Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson


  Life Among the Savages

  SHIRLEY JACKSON was born in San Francisco in 1916. She first received wide critical acclaim for her short story “The Lottery,” which was published in the New Yorker in 1948. Her novels—which include The Haunting of Hill House, The Sundial, The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman, The Road Through the Wall, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle—are characterized by her use of realistic settings for tales that often involve elements of horror and the occult. She also wrote two domestic memoirs—Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons—which delightfully recount her experiences raising a family in small-town America. She died in 1965.


  The Bird’s Nest

  Come Along with Me


  The Haunting of Hill House

  Raising Demons

  The Road Through the Wall

  The Sundial

  We Have Always Lived in the Castle


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  First published in the United States of America by Farrar, Straus and Young 1953

  Published in Penguin Books 1997

  The edition published 2015

  Copyright 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 by Shirley Jackson

  Copyright 1953 by The Crowell-Collier Publishing Company

  Copyright renewed 1975, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1981 by Laurence Hyman, Joanne Schnurer, Barry Hyman, and Sarah Webster

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  Portions of this book have appeared in other forms in Charm, Collier’s, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s, Mademoiselle, Woman’s Day, and Woman’s Home Companion. The section that was originally published as “Charles” in Mademoiselle and The Lottery is included here at the request of the author’s older son.


  Jackson, Shirley, 1916–1965.

  Life among the savages / Shirley Jackson.

  pages ; cm

  ISBN 978-0-698-19508-0

  1. Jackson, Shirley, 1916–1965. 2. Authors, American—20th century—Biography. I. Title.

  PS3519.A392Z46 2015




  Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.

  Cover design and illustration: Graham Roumieu



  About the Author

  Also by Shirley Jackson

  Title Page



  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Appendix: Handbill | Some Poltergeist Incidents in the Residence of S.E.H., Esquire

  For the Children’s Grandparents


  Our house is old, and noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks. This is the way of life my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we had fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and a desk and a light of some kind; even though this is our way of life, and the only one we know, it is occasionally bewildering, and perhaps even inexplicable to the sort of person who does not have that swift, accurate conviction that he is going to step on a broken celluloid doll in the dark. I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books, going on soundlessly in an apartment hotel where they do the cleaning for you and send up your meals and all you have to do is lie on a couch and—as I say, I cannot think of a preferable way of life, but then I have had to make a good many compromises, all told.

  I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living—sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things—and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves; would we be pleased, I wonder, at a wholesale elimination of these things, so that we were reduced only to necessities (coffeepot, typewriters, the essential little wheels off things) and then—this happening usually in the springtime—I begin throwing things away, and it turns out that although we can live agreeably without the little wheels off things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make new little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.

  I remember the morning, long ago, when the landlord called. Our son Laurie was three and a half, and our daughter Jannie was six months old, and I had the lunch almost ready and the diapers washed, along with the little shirts and the nightgowns and the soakers and the cotton blankets, and they were all drying on the line (and I don’t care what anyone says, that’s a morning’s work, when you consider that I had also made brownies and emptied the ashtrays) and then the landlord called. He was a kindly man, and a paternal one, so that he asked first about my health, and my husband’s health, and then he asked how was our boy? and how was the baby? and when I said that we were all fine, fine, he said that of course we were aware that our lease was up? I said well, no, we hadn’t really known that our lease was up. So he said well, he supposed that we hadn’t looked at the lease recently and I (wondering if that was the paper Laurie had torn up and eaten) said that it had been quite a while, really, since we sat down together and read over our lease. That was too bad, he said. Wasn’t it, I said. Because, he said, his voice gentle, the apartment had been rented to someone else. After a minute I said rented? to someone else? Then I laughed and said what were we supposed to do—move? He said well, yes, we were supposed to do just that.

  “Naturally,” he went on, “we could evict you if we wanted to.”

  “You could?” I was thinking of letters to the president, appeals for the sake of our two small children. “We’d much rather you’d just move out,” he said.

  “But where?”

  He laughed genially. “Ask me another,” he said. “Apartments are mighty tough to find these days.”

  “I suppose we could take a look around,” I said dubiously. Letters, I was thinking, sue them for the piece of plaster that fell on my husband while he was shaving: lawyers.

  “We’ll expect to take possession around May first,” he said.

  “Today is March twenty-fifth,” I said.

  “That’s right,” he said. “Rent almost due,” and he laughed again.

  The next day we got a letter saying that it was “first notice of warning to evict.” I began to think in terms of pouring boiling oil from the windows and barricading t
he doors with the dining room table. What made both of us even angrier was the fact that we had never had any intention of renewing our lease, but had planned vaguely on moving as soon as we found another place. “The very idea,” I told my husband indignantly, “renting this apartment to someone else without fixing that broken step. The one on the stairs.”

  “Leave a note for the new people about the cockroaches,” my husband advised. He also advised strenuously against bringing suit for some undetermined reason (the piece of plaster? the neighbor’s radio?) and said, patting me on the shoulder, that he knew how anxious I had been to find another place.

  Our fondest dream had been to move to Vermont, to a town where a couple we knew had settled and from which they had written us glowing accounts of mountains, and children playing in their own gardens, and clean snow, and homegrown carrots, and now suddenly it looked overwhelmingly as though we moved either to Vermont or to a tent in the park. I called half a dozen city agents, and they all laughed as gaily as our landlord had laughed; “Got any relatives you could move in with?” one of them asked me.

  Finally, two hardy adventurers making for unexplored territory, we left the children with their grandparents, got ourselves and our suitcases and our overshoes onto a train at the station, and set out, an advance scouting party, for the small town where our friends lived, and where the mountains were so high and the snow so clean. There was no doubt, we discovered, about the snow. Our city overshoes went in over their heads as we stepped off the train, and for the three days we were there we both went constantly with damp feet and small bits of ice melting against our socks.

  One nice thing was, there were lots and lots of houses available. We heard this from a lady named Mrs. Black, a motherly old body who lived in a nearby large town, but who knew, as she herself pointed out, every house and every family in the state. She took us to visit a house which she called the Bassington house, and which would have been perfect for us and our books and our children, if there had been any plumbing.

  “Wouldn’t take much to put in plumbing,” Mrs. Black told us. “Put in plumbing, you got a real nice house there.”

  My husband shifted nervously in the snow. “You see,” he said, “that brings up the question of . . . well . . . money.”

  Mrs. Black shrugged. “How much would plumbing cost?” she demanded. “You put in maybe twelve, fifteen hundred dollars, you got a real nice house.”

  “Now look, if we had fifteen hundred dollars we could give an apartment superintendent—” my husband began, but I cut in quickly, “You must remember, Mrs. Black, that we want to rent.”

  “Rent, did you?” said Mrs. Black, as though this proved at last that we were mere fly-by-nights, lookers at houses for the pleasure of it. “Well, if I was you folks, small children and all, well, I’d buy.”

  “But money—” my husband said.

  “Money?” said Mrs. Black scornfully. “Two, three thousand dollars.” She thought. “On the other hand,” she said brightly, “if you was to fix it up yourselves—set in the plumbing, do a little painting, fix a few things maybe, you might cut your price down considerable.”

  She was looking directly at my husband as she said this, and he smiled weakly and nodded, obviously for that brief moment taken in by the notion that he might himself set in the plumbing. “You got to figure,” Mrs. Black pursued, “you put down maybe two, three thousand dollars, you get a first mortgage from Henry Andrews down to the bank, you sign to put in a few improvements—all you got to figure there is title, I think, and maybe equity, Henry Andrews can tell you just exactly what. Taxes, o’course. Insurance, you’d want, and then you figure heat and electric, and maybe you could get Bill Adams to put in the plumbing for you for less on account it’s his wife’s sister owns the house, and there you are. Ten, fifteen years, you got a real nice house here, and you own it. Other way, you’d still be paying rent.”

  “But money—” my husband said.

  Mrs. Black continued smoothly, “Other hand,” she said, “you might like the McCaffery house. Now there’s one with plumbing.”

  The McCaffery house may have had plumbing for all we ever knew; we could not get to it because the dirt road leading up to the top of the hill where the house sat was impassable with snow. “Have to clear this out some,” Mrs. Black said, as we all stood at the bottom of the hill looking up at the house.

  A Mr. Miller, who wore a leather jacket and a cap with earmuffs, took us to see the Donald house. This was a pretty place, set in an acre of marsh, but we unreasonably required a furnace, which Mr. Miller figured we ought to be able to put in for maybe two, three thousand. “Heat it with stoves, I would,” he said. “Don’t cost’s much to run’s a furnace.”

  “Money—” my husband said.

  “Might be,” Mr. Miller said, looking doubtfully at my husband, “might be you’re handy-like around a house?”

  Mr. Faber, who wore checked hunting pants and rolled his own cigarettes, showed us the Grant house, which had only three rooms and a lovely garden, and the Exeter house, which was big and rambling and heated and even had plumbing. “Real nice house here,” Mr. Faber said as we stood, wondering, in the panelled dining room. “Priced at fifty thousand, but he ought to come down some on that.”

  “Fif—” said my husband.

  “Well,” Mr. Faber said sadly, “I didn’t suppose you cared to go that high, but I figured you’d enjoy seeing it.”

  Mrs. Black, who picked us up again at nine the next morning, took us to see the Hubbard house, which had been made over from an old farmhouse, and had lovely floors and high ceilings and fireplaces and clean colored walls and even a garage, but no bedrooms. “The living room alone is seventy foot,” Mrs. Black said. “Studio type house, you might say.” She hesitated. “Matter of three, four thousand to build on a wing,” she suggested hopefully.

  “But we want to rent,” I said, wailing. “We don’t want to put things in and build things on and plough things out, we want to rent a house that’s all put together before we move in.”

  Mrs. Black sighed. “There’s a nice place, the Exeter house,” she said at last. “Real big, suit you folks fine. Priced at—”

  By the end of the second day we had even looked at a barn which someone had thought he might just rent out, but there were two cows and a tractor in that, and even Mrs. Black’s optimistic suggestion that we could easily make up the stalls into bedrooms for the children could not encourage us.

  “Well,” Mrs. Black said as she said goodbye to us in front of our friends’ house, “I guess you folks are pretty lucky you got a place to live in the city.”

  Wearily, that evening, we sat in the comfortable living room of our friends’ house, sheltered beneath a roof, securely, though temporarily, housed, and tried frantically to plan. It was April second, we had had our second notice of warning to evict, and we had begun to think wildly of renting a trailer, or having the children live with their grandparents, or borrowing a tent and a canoe and exploring the Great Lakes.

  “Exeter,” my husband said, miserably, “Exeter, McCaffery, Grant. Bassington, Hubbard, Donald. McCaffery, Bassington, Donald, Grant. Exeter, Hubbard—”

  “We just can’t live in a house without plumbing,” I said.

  “Or a furnace,” my husband said. “McCaffery, Hubbard—”

  “Maybe we could get an extension from our landlord,” I said without hope. “Maybe if he knew how hard we tried he might let us have a few weeks more.”

  Our friends sat, shaking their heads sympathetically, although their own home was paid for and firmly fixed upon its foundations, with its furnace working smoothly and its plumbing in repair.

  “If we only had some money,” my husband said and everyone sighed.

  We had to take the train home the next day, and on the way to the station I stopped in at the one grocery in town for cigarettes. After I had paid him the groce
r said, “Couldn’t find a place, I guess.”

  “No,” I said, surprised, although I was to learn later that the grocer not only knew our housing problems, but the ages and names of our children, the meat we had been served for dinner the night before, and my husband’s income.

  “Too bad you weren’t interested in the Fielding place,” the grocer said.

  “We didn’t even hear about it,” I said.

  “Would have called you,” the grocer said, “but Mae Black, she said you only wanted to buy. Not for sale, the Fielding house.”

  “What’s it like?”

  The grocer waved his hand vaguely. “Old,” he said. “Been in the family a long time.” He accepted a nickel from a small boy, helped him take the wrapper off a popsicle, and said, “Whyn’t you call old Sam Fielding? I bet he’d be real glad to take you over there.”

  There was only one train a day from the town. If we stopped long enough to look at the Fielding house we would not be able to leave until tomorrow; I hesitated, and the grocer said, “Won’t do any harm to look, anyway.”

  I went outside and put my head in through the window of the car where my husband was waiting with our host and hostess. “Ever hear of a house called the Fielding house?” I asked.

  “The Fielding house?” said our hostess, and our host said, “What on earth do you want with that?”

  “What’s the matter with it?” I asked.

  “Well,” said our hostess, “it’s a thousand years old, I think.”

  “A million,” said our host. “It’s . . .” He gestured helplessly. “It’s got these big white pillars across the front,” he said.

  “Is there a house in back of the pillars?” my husband asked. “Because if there is, and it has plumbing and a furnace and bedrooms and they’ll rent it to us, we’re going to be living there.”

  The Fielding house was a very old house about a mile out of town. It was the oldest in its neighborhood and the third oldest in the township; we had passed it, we realized with something of a shock, several times when we drove with Mrs. Black or Mr. Miller or Mr. Faber to look at other houses. It had been built—I looked it up in the town history shortly after we moved in, when I was vainly trying to come to terms with it—about eighteen-twenty, by a doctor named Ogilvie, who set it up as a manor house in the center of a great farm. The classical revival was upon the county then, and Doctor Ogilvie modeled his house after, presumably, a minor Greek temple; he set up the four massive white pillars across the front, threw wings out to both sides and then, with true New England economy, left the house only one room deep behind its impressive facade. When the Ogilvie family died off or moved away, as it did shortly after the house was built, it passed into the hands of a family named Cortland, who sold off most of the farm land and changed Doctor Ogilvie’s woodshed into a summer kitchen. The Cortlands eventually sold the house to a family named Fielding, who promptly bought back all the surrounding land, now somewhat built up with houses, rented the houses out, set up a lumber mill on the river that used to run across Doctor Ogilvie’s farm, and hired their tenants as employees. It seemed from the town records that the original Fielding had been a farmhand for Doctor Ogilvie, and the family no doubt had their eyes on the place even then. As the town developed the Fieldings became wealthier, and eventually the final generation of authentic Fieldings died off in the house and the entire property went to three cousins, all of whom lived in severely modern houses in neighboring towns, doing handsomely on their interests in the lumber mill.

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