‘Pillar of Salt’ by Shirley Jackson

In my early twenties I made a bad decision: I followed a boyfriend to New York, a city where I had no job and almost no friends, from London, where things had sort of started happening for me. I assumed, at 22, that things happen everywhere, so the plan seemed faultless. What followed was a time so bad that I developed a sort of cottonmouth when I tried to articulate the pain. In ‘Pillar of Salt’ a couple visit Manhattan from their quiet New Hampshire town, and wife Margaret begins to experience bouts of hallucinatory anxiety as she clashes with the city, seeing danger  and collapse (sometimes real, sometimes imagined) atop balconies, on shorelines, and in the throes of chic parties. Of course, her husband experiences none of this. 

It’s got Jackson’s trademark grotesquerie, and her unmooring of characters from the realities in which they’ve become comfortable. But it’s also a fuck you to the idea that a place’s inherent ‘badness’ requires explanation. There are notes of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in it, but also something more terrifying: that the claustrophobia and madness of a locked room like Gilman’s might bleed into the vastness of The Greatest City In The World™.

I wish I’d read ‘Pillar Of Salt’ two weeks into my time in New York, rather than many years after I’d started the exhausting process of re-emigrating to the UK. But the way in which fiction can step in for you, to unburden you of the responsibility to rationalise your interiority, is something timeless. And that’s nice. 

First published in Mademoiselle, 1948, collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, Penguin 1967

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