Shirley Jackson Day kicks off a second century of celebration

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NORTH BENNINGTON — Local author Shirley Jackson is alive and well in the hearts of the local bibliophiles who gathered to celebrate the North Bennington authors legacy on Monday.

"This is the date of the publication of 'The Lottery,' and tomorrow is lottery day as you may know," said Tom Fels, who has organized the annual event for 13 years. "Shirley Jackson lived in North Bennington for about 20 years and was a neighbor and friend of a lot of us, but she is also among the best writers in the world."

This year's celebration featured readings of Jackson's work from four authors connected with the national Shirley Jackson Awards. The awards are given for the best work published in the preceding calendar year in multiple categories including novel, novella, novelette, short story, single-author collection, and edited anthology. The next round of Shirley Jackson Awards will be presented on July 16 at the Readercon 28 Conference on Imaginative Literature in Quincy, Mass.

"We had a great time last year and we're very glad to be back. We've got four fine writers, all of whom are here with connection to the Shirley Jackson Awards," said Brett Cox, vice president of the Board of Directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards. "Last year we celebrated the centennial of Shirley's birth, and we're off to a good start for a second 100 years."

The four readers, Maryland author Michael Thomas Ford, O'Henry Award winner Karen Heuler, Williams College professor Paul Park, and Bennington College alumnus Chandler Klang Smith, have all been deeply impacted by the works of the late Jackson.

"She has influenced my writing unlike any other author, and I've told many people this," said Ford, prior to presenting a reading from Jackson's 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle,' "I've been publishing for almost 30 years now, and this is the single greatest excitement I've had as a writer in my entire life."

While most readers chose to read from Jackson's extensive collection, Heuler chose to present her newest work "In Search of Lost Time" to exemplify the ways in which the author had influenced her.

"When you're young you are so intensely affected by things that you've never encountered before. Books of course are always an intense experience," said Heuler. "They take you into a world that touches secret parts of you that you think no one else would understand or be able to accept."

The adoration of Jackson was palpable at the celebration, exemplifying the multitudes of writers influenced by the author.

"I think it's amazing that four nationally known authors would show up in North Bennington," said Fels. "If someone reads Shirley Jackson, and they write something because of it, that's sort of an endless chain."

This has also been the case for Park, who read an entertaining selection from Jackson's "Life Among the Savages."

"When I discovered this book I was interested in trying to reconcile those two voices," said Park. "'In 'The Haunting of Hill House' there's a kind of gathering malevolence that leads you in and becomes almost overwhelming. This book also has kind of a steely edge to it that sort of gathers over time."

For Smith, who completed the creative writing MFA program at Columbia University following her time at Bennington College, Jackson has long been an influential figure.

"I was a huge fan of hers going back to junior high school," said Smith, following a reading from "The Haunting of Hill House."

"Even to this day, I think that her ability to locate both what's magical and what's unsettling about things that would otherwise seem ordinary is striking."

The celebration, organized in conjunction with Blue Rider Events, The Bennington Bookshop, and the John G. McCullough Free Library, provides an opportunity to revel in local literary history.

"Bennington has an amazing literary history," said Fels. "A lot of people are not aware of our local history, be it literary or anything else. If you don't remind people these things fade."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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