explaining Nancy Roberts has stepped out, but will return around 3:30, and that the furniture is all marked with prices. Inside, she finds the apartment of people who eat out constantly, Arthur Roberts is an artist, and Nancy Roberts, she thinks, coming across a book of modern dance photographs, might also be a dancer like her. Wandering through this idealized life full of maple furniture which repels her and gazing out the window at another building, “off to the left, a high building crowned with flower gardens,” where she declares to herself she will someday live, Miss Clarence answers the phone and then hears a man’s voice— Artie Roberts calls and asks that when Nancy arrives, Miss Clarence ask her to call him back. It is revealed in the conversation that Arthur has an opportunity to go to Paris, while Nancy is returning home to her family in Chicago, a decision representative of the one which Hilda Clarence herself faces. At last, deciding she will leave right at 3:30, she looks back over the book of dancing photographs, and then, remembering herself at twenty, she decides to assume a dancing pose, and is just trying to get her arms right when James Harris walks in.
Two things to note: first, there has been a gradual progression of the presence of the unintegrated aspects. Nancy appeared only in her handwriting; Arthur appears only as a voice. Only James Harris manifests in the flesh, and he does so precisely as Miss Clarence is revisiting the artistic spark which lured her to the Village in the first place. A writer, again, in this manifestation, James takes her for Mrs Roberts, and Miss Clarence goes along with it, neither confirming or denying. He claims he has just moved into the city and he’s trying to furnish his place, which he describes as “a hole in the wall”, and he is looking for a filing cabinet and a big leather chair. He intends to get a job and write nights, and hints rather clearly near the end of the conversation that he’d like a wife. With a little criticism to the housekeeping and a longing both for Paris and for being an artist rather than a writer (consider the idea that the Logos’ ultimate goal is to make language physically manifest), James leaves, and moments later, then, so does Miss Clarence, who suddenly finds herself in a hurry to leave. There is a skittishness here about James Harris, although he was not of particularly menacing aspect in the story, so much as nosy, and perhaps rather glib, asking if they had given up on housekeeping, likely in reference to the bathroom roaches which also disturbed Miss Clarence. Rather, because the initial attitude towards the figure is based on dishonesty, no meaningful connection may be acquired, no help or partnership may be made.
I would like to take a brief moment to emphasize the literary nature of the Spirit Mercurius, and how interesting it is that in this tale, James Harris intends to be a writer, and is in want of a wife, and expresses that want to a woman who is, whether she likes it or not, a stenographer. We saw in our catalog of manifestations of the archetype characters like Thoth, Hermes, Anansi, and others (Ganesha being one unmentioned) who are viewed as possessors of stories and language; thus, we see a potential marriage of the writer’s ego to the archetype, but in order to do that, the writer must be willing to humble herself and see herself as naught but a stenographer for something greater than her. But the ego, already inflated, would face this as a kind of death. Sensing this unconsciously, Miss Clarence leaves a harried note to Nancy Roberts explaining that the furniture is out of the question for her, and rushes out.
A four-year-old boy on a train with his mother and baby sister has an eerie conversation with an old man in a blue suit. We witness a meeting of the puer eternis and senex, and not the only time. The man, who is unnamed in the story, sits down with the boy and begins to tell him about his own baby sister, after the boy has been staring out the train window, watching for witches.
“Tell me about your sister,” the little boy said. “Was she a witch?”
“Maybe,” the man said.
The little boy laughed excitedly, and the man leaned back and puffed at his cigar. “Once upon a time,” he began, “I had a little sister, just like yours.” The little boy looked up at the man, nodding at every word. “My little sister,” the man went on, “was so pretty and so nice that I loved her more than anything else in the world. So shall I tell you what I did?”
The little boy nodded more vehemently, and the mother lifted her eyes from her book and smiled, listening.
“I bought her a rocking-horse and a doll and a million lollipops,” the man said, “and then I took her and put my hands around her neck and I pinched her and I pinched her until she was dead.”
The little boy gasped and the mother turned around, her smile fading. She opened her mouth ,and then closed it again as the man went on, “And then I took and I cut her head off and I took her head—”
“Did you cut her all in pieces?” the little boy asked breathlessly.
“I cut off her head and her hands and her feet and her hair and her nose,” the man said, “and I hit her with a stick and I killed her.”
“Wait a minute,” the mother said, but the baby fell over sideways just at that minute and by the time the mother had set her up again the man was going on.
“And I took her head and I pulled out all her hair and—”
“Your little sister?” the little boy prompted eagerly.
“My little sister,” the man said firmly. “And I put her head in a cage with a bear and the bear ate it all up.”
“Ate her head all up?” the little boy asked. [pg 65-66]
It is absolutely impossible to read the above passage without hearing the morbid delight in a child’s voice when they hear the grizzly details of something they should not; it is also impossible to miss the sheer absurdity of the man’s claims and the way they ramble on like a child’s narrative, like the narrative the boy has been muttering under his breath while gazing out the window of the train. It is hard to deny the manifestation, nor the reaction of the boy’s mother, as a mere figment of his imagination, because he gets a lollipop from her once she has demanded the man leave the car and never come back. The little boy is not the least bit offended or distressed; if anything, he has formed by the end of the short story a sort of bond with the old man in the blue suit, who laughs on his way out of the train car. At the story’s end, the boy declares in response to his mother’s assertion that the man was just teasing that, probably, the man was a witch.
The Mercurial nature of the unnamed man in question is self-evident; he is a sinister trickster, quite possibly a witch, and he has an affinity with the puer, the young boy who represents the new Self on the verge of rebirth. That affinity is a sister; in order to be a witch, perhaps, one must kill one’s sister, that is to say, if one is a woman as Shirley Jackson is, one must allow the masculine principle to have conscious dominance over the feminine to a certain degree, and vice versa for the male, as we saw that in Bulgakov’s psyche that Margarita becomes witch and the ultimate psychopomp of The Master once she has liberated herself from her husband’s house.
It is quite a few stories before we discernibly see James Harris appear again, and when he does appear, it is again in his usual disruptive capacity. Elizabeth is one of a pair of sheisty literary agents working at Robert Shax Literary Agency, with James Harris being a former client with whom they have had a falling out. They have individual offices which are technically one but which are divided by beaverboard; as one enters the secretary’s area, Robert Shax’s office is on the left and Elizabeth’s Style’s office is on the right, meaning that when one is sitting in the offices looking out, Elizabeth is on the left and Robert is on the right— that is to say, again, we see the feminine principle is the conscious left brain and the masculine principle has been relegated to the right, unconscious side of the brain, and so has been making decisions without the control of the feminine conscious, like hiring on the young new secretary Daphne Hill without consulting Elizabeth, who has been in a longtime relationship with Robert. The woman downstairs
Eventually, Elizabeth, her good will having been pushed too far and her territory protected from a more flighty, feminine, sensual principle represented by the young and attractive Daphne Hill and choosing to assume those qualities, herself, in effort to lift herself up, makes contact with Jim Harris, who has been present until their brief and mildly awkward phone call only as a signed photo on their office wall. Interestingly, he mentions his kid sister is in town; still, she manages to convince him over, though at the story’s end there is, as usual, no certainty that he will arrive, or that he will give all that Elizabeth, our Salt, hopes to find.
While she dressed she thought about her home. Considered honestly, there was no way to do anything with this apartment, no yellow drapes or pictures would help. She needed a new apartment, a pleasant open place with big windows and pale furniture, with the sun coming in all day. To get a new apartment she needed more money, she ended a new job, and Jim Harris would have to help her; tonight would be only the first of many exciting dinners together, building into a lovely friendship that would get her a job and a sunny apartment; while she was planning her new life she forgot Jim Harris, his heavy face, his thin voice; he was a stranger, a gallant dark man with knowing eyes who watched her across a room, he was someone who loved her, he was a quiet troubled man who needed sunlight, a warm garden, green lawns… [pg 191]
SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUITY
As we discuss this particular story, I would recommend readers keep in mind this is the first public appearance of James Harris. In it, he is a clerk in the basement section of a bookstore, imagery which should not be ignored, and there he finds himself with a boy (remember your four-year-old from “The Witch”, although now he is re-manifest, older), again, the senex and puer eternis.
The title of the story is taken by a piece of literary criticism written by William Empson, published in 1930 and widely considered a classic. The story is extremely simple, and beautifully written. The mere opening paragraph is rich with symbolism:
The basement room of the bookstore seemed to be enormous; it stretched in long rows of books off into dimness at either end, with books lined in tall bookcases along the walls, and books standing in piles on the floor. At the foot of the spiral staircase winding down from the neat small store upstairs, Mr. Harris, owner and sales-clerk of the bookstore, had a small desk, cluttered with catalogues, lighted by one dirty overhead lamp. The same lamp served to light the shelves which crowded heavily around Mr. Harris’ desk; farther away, along the lines of book tables, there were other dirty overhead lamps, to be lighted by pulling a string and turned off by the customer when he was ready to grope his way back to Mr. Harris’ desk, pay for his purchases and have them wrapped. Mr. Harris, who knew the position of any author or any title in all the heavy shelves, had one customer at the moment, a boy of about eighteen, who was standing far down the long room directly under one of the lamps, leafing through a book he had selected from the shelves. It was cold in the ig basement room; both Mr. Harris and the boy had their coats on. Occasionally Mr. Harris got up from his desk to put a meagre shovelful of coal on a small iron stove which stood in the curve of the staircase. Except when Mr. Harris got up, or the boy turned to put a book back into the shelves and take out another, the room was quiet, the books standing silent in the dim light.
Then the silence was broken by the sound of the door opening in the little upstairs bookshop where Mr. Harris kept his best-sellers and art books on display. There was the sound of voices, while both Mr. Harris and the boy listened, and then the girl who took care of the upstairs bookshop said, “Right on down the stairs. Mr. Harris will help you.”
Mr. Harris got up and walked around to the foot of the stairs, turning on another of the overhead lamps so that his new customer would be able to see his way down. The boy put his book back on the shelves and stood with his hand on the back of it, still listening. [pg 209-210]
I will refrain from re-posting the whole of the story, though I am tempted to. You really should own The Lottery And Other Stories; whether you are an avid reader, a would-be writer, a psychologist, a priest, or a magician, you will take something valuable from it. This story is an expertly-written study on, yes, ambiguity, but also on the interactions of the senex and puer: for they seem, indeed, to be at odds, but the reality is that they are ever in subtle collusion.
The customers in question, it turns out, are a man and a woman who, according to the man, want nothing more than the ambiguous desire to “get some books. Quite a lot of them.” As Mr. Harris, polite as he is subtly wry, seats the woman at the chair of his desk, the man proceeds to awkwardly look around the bookstore as though he has never been in one before. We will eventually discover he worked in a machine shop from his youth, just like his father, and that now suddenly he has found himself with an excess of money (his wife is noted as having new clothes) and he and his wife want to buy some things for themselves.
I will go into depth on this symbol, I think, when I eventually have a chance to write about Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World, but special attention should always be paid, I think, to bookstores and libraries in fiction. They are warehouses of knowledge, and depending on the type of warehouse of knowledge, we are talking about different things being represented: a character’s personal library is telling us a great deal about a character’s psychology, for interest, and could be said to represent that character’s subconscious sum of knowledge, and thus the portion of the author’s knowledge to which they are given access; a library of the types we see in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun or Murakami’s HBWATEOTW point to a more elevated form of knowledge, general information existing in the world of the unconscious which is guided to consciousness, most often by a librarian figure, whether male or female, which indicates a sort of unconscious entity making book recommendations. (Consider, if you like, this archetype to be a personification of whatever function in the psyche brings ‘unconscious’ thoughts into ‘consciousness’ when they are given enough energy— for if the impersonal unconscious is truly the universal, impersonal unconscious, is truly the ground of all things, then it must contain all possible permutations of all thoughts, functions, ways of being, and conscious thought is simply a matter of having the context, disposition and energy charge to bring a specific thought into ‘manifestation’, if you will.)
This, however, is not a library— it is a bookstore, and knowledge is not lent, rather it is purchased. There is a price to be extracted, yes, but the acquisition is more permanent and stable than what one acquires from a library, and it is still an acquisition, in this particular circumstance, guided by a figure of the unconscious. Because our couple must descend a spiral staircase to get to this section of the library, it is easy to see how there is an element of descending into the unconscious, symbolically, by those masculine and feminine principles Shirley utilizes so often; and although it is just as easy to claim that the stove to which Mr. Harris attends has an infernal quality, fire is a symbol, more than infernality, of creativity.
As the man awkwardly admits that he was hoping to lean entirely on the advice of the bookstore clerk in terms of deciding what books they should by, the young man, named Mr. Clark, comes to request from Mr. Harris “the Empson”– that is, the story’s eponymous book.
Mr. Harris turned to the glass-doored bookcase immediately behind his desk and selected a book. “here it is,” he said, “you’ll have it read through before you buy it at this rate.” He smiled at the big man and his wife. “Some day he’s going to come in and buy that book,” he said, “and I’m going to go out of business from shock.” [pg. 211]
The man, who has previously been complaining about the ‘trash’ they put out today and expressed his desire for Dickens, also expresses a desire for books that look nice, while his wife, meanwhile, pines for a copy of Jane Eyre. The boy then gives the Empson back to Mr. Harris, who locks it up, describing, again, its scarcity, and the man, asking the boy the name of the book, decides, “Pretty smart young fellow, reading books with names like that.” Bolstered by this, the man explains he intends to re-read Dickens, and the boy immediately recommends him Meredith; while Mr. Harris and the woman wait by the stove, Mr. Clark and the man make their way down the shelves so the boy can show the man some books and the boy can recollect his hat; as though he were a clerk of the bookstore, rather than a customer, the boy asks the man how he feels about the prices, and laughs when the man says he is willing to spend upwards of two hundred dollars on books. By the time the man has finished browsing, the boy has sold him on a set of Brontes, Meredith, and Thackeray, as well as the Dickens, and tops it off with Jane Austen— is this starting to sound like a collection of Jackson’s literary influences to you, or is it just me— and then, casual as anything, removes a notepad and pencil from his pocket to jot the purchases down. Moments later, when they return to Mr. Harris, the man comments to his wife that the boy is remarkable, knowing all he does about books, and comments that “when I was his age, I’d been working four, five years.” The boy then excuses himself, saying he’ll be back for another look at the Empson; and, predictably, after the boy has ascended the staircase, the man asks to see the book, Mr. Harris hands it over, and the man ultimately decides to add it to his list of purchases. Mr. Harris makes no second thought about it, jots down he sum and our happy customers ascend to consciousness, bringing with them the influences which Jackson likely held most valuable, whether consciously or unconsciously. And the story, itself, is a tremendous work of ambiguity—is the boy an employee? Or has he helped someone selflessly and been scorned—working thus on a macrocosmic level in reference to itself. It is also an interesting thing to note that the senex and puer both seem to push the Thackerays particularly hard; Thackeray, you may or may not know, was the author of Vanity Fair (the serialized novel, not the magazine) and an early and expert proponent of both the unreliable narrator and taking advantage for stylistic reasons of the relationship between the creator and his artwork.
I shall let the eloquent symbolism of Jackson’s closing paragraph to the first public appearance of Mr. Harris lead us onward:
They started up the stairs and Mr. Harris stood watching them until they got to the turn. Then he switched off the dirty overhead lamp and went back to his desk. [pg 217]
Now that we have resumed, as it were, a sort of chronology, after that asynchronous interlude, we will recall that “Elizabeth” ended with the eponymous character inviting James Harris to her home with the intention of courting him. “Of Course”, interestingly, is the story which follows most clearly the arc of the James Harris character (for, in all fairness, the first name of Mr. Harris is not mentioned in the preceding story), and is told in usual Shirley Jackson style: Mrs. Tylor and her daughter, Carol, notice they’re having new neighbors—’nice people, obviously’ she decides based on the state of their clothes—and strike up conversation with an unnamed Mrs. Harris and her son, James Junior. Being neighborly, hoping to take James Junior off of his mother’s hands to free her up for moving day, Mrs. Tylor invites him to spend time with Carol, and that’s where the trouble starts (and isn’t it always!).
“That would be a relief,” Mrs. Harris agreed. She twisted around to look at James behind her. “Would you like to play with Carol this afternoon, honey?” James shook his head mutely and Mrs. Taylor said to him brightly, “Carol’s two older sisters might, just might take her to the movies, James. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“I’m afraid not,” Mrs. Harris said flatly. “James does not go to movies.”
“Oh, well, of course,” Mrs. Tylor said, “lots of mothers don’t, of course, but when a child has two older…”
“It isn’t that,” Mrs. Harris said. “We do not go to movies, any of us.”
Mrs. Tylor quickly registered the “any” as meaning there was probably a Mr. Harris somewhere around, and then her mind snapped back and she said blankly, “Don’t go to movies?”
“Mr. Harris,” Mrs. Harris said carefully, “feels that movies are intellectually retarding. We do not go to movies.” [pg 231]
Movies having been removed as an option, Mrs. Tylor still invites them to her garden to rest awhile, where James and Carol may play in the sandbox while their mothers keep an eye on the movers. As undistinguished, unconscious masculine principles organize the contents of the house, the conscious feminine principles sit down and Mrs. Harris laments that sometimes she feels that moving is the most terrible thing she has to do— of course, if we are to take the house as the self, moving house may indicate the kind of drastic change of self motivated by trauma or hitting bottom, an the resulting reorganization of one’s psyche and life. Naturally moving house is, then, a terrible thing.
I’ll take a moment to note now that the new Harris residence is on the southern side of Mrs. Tylor’s house, specifically, adding further to our devilish imagery. As the conversation carries on, it is revealed that Mrs. Harris and her husband have had problems with previous neighbors, who insisted on playing the radio all day long, and loud; they themselves do not own a radio, and then, finally, it turns out they do not read newspapers, either:
Mrs. Tylor recognized finally the faint nervous feeling that was tagging her; it was the way she felt when she was irrevocably connected with something dangerously out of control: her car, for instance, on an icy street, or the time on Virginia’s roller skates…Mrs. Harris was staring absent-mindedly at the movers going in and out, and she was saying, “It isn’t as though we hadn’t ever seen a newspaper, not like the movies at all; Mr. Harris just feels that the newspapers are a mass degradation of taste. You really never need to read a newspaper, you know,” she said, looking around anxiously at Mrs. Tylor.
“I never read anything but the—”
“And we took The New Republic for a number of years,” Mrs. Harris said. “When we were first married, of course. Before James was born.”
“What is your husband’s business?” Mrs. Tylor asked timidly.
Mrs. Harris lifted her head proudly. “He’s a scholar,” she said. “He writes monographs.”
Mrs. Tylor opened her mouth to speak, but Mrs. Harris leaned over and put her hand out and said, “It’s terribly hard for people to understand the desire for a really peaceful life.”
“What,” Mrs. Tylor said, “what does your husband do for relaxation?”
“He reads plays,” Mrs. Harris said. She looked doubtfully over at James. “Pre-Elizabethan, of course.” [pg 233]
One rather gets the sense, based on Mrs. Harris’ strange kind of barely-suppressed anxiety, that Mr. Harris might arrive any moment, although we find it is evidently merely a pattern of behavior which has been engrained in Mrs. Harris, for Mr. Harris, we discover, is staying at his mother’s, which is, according to his wife, where he always stays during moves. (There are a great many fairy tales, keep in mind, involving the Devil and his (grand)mother, and though a grandmother is not the same as a mother, I will point out that the German die Großmutter translates, in essence, to “Great Mother”, and what is “Grand” but a form of “Great”?) The relationship of the Spirit Mercurius to matter is what is being referenced here subtly, again, in a manner which one discovers only through plunging into the depths of language.
Throughout the course of the story, the phrase ‘of course’ is used like a hypnotic chant, luring Mrs. Tylor down the conversational thread so that it is more or less inescapable for her, and so that she is lured into a kind of unconscious state until Mrs. Harris returns to see if the movers have done anything right; left alone with her daughter, Mrs. Tylor says that she will go to the movies with her, summarily rejecting Mr. Harris’ assessment of modern media. If we are to say that Mrs. Tylor, with her more northern position in the neighborhood, reflects conscious positions and contents, then Mrs. Harris’ dictatums from her husband represent a sort of nagging doubt about the state of modern culture which is relegated to unconsciousness as a sign of abnormality or queerness, though there is something to be said, as always, for walking the middle path: Jackson is ever demonstrating two extremes in her work and often exceedingly slow at integrating them together, assuming she does at all. But the male and female principle, to a certain extent, have been conjoined in an alienated away; there is still a feeling of decided isolation for the feminine from the masculine, and rather than integrating and balancing the two, the feminine has completely submitted to the masculine. And now, we are about to see consciousness subsumed by unconsciousness; to see the ego absorbed by the Self.
This is one you really need to read if you haven’t.
From the moment we see the blue-and-silver bus in the first sentence, we know we will meet James Harris on it. Clara Spencer is at the station with her husband, in the dark of night, and she is feeling very unwell, on her way to a dental appointment. Barely able to talk because of her swollen jaw, she has taken whiskey, codeine, and a sleeping pill, all on an empty stomach. It is almost a detail that is easy to miss; a detail that is easy to write off and forget. But it begs the question, along with a great many other symbols in the story: are we seeing a woman having a tooth removed, or are we observing the death mystery?
“It’s just a toothache,” Clara said uneasily, “nothing very serious about a toothache.”
“You can’t tell,” he said. “It might be abscessed or something; I’m sure he’ll have to pull it.”
“Don’t even talk like that,” she said, and shivered.
“Well, it looks pretty bad,” he said soberly, as before. “Your face so swollen, and all. Don’t you worry.”
“I’m not worrying,” she said. “I just feel as if I were all tooth. Nothing else.”
The bus driver got up from the stool and walked over to pay his check. Clara moved toward the bus, and her husband said, “Take your time, you’ve got plenty of time.”
“I just feel funny,” Clara said.
“Listen,” her husband said, “that tooth’s been bothering you off and on for years; at least six or seven times since I’ve known you you’ve had trouble with that tooth. It’s about time something was done. You had a toothache on our honeymoon,” he finished accusingly.
“Did I?” Clara said. “You know,” she went on, and laughed, “I was in such a hurry I didn’t dress properly. I have on old stockings and I just dumped everything into my good pocketbook.”
“Are you sure you have enough money?” he said.
“Almost twenty-five dollars,” Clara said. “I’ll be home tomorrow.”
“Wire if you need more,” he said. The bus driver appeared in the doorway of the lunchroom. “Don’t worry,” he said.
“Listen,” Clara said suddenly, “are you sure you’ll be all right? Mrs. Lang will be over in the morning in time to make breakfast, and Johnny doesn’t need to go to school if things are too mixed up.”
“I know,” he said.
“Mrs. Lang,” she said, checking on her fingers. “I called Mrs. Lang, I left the grocery order on the kitchen table, you can have the cold tongue for lunch and in case I don’t get back Mrs. Lang will give you dinner. The cleaner ought to come about four o’clock, I won’t be back so give him your brown suit and it doesn’t matter if you forget but be sure to empty the pockets.”
“Wire if you need more money,” he said. “Or call. I’ll stay home tomorrow so you can call at home.”
“Mrs. Lang will take care of the baby,” she said.
“Or you can wire, “ he said. [pg 267]
The last thing Clara says to her husband is that he needs to leave a note to the milkman that they need eggs—a symbol of rebirth—and she then boards the bus, like a Greek boarding the boat of Charon to take her to that inner City of New York. When the busdriver realizes he has forgotten to take her ticket and, a few stops away, comes back to do so, we learn she has a one-way ticket; she will be coming back by train.
If we are to consider Clara the Salt, then the tooth could be considered several things, including but not limited to any severe psychological problem which plagues a person throughout the course of their life (Jackson was emotionally crippled and eventually resigned to agoraphobia as a result of her hyper-critical mother and husband and a great number of health problems) but may, I think, most clearly be considered a representative of the human body. Her life, her body, her being, has dissatisfied her; she is probably deeply depressed, probably partly as a result of her marriage, going on her honeymoon comment. Clara is ready to have the tooth removed, and to move on; on the bus, still feeling funny, she begins to drift in and out of sleep, and eventually wakes up because the bus has stopped at a restaurant, open all night, “lonely and lighted on the vacant road” which is warm and busy inside. At the end of the counter, Clara sits down and falls asleep again, and is woken by a touch upon her arm by— well, guess.
When she looked around foggily he said, “Traveling far?”
“Yes,” she said.
He was wearing a blue suit and he looked tall; she could not focus her eyes to see any more.
“You want coffee?” he asked.
She nodded and he pointed to the counter in front of her where a cup of coffee sat steaming.
“Drink it quickly,” he said.
She sipped at it delicately; she may have put her face down and tasted it without lifting the cup. The strange man was talking.
“Even farther than Samarkand,” he was saying, “and the waves ringing on the shore like bells.” [pg 270]
It is, at once, impossible to articulate what James is talking about, and yet we all know what James is talking about. He follows Clara back onto the bus and sits down beside her, and he proceeds to go on to tell her “The flutes play all night, and the stars are as big as the moon and the moon is as big as a lake….Nothing to do all day but lie under the trees.”
As Clara doses in and out of sleep, James, who has introduced himself to Clara as Jim, comforts her and guides her, telling her to come along when the bus stops at the next restaurant, which seems to Clara the same restaurant it stopped at previously; she begins to try to sit at her seat at the end of the counter, but Jim takes her by the hand and leads her to a table, then instructs her to go wash her face. After this kind of baptism in Lethe, she returns and eats a sandwich, and we should be considering by this point the symbolism of eating in the underworld, and the understanding that consuming food or drink there keeps one there. Jim, meanwhile, keeps going on, saying, “And while we were sailing past the island we heard a voice calling us…”
On the bus again, Jim demonstrates concern for Clara’s head rattling on the window, and instructs her to lean her head against his shoulder. She sleeps again, and once more they arrive at a restaurant, and here they have coffee which causes her tooth-pain to flair up; she takes two codeine pills while Jim watches her, and then is forced to hurry back to the bus so fast, with Jim holding her arm as she flees, that she realizes on the bus she has forgotten the bottle of pills. Jim keeps going on, saying, “The sand is so white it looks like snow, but it’s hot, even at night it’s hot under your feet.”
Then they stopped for the last time, and Jim brought her out of the bus and they stood for a minute in New York together. A woman passing them in the station said to the man following her with suitcases, “We’re just on time, it’s five-fifteen.”
“I’m going to the dentist,” she said to Jim.
“I know,” he said. “I’ll watch out for you.”
He went away, although she did not see him go. She thought to watch for his blue suit going through the door, but there was nothing. [pg 273]
There is a strange compassion and gentleness emanating from James Harris in this story, one which was not present in previous ones; the unconscious element which was once so sinister is now revealed as being a friend, a companion, and a psychopomp who promises to care for his charge in the stead of her husband. Now alone again, our Salt discovers that the bus station joins Pennsylvania Terminal, presumably the same train terminal by which she intends to go home; as she left by bus and intends to return by train, and the bus station and train terminal are connected, there is an implied connection between death and birth, in that one leads to another. Falling asleep again in the terminal, she is awakened by a stranger in time for her appointment:
Then someone shook her rudely by the shoulder and said, “What train you taking, lady, it’s nearly seven.” She sat up and saw her pocketbook on her lap, her feet neatly crossed, a clock glaring into her face. She said, “Thank you,” and got up and walked blindly past the benches and got on to the escalator. Someone got on immediately behind her and touched her arm; she turned at it was Jim. “The grass is so green and so soft,” he said, smiling, “and the water of the river is so cool.”
She stared at him tiredly. When the escalator reached the top she stepped off and started to walk to the street she saw ahead. Jim came along beside her and his voice went on, “The sky is bluer than anything you’ve ever seen, and the songs…”
She stepped quickly away from him and thought that people were looking at her as they passed. She stood on the corner waiting for the light to change and Jim came swiftly up to her and then away. “Look,” he said as he passed, and he held out a handful of pearls. [pg 274]
Pearls are, among a great many other symbols, a representation of completion, wholeness, the Self. Across the street, she finds another restaurant, where she again falls asleep and is awoken by the waitress; on the bus on the way to the dentist she overshoots her stop and on the way back she is pushed along by a surge of people; she feels someone falls into step with her and deliberately, for a time, does not look, until, when she does, there is no trace of a blue suit. Eventually, the dentist orders her to an oral surgeon, for an extraction which he says should have been preformed years ago; the nurse offers her codeine in case the tooth bothers her too much, but she remembers the codeine she left behind, and turns down the offer. (In case I am not hitting you over the head with the point enough, this could be symbolic of the Salt leaving behind its ego’s drug problem; Jackson herself, like a great many writers, struggled with pill popping.) Downstairs, outside, the doorman orders her a taxi and she thinks she sees a hand wave to her across the street. The building at which she is dropped off is specifically described as a “strange building, the entrance flanked by medical signs carved in stone.” And the caduceus, as we know, that symbol of Mercury, is commonly misused as the medical symbol these days, over the single-snaked Rod of Aslepius— a small but interesting detail.
Ascending the elevator to the 7th floor of the building, where she seems to be known primarily by the thing she is about to have extracted (“Lower Molar”) rather than her name, Clara is assured by a gentle nurse that it won’t hurt, and by the dentist that if they hurt people, they wouldn’t stay in business. It is when she is anesthetized that we see a particularly telling symbol:
First of all things get so far away, she thought, remember this. And remember the metallic sound and taste of all of it. And the outrage.
And then the whirling music, the ringing confusedly loud music that went on and on, around and around, and she was running as fast as she could down a long horribly clear hallway with doors on both sides and at the end of the hallway was Jim, holding out his hands and laughing, and calling something she could never hear because of the loud music, and she was running and then she said, “I’m not afraid,” and someone from the door next to her took her arm and pulled her through and the world widened alarmingly until it would never stop and then it stopped with the head of the dentist looking down at her and the window dropped into place in front of her an the nurse was holding her arm.
“Why did you pull me back?” she said, and her mouth was full of blood. “I wanted to go on.”
“I didn’t pull you” the nurse said, but the dentist said, “She’s not out of it yet.”
She began to cry without moving and felt the tears rolling down her face and the nurse wiped them off with a towel. There was no blood anywhere around except her mouth; everything was as clean as before. The dentist was gone, suddenly, and the nurse put out her arm and helped her out of the chair. “Did I talk?” she asked suddenly, anxiously. “Did I say anything? Did I say where he is?”
“You didn’t say anything,” the nurse said. “The doctor was only teasing you.”
“Where’s my tooth?” she asked suddenly, and the nurse laughed and said, “All gone. Never bother you again.”
She was back in the cubicle, and she lay down on the couch and cried, and the nurse brought her whisky in a paper cup and set it on the edge of the wash-basin.
“God has given me blood to drink,” she said to the nurse, and the nurse said, “Don’t rinse your mouth or it won’t clot.” [pg 280-281]
“God has given me blood to drink” is at once one of the most beautiful and tragic lamentations written in the English language, because it is the plight of all mankind, represented time and again in the rite of transubstantiation, among others— God has given all of us blood to drink, from the amniotic fluid of the womb to the blood though which flows the Salt of our body. We all must ultimately face death— but if we wash away our acknowledgment of death, our knowledge of its shadow cast across us, how can we ever hope to crystallize it from a liquid to a solid, to heal from it?
Following her long recovery nap, the nurse comes and acquires her from the cubicle in which she feels she’s sat for all her life. In the ladies’ room, she has an impossible time washing her face and, in looking at the five faces in the mirror, she becomes dissociated and realizes she cannot pick out which face is hers. When she eventually determines she is the anxious one with the hair pulled back, after the other women leave, she asks herself, “There were some pretty faces there, why didn’t I take one of those? I didn’t have time, they didn’t give me time to think, I could have had one of the nice faces, even the blonde would be better.”
Following this, Clara sits down in one of the wicker chairs and discovers her hair has been loosened from her sleep, so she lets it down, and in extracting the silver barette from it, she sees her name, ‘Clara’, engraved on its surface, and reacts as if she has never seen her own name before in her life. As the women all leave, she throws the barette away, then goes through her pocketbook and finds her lipstick is almost gone, the powder cake of her make-up is half-gone, her wallet contains $19.97, and no identifying information, papers, or anything at all. After stripping off the stockings with a hole in them, she also removes and throws away a pin she discovers on her lapel which bears her initial, ‘C’, thus finally discarding the remnants of her identity and the tatters of her previous attitude and persona; she then paints her face, adding red color to a face previously described as pale, and I will let Ms. Jackson take it back from here, because the rest, I think, is self-explanatory when we consider the unconscious to be a kind of ocean.
She put the stockings into the wastebasket and went barelegged out into the hall again, and purposefully to the elevator. The elevator operator said, “Down?” when he saw her and she stepped in and the elevator carried her silently downstairs. She went back past the grave professional doorman and out into the street where people were passing, and she stood in front of the building and waited. After a few minutes Jim came out of a crowd of people passing and came over to her and took her hand.
Somewhere between here and there was her bottle of codeine pills, upstairs on the floor of the ladies’ room she had left a little slip of paper headed “Extraction”; seven floors below, oblivious of the people who stepped sharply along the sidewalk, not noticing their occasional curious glances, her hand in Jim’s and her hair down on her shoulders, she ran barefoot through hot sand. [pg 286]
GOT A LETTER FROM JIMMY
After the masterpiece that is “The Tooth”, the three short pages of “Got A Letter From Jimmy” are simple as they are vaguely unnerving, and, as always, most ambiguous: in this short domestic scene, a husband announces to his wife that he got a letter from Jimmy. The wife spends the next three pages obsessing over the letter, alternately hoping that he will read the letter and everything will be friendly again, and thinking that if it were up to her she would tear up the letter after reading it— her husband, meanwhile, hasn’t opened it. The letter from Jimmy works mostly as a device to emphasize the resentment the feminine principle carries for the masculine, fuel on a fire which builds eventually to a grand blaze at the end of the story. The wife, it seems, holds the most ire for Jimmy, whatever he’s done, whereas the man seems to forget about the letter by the end of the conversation— though midway through she projects that, were she to try to open the letter, herself, her husband would break her arm. Based on her behavior, and her obsession with the letter, this is clear projection—particularly considering the violent fantasy in which the story ends—but it is rooted, doubtless, in whatever schism caused the couple to cut Jimmy out of their lives. By the tale’s end, we are left unresolved, with the mere possibility of renewing contact with the Spirit; and it is this story, then, which gives way, in the collection, to the short story which made, by and large, Jackson’s name— “The Lottery”. James Harris does not appear there– his work, after all, is done. But he will have one more appearance before the book’s end.
Each section of The Lottery save for the first one and the epilogue is prefaced by a quote from Joseph Glanvil’s Saducismus Triumphatus, a highly influential and early book purporting to have evidence of witchcraft. The second section in particular is opened with the quote, “The ignorant Looker-on can’t imagine what the Limner means by those seemingly rude Lines and Scrawls, which he intends for the Rudiments of a Picture; and the Figures of Mathematick Operation are Nonsense, and Dashes at a Venture, to one uninstructed in Mechanicks. We are in the Dark to one another’s Purposes and Intendments; and there are a thousand Intrigues in our little Matters, which will not presently confess their Design, even to sagacious Inquisitiors.” Thus, Jackson is warning us that readers will not be able to see what she is actually doing if they are not versed in the symbol-set with which she is working; there is a certain degree of internal gnosis required here to really look at the assessments of these symbols in any true understanding, for we best understand something when we truly feel it.
The third section opens with a reference to the confession of a Margaret Jackson, who declares that “…the black Man came to her, and that she did give up herself to the black Man, from the top of herh ead to the sole of her foot; and that this was after the Declarant’s renouncing of her Baptism; and that the Spirit’s name, which he designed her, was Locas.” The fourth opens with a warning that we are never so helpless until by dispositions and tendencies such as malice, envy, and desire of revenge, better spirits flee and forfeit their care of us, and leave us exposed to the solicitations of “evil Angels” which are better suited to such qualities. This is not dissimilar to von Franz’s warnings against witchcraft in her discussions on active imagination, and the fine line between imagination and witchcraft; it also brings to mind the fact that, despite her better efforts to write away her suffering, Jackson lived a life plagued by self-loathing and dissatisfaction. Her active principles reflect this clearly, full of perpetual envy and dissatisfaction; we must always remember, taking a lesson from this, that, as some people put it, what we give out comes back to us; that we should expect to get what we are asking for, whether we can help asking for it or not. We must remember that, with the liquid flexibility of Mercurius, he is just as happy to fulfill the role of angelic teacher, or devilish interloper; and it is clear enough which manifestation Jackson has attracted, even with his many helpful qualities.
The epilogue of the text provides us context, then, of this mysterious figure who has lurked in the background of 10 out of 26 of the stories in the collection— it is nothing we have not by now figured out on our own, but it sheds light on the remainder of the stories in the collection and relates closely to the pattern we have seen of Harris interfering with the masculine and feminine union, demonstrated in “Like Mother Used To Make”, “Elizabeth”, and “The Tooth” most especially, not to mention “Got A Letter From Jimmy”, in which is very unopened letter is enough to cause in the feminine element a deep consternation. This is perhaps related to the origin of the character: “James Harris, The Daemon Lover” (otherwise known as “House Carpenter”, for those of you who have been paying attention to Jackson’s domicile fetish) is a Sottish children’s ballad, about a woman whose lover, James Harris, is thought to be dead, so she marries a carpenter and has a baby (two in the version from which Jackson draws her epilogue; but James Harris returns to her, and lures her onto his ship, away from her family, to the sinister ocean of the unconscious.
…She set her foot upon the ship,
No mariners could she behold;
But the sails were o the taffetie,
And the masts o the beaten gold.
She had not sailed a league, a league,
A league but barely three,
When dismal grew his countenance,
And drumlie grew his ee.
They had not saild a league, a league,
A league but barely three,
Until she espied his cloven foot,
And she wept right bitterlie.
‘O hold your tongue of your weeping,’ says he,
‘Of your weeping now let me be;
I will shew you how the lilies grow
On the banks of Italy.’
‘O what hills are yon, yon pleasant hills,
That the sun shines sweetly on?’
‘O you are the hills of heaven,’ he said,
‘Where you will never win.’
‘O whaten a mountain is yon,’ she said,
‘All so dreary wi frost and snow?’
‘O yon is the mountain of hell,’ he cried,
‘Where you and I will go.’
He strack the tap-mast wi his hand,
The fore-mast wi his knee,
And he brake that gallant ship in twain,
And sank her in the sea.
–From James Harris, The Daemon Lover (Child Ballad No. 243)
What is one to take of this ballad? It is important to note that in this particular variant—indeed, in most that I can find—the wife is lured away not by love of James Harris, nor dissatisfaction in her wifely or maternal duties. Rather, the wife is lured away, consistently, by the riches Harris claims to have, by the fleets of ships full of gold and overflowing with mariner-servants. Were we to dig deeply into the symbolism of this, the gold and riches may represent knowledge and enlightenment, and the mariners unconscious principles of the psyche; however, having boarded the ship in ignorance, and doubtless the latent guilt of abandoning her family, she espies his cloven hoof too late, and they are drowned together in the waters of the unconscious. Salt and Sulphur have been drowned in the ocean in the closing of Jackson’s first published collection of short stories, one which preceded all of her strongest novels.
Because this essay is so long in covering just the appearances of James Harris in The Lottery collection, we have not yet had a chance to touch on The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived In The Castle; now is as good a time as any, I suppose, to announce the book of non-fiction essays I am accumulating with intention to publish. There will be essays available in the book which are not available on this website, and I expect that, to reduce redundancies in the blog, the essay on The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived In The Castle will be one of them. However, the character of James Harris is the essential cornerstone for understanding the applications of literary magic as they emerge in the writing of Shirley Jackson, and The Lottery alone is an invaluable resource, as I said, for anyone interested in observing the intimate functions of the psyche.
The first draft of the forthcoming novel, ALBEDO, is complete, and I am now letting it rest before editing it. In the meantime, be sure to check back here every two Fridays for a new essay. More updates will be posted as we come closer to the completion of both ALBEDO and the yet-unnamed book of essays aimed towards writers, magicians and philosophers, as well as all those interested in the close reading and listening of excellent fiction and music.
M. F. Sullivan is the author of the transgressive DELILAH, MY WOMAN and the in-progress psychedelic sci-fi, ALEBDO. Click here to buy DELILAH, MY WOMAN now for hardback or kindle, and come back in two weeks for the next essay.