“The Daemon Lover” by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)
Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

~ The Daemon Lover ~
A Classic American Short Story by Shirley Jackson

She had not slept well; from one-thirty, when Jamie left and she went lingeringly to bed, until seven, when she at last allowed herself to get up and make coffee, she had slept fitfully, stirring awake to open her eyes and look into the half-darkness, remembering over and over, slipping again into a feverish dream. She spent almost an hour over her coffee—they were to have a real breakfast on the way—and then, unless she wanted to dress early, had nothing to do. She washed her coffee cup and made the bed, looking carefully over the clothes she planned to wear, worried unnecessarily, at the window, over whether it would be a fine day. She sat down to read, thought that she might write a letter to her sister instead, and began, in her finest handwriting, “Dearest Anne, by the time you get this I will be married. Doesn’t it sound funny? I can hardly believe it myself, but when I tell you how it happened, you’ll see it’s even stranger than that…”

Sitting, pen in hand, she hesitated over what to say next, read the lines already written, and tore up the letter. She went to the window and saw that it was undeniably a find day. It occurred to her that perhaps she ought not to wear the blue silk dress; it was too plain, almost severe, and she wanted to be soft, feminine. Anxiously she pulled through the dress in the closet, and hesitated over a print she had worn the summer before; it was too young for her and it had a ruffled neck, and it was very early in the year for a print dress, but still…

She hung the two dresses side by side on the outside of the closet door and opened the glass doors carefully closed upon the small closet that was her kitchenette. She turned on the burner under the coffeepot, and went to the window; it was sunny. When the coffeepot began to crackle she came back and poured herself coffee, into a clean cup. I’ll have a headache if I don’t get some solid food soon, she thought, all this coffee, smoking too much, no real breakfast. A headache on her wedding day; she went and got the tin box of aspirin from the bathroom closet and slipped it into her blue pocketbook. She’d have to change to a brown pocketbook if she wore the print dress, and the only brown pocketbook she had was shabby. Helplessly, she stood looking from the blue pocketbook to the print dress, and then put the pocketbook down and went and got her coffee and sat near the window, drinking her coffee, and looked carefully around the one-room apartment. They planned to come back here tonight and everything must be correct. With sudden horror she realized she had forgotten to put clean sheets on the bed; the laundry was freshly back and she took clean sheets and pillow cases from the top shelf of the closet and stripped the bed, working quickly to avoid thinking consciously of why she was changing the sheets. The bed was a studio bed, with a cover to make it look like a couch, and when it was finished no one would have known she had put clean sheets on it. She took the old sheets and pillow cases into the bathroom and stuffed them down into the hamper, and put the bathroom towels in the hamper too, and clean towels on the bathroom racks. Her coffee was cold when she came back to it, but she drank it anyway.

When she looked at the clock, finally, and saw that it was after nine, she began at last to hurry. She took a bath, and used one of the clean towels, which she put into the hamper and replaced with a clean one. She dressed carefully, all her underwear fresh and most of it new; she put everything she had worn the day before, including her nightgown, into the hamper. When she was ready for her dress, she hesitated before the closet door. The blue dress was certainly decent, and clean, and fairly becoming, but she had worn it several times with Jamie, and there was nothing about it which made it special for a wedding day. The print dress was overly pretty, and new to Jamie, and yet wearing such a print this early in the season was certainly rushing the season. Finally she thought, This is my wedding day, I can dress as I please, and she took the print dress down from the hanger. When she slipped it on over her head it felt fresh and light, but 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 swinging skirt looked irresistibly made for a girl, for someone who would run freely, dance, swing it with her hips when she walked. Looking at herself in the mirror, she thought with revulsion, “It’s as though I was trying to make myself look prettier than I am, just for him; he’ll think I want to look younger because he’s marrying me; and she tore the print dress off so quickly that a seam under the arm ripped. In the old blue dress she felt comfortable and familiar, but unexciting. It isn’t what you’re wearing that matters, she told herself firmly, and turned in dismay to the closet to see if there might be anything else. There was nothing even remotely suitable for her marrying Jamie, and for a minute she thought of going out quickly to some little shop nearby, to get a dress. Then she saw that it was close on ten, and she had no time for more than her hair and her make-up. Her hair was easy, pulled back into a knot at the nape of her neck, but her make-up was another delicate balance between looking as well as possible, and deceiving as little. She could not try to disguise the sallowness of her skin, or the lines around her eyes, today, when it might look as though she were only doing it for her wedding, and yet she could not bear the thought of Jamie’s bringing to marriage anyone who looked haggard and lined. You’re thirty-four years old after all, she told herself cruelly in the bathroom mirror. Thirty, it said on the license.

It was two minutes after ten; she was not satisfied with her clothes, her face, her apartment. She heated the coffee again and sat down in the chair by the window. Can’t do anything more now, she thought, no sense trying to improve anything the last minute.

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. “I used to be a wonderful cook,” she had promised Jamie, “with a little time and practice I could remember how to make angel-food cake. And fried chicken,” she said, knowing how the words would stay in Jamie’s mind, half-tenderly. “And Hollandaise sauce.”

Ten-thirty. She stood up and went purposefully to the phone. She dialed, and waited, and the girl’s metallic voice said, “…the time will be exactly ten-thirty-nine.” Half-consciously she set her clock back a minute; she was remembering her own voice saying last night, in the doorway: “Ten o’clock then. I’ll be ready. Is it really true?”

And Jamie laughing down the hallway.

By eleven o’clock she had sewed up the ripped seam in the print dress and put her sewing-box away carefully in the closet. With the print dress on, she was sitting by the window drinking another cup of coffee. I could have taken more time over my dressing after all, she thought; but by now he was so late he might come any minute, and she did not dare try to repair anything without starting all over. There was nothing to eat in the apartment except the food she had carefully stocked up for their life beginning together: the unopened package of bacon, the dozen eggs in their box, the unopened bread and the unopened butter; they were for breakfast tomorrow. She thought of running downstairs to the drugstore for something to eat, leaving a note on the door. Then she decided to wait a little longer.

By eleven-thirty she was so dizzy and weak that she had to go downstairs. If Jamie had had a phone she would have called him then. Instead, she opened her desk and wrote a note: “Jamie, have gone downstairs to the drugstore. Back in five minutes.” Her pen leaked onto her fingers and she went into the bathroom and washed, using a clean towel which she replaced. She tacked the note on the door, surveyed the apartment once more to make sure that everything was perfect, and closed the door without locking it, in case he should come.

In the drugstore she found that there was nothing she wanted to eat except more coffee, and she left it half-finished because she suddenly realized that Jamie was probably upstairs waiting and impatient, anxious to get started.

But upstairs everything was prepared and quiet, as she had left it, her note unread on the door, the air in the apartment a little stale from too many cigarettes. She opened the window and sat down to it until she realized that she had been asleep and it was twenty minutes to one.

Now, suddenly she was frightened. Waking without preparation into the room of waiting and readiness, everything clean and untouched since ten o’clock, she was frightened, and almost ran across the room to the bathroom, dashed cold water on her face, and used a clean towel; this time she put the towel carefully back on the rack without changing it; time enough for that later. Hatless, still in the print dress with a coat thrown on over it, the wrong blue pocketbook with the aspirin inside in her hand, she locked the apartment door behind her, no note this time, and ran down the stairs. She caught a taxi on the corner and gave the driver Jamie’s address.

It was no distance at all; she could have walked it if she had not been so weak, but in the taxi she suddenly realized how imprudent it would be to drive brazenly up to Jamie’s door, demanding him. She asked the driver, therefore, to let her off at a corner near Jamie’s and, after paying him, waited till he drove away before she started to walk down the block. She had never been here before; the building was pleasant and old, and Jamie’s name was not on any of the mailboxes in the vestibule, nor on the doorbells. She checked the address; it was right, and finally she rang the bell marked “Superintendent.” After a minute or two the door buzzer rang and she opened the door and went into the dark hall where she hesitated until a door at the end opened and someone said, “Yes?”

She knew at the same moment that she had no idea what to ask, so she moved forward toward the figure waiting against the light of the open doorway. When she was very near, the figure said, “Yes?” again and she saw that it was a man in his shirtsleeves, unable to see her any more clearly than she could see him.

With sudden courage she said, “I’m trying to get in touch with someone who lives in this building and I can’t find the name outside.”

“What’s the name you want?” the man asked, and she realized that she would have to answer.

“James Harris,” she said. “Harris.”

The man was silent for a minute and then he said, “Harris.” He turned around to the room inside the lighted doorway and said, “Margie, come here a minute.”

“What now?” a voice said from inside, and after a wait long enough for someone to get out of a comfortable chair a woman joined him in the doorway, regarding the dark hall. “Lady here,” the man said. “Lady looking for a guy name of Harris, lives here. Anyone in the building?

“No,” the woman said. Her voice sounded amused. “No men named Harris here.”

“Sorry,” the man said. He started to close the door. “You got the wrong house, lady,” he said, and added in a lower voice, “or the wrong guy,” and he and the woman laughed.

When the door was almost shut and she was alone in the dark hall she said to the thin lighted crack still showing, “But he does live here; I know it.”

“Look,” the woman said, opening the door again a little, “it happens all the time.”

“Please don’t make any mistake,” she said, and her voice was very dignified, with thirty-four years of accumulated pride. “I’m afraid you don’t understand.”

“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,” the woman said, 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.”

“That might be it; I thought, though…”

“This one wore a blue suit mostly, but I don’t know how tall he was,” the woman said. He stayed there about a month.”

“A month ago is when—“

“You ask the Roysters,” the woman said. “They come back this morning. Apartment 3B.”

The door closed, definitely. The hall was very dark and the stairs looked darker.

On the second floor there was a little light from a skylight far above. The apartment doors lined up, four on the floor, uncommunicative and silent. There was a bottle of milk outside 2C.

On the third floor she waited for a minute. There was the sound of music beyond the door of 3B, and she could hear voices. Finally she knocked, and knocked again. The door was opened and the music swept out at her, an early afternoon symphony broadcast. “How do you do,” she said politely to the woman in the doorway. “Mrs. Royster?”

“That’s right.” The woman was wearing a housecoat and last night’s makeup.

“I wonder if I might talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure, Mrs. Royster said, not moving.

“About Mr. Harris.”

What Mr. Harris?” Mrs. Royster said flatly.

“Mr. James Harris. The gentleman who borrowed your apartment.”

“O Lord,” Mrs. Royster said. She seemed to open her eyes for the first time. “What’d he do?”

“Nothing. I’m just trying to get in touch with him.”

“O Lord,” Mrs. Royster said again. Then she opened the door wider and said, “Come in,” and then, “Ralph!”

Inside, the apartment was still full of music, and there were suitcases half-unpacked on the couch, on the chairs, on the floor, A table in the corner was spread with the remains of a meal, and the young man sitting there, for a moment resembling Jamie, got up and came across the room.

“What about it?” he said.

“Mr. Royster,” she said. It was difficult to talk against the music. “The superintendent downstairs told me that this was where Mr. James Harris was living.”

“Sure,” he said. “If that was his name.”

“I thought you lent him the apartment,” she said, surprised.

“I don’t know anything about him,” Mr. Royster said. “He’s one of Dottie’s friends.”

“Not my friends,” Mrs. Royster said. “No friend of mine.” She had gone over to the table and was spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. She took a bite and said thickly, waving the bread and peanut butter at her husband. “Not my friend.”

“She picked him up at one of those damn meetings,” Mr. Royster said. He shoved a suitcase off the chair next to the radio and sat down, picking up a magazine from the floor next to him. “I never said more’n ten words to him.”

“You said it was okay to lend him the place,” Mrs. Royster said before she took another bite. “You never said a word against him, after all.”

“I don’t say anything about your friends,” Mr. Royster said.

“If he’d of been a friend of mine you would have said plenty, believe me,” Mrs. Royster said darkly. She took another bite and said, “Believe me, he would have said plenty.”

“That’s all I want to hear,” Mr. Royster said, over the top of the magazine. “No more now.”

“You see.” Mrs. Royster pointed the bread and peanut butter at her husband. “That’s the way it is, day and night.”

There was silence except for the music bellowing out of the radio next to Mr. Royster, and then she said, in a voice she hardly trusted to be heard over the radio noise, “Has he gone, then?”

“Who?” Mrs. Royster demanded, looking up from the peanut butter jar.

“Mr. James Harris.”

“Him? He must’ve left this morning, before we got back. No sign of him anywhere.”


“Everything was fine, though, perfectly fine. I told you,” she said to Mr. Royster, “I told you he’d take care of everything fine. I can always tell.”

“You were lucky,” Mr. Royster said.

“Not a thing out of place,” Mrs. Royster said. She waved her bread and peanut butter inclusively. “Everything just the way we left it,” she said.

“Do you know where he is now?”

“Not the slightest idea,” Mrs. Royster said cheerfully. “But, like I said, he left everything fine. Why?” she asked suddenly. “You looking for him?”

“It’s not very important.”

“I’m sorry he’s not here,” Mrs. Royster said. She stepped forward politely when she saw her visitor turn toward the door.

“Maybe the super saw him,” Mr. Royster said into the magazine.

When the door was closed behind her the hall was dark again, but the sound of the radio was deadened. She was halfway down the first flight of stairs when the door was opened and Mrs. Royster shouted down the stairwell, “If I see him I’ll tell him you were looking for him.”

What can I do? She thought, out on the street again. It was impossible to go home, not with Jamie somewhere between here and there. She stood on the sidewalk so long that a woman, leaning out of a window across the way, turned and called to someone inside to come and see. Finally, on an impulse, she went into the small delicatessen next door to the apartment house, on the side that led to her own apartment. There was a small man reading a newspaper, leaning against the counter; when she came in he looked up and came down inside the counter to meet her.

Over the glass case of cold meats and cheese she said, timidly, “I’m trying to get in touch with a man who lived in the apartment house next door, and I just wondered if you know him.”

“Whyn’t you ask the people there? The man said, his eyes narrow, inspecting her.

It’s because I’m not buying anything, she thought, and she said, “I’m sorry. I asked them, but they don’t know anything about him. They think he left this morning.”

“I don’t know what you want me to do,” he said, moving a little back toward his newspaper. “I’m not here to keep track of guys going in and out next door.”

She said quickly, “I thought you might have noticed, that’s all. He would have been coming past here, a little before ten o’clock. He was rather tall, and he usually wore a blue suit.”

“Now how many men in blue suits go past here every day, lady?” the man demanded. “You think I got nothing to do but—“

“I’m sorry,” she said. She heard him say, “For God’s sake,” as she went out the door.

As she walked toward the corner, the thought, he must have come this way, it’s the way he’d go to get to my house, it’s the only way for him to walk. She tried to think of Jamie: where would he have crossed the street? What sort of person was he actually—would he cross in front of his own apartment house, at random in the middle of the block, at the corner?

On the corner was a newsstand; they might have seen him there. She hurried on and waited while a man bought a paper and a woman asked directions. When the newsstand man looked at her, she said, “Can you possibly tell me if a rather tall young man in a blue suit went past here this morning around ten o’clock?” When the man only looked at her, his eyes wide and his mouth a little open, she thought, he thinks it’s a joke or a trick, and she said urgently, “It’s very important, please believe me. I’m not teasing you.”

Look, lady,” the man began, and she said eagerly, “He’s a writer. He might have bought magazines here.”

“What you want him for?” the man asked. He looked at her, smiling, and she realized that there was another man waiting in back of her and the newsdealer’s smile included him. “Never mind,” she said, but the newsdealer said, “Listen, maybe he did come by here.” His smile was knowing and his eyes shifted over her shoulder to the man in back of her. She was suddenly horribly aware of her over-young print dress, and pulled her coat around her quickly. The newsdealer said, with vast thoughtfulness, “Now I don’t know for sure, mind you, but there might have been someone like your gentleman friend coming by this morning.”

“About ten?”

“About ten,” the newsdealer agreed. “Tall fellow, blue suit. I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”

“Which way did he go?” she said eagerly. “Uptown?”

“Uptown,” the newsdealer said, nodding. He went uptown. That’s just exactly it. What can I do for you, sir?”

She stepped back, holding her coat around her. The man who had been standing behind her looked at her over his shoulder and then he and the newsdealer looked at one another. She wondered for a minute whether or not to tip the newsdealer but when both men began to laugh she moved hurriedly on across the street.

Uptown, she thought, that’s right, and she started up the avenue, thinking: He wouldn’t have to cross the avenue, just go up six blocks and turn down my street, so long as he started uptown. About a block farther on she passed a florist’s shop; there was a wedding display in the window and she thought, This is my wedding day after all, he might have gotten flowers to bring me, and she went inside. The florist came out of the back of the shop, smiling and sleek, and she said, before he could speak, so that he wouldn’t have a chance to think she was buying anything: “It’s terribly important that I get in touch with a gentleman who may have stopped in here to buy flowers this morning. Terribly important.”

She stopped for breath, and the florist said, “Yes, what sort of flowers were they?”

“I don’t know,” she said, surprised. “He never—“ She stopped and said, “He was a rather tall young man, in a blue suit. It was about ten o’clock.”

“I see,” the florist said. “Well, really, I’m afraid…”

“But it’s so important,” she said. “He may have been in a hurry,” she added helpfully.

“Well,” the florist said. He smiled genially, showing all his small teeth. “For a lady,” he said. He went to a stand and opened a large book. “Where were they to be sent?” he asked.

“Why,” she said, “I don’t think he’d have sent them. You see, he was coming—that is, he’d bring them.”

“Madam,” the florist said; he was offended. His smile became deprecatory, and he went on, “Really, you must realize that unless I have something to go on…”

Please try to remember,” she begged. “He was tall, and had a blue suit, and it was about ten this morning.”

The florist closed his eyes, one finger to his mouth, and thought deeply. Then he shook his head. “I simply can’t,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said despondently, and started for the door, when the florist said in a shrill, excited voice, “Wait! Wait just a moment, madam.” She turned and the florist, thinking again, said finally, “Chrysanthemums?” He looked at her inquiringly.

“Oh, no,” she said; her voice shook a little and she waited for a minute before she went on. “Not for an occasion like this, I’m sure.”

The florist tightened his lips and looked away coldly. “Well, of course I don’t know the occasion,” he said, “but I’m almost certain that the gentleman you were inquiring for came in this morning and purchased one dozen chrysanthemums. No delivery.”

“You’re sure?” she asked.

“Positive,” the florist said emphatically. “That was absolutely the man.” He smiled brilliantly, and she smiled back and said, “Well, thank you very much.”

He escorted her to the door. “Nice corsage?” he said, as said as they went through the shop. “Red roses? Gardenias?”

“It was very kind of you to help me,” she said at the door.

“Ladies always look their best in flowers,” he said, bending his head toward her. “Orchids perhaps?”

“No, thank you,” she said, and he said, “I hope you find your young man,” and gave it a nasty sound.

Going on up the street she thought, Everyone thinks it’s so funny: and she pulled her coat tighter around her, so that only the ruffle around the bottom of the print dress was showing.

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 them any 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 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.”

The police were obviously impossible, leaving out Jamie and what he might think when he heard she’d set the police after him. “No, no,” she said aloud, hurrying her steps, and someone passing stopped and looked after her.

On the coming corner—she was three blocks from her own street—was a shoeshine stand, an old man sitting almost asleep in one of the chairs. She stopped in front of him and waited, after a minute he opened his eyes and smiled at her.

“Look,” she said, the words coming before the thought of them, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for a young man who came up this way about ten this morning, did you see him?” And she began her description, “Tall, blue suit, carrying a bunch of flowers?”

The old man began to nod before she was finished. “I saw him,” he said. “Friend of yours?”

“Yes,” she said, and smiled back involuntarily.

The old man blinked his eyes and said, “I remember I thought, You’re going to see your girl, young fellow. They all go to see their girls,” he said, and shook his head tolerantly.

“Which way did he go? Straight on up the avenue?”

“That’s right,” the old man said. “Got a shine, had his flowers, all dressed up, in an awful hurry. You got a girl, I thought.”

“Thank you,” she said, fumbling in her pocket for her loose change.

“She sure must have been glad to see him, the way he looked,” the old man said.

“Thank you,” she said again, and brought her hand empty from her pocket.

For the first time she was really sure he would be waiting for her, and she hurried up the three blocks, the skirt of the print dress swinging under her coat, and turned into her own block. From the corner she could not see her own windows, could not see Jamie looking out, waiting for her, and going down the block she was almost running to get to him. Her key trembled in her fingers at the downstairs door, and as she glanced into the drugstore she thought of her panic, drinking coffee there this morning, and almost laughed. At her own door she could wait no longer, but began to say, “Jamie, I’m here, I as so worried,” even before the door was open.

Her own apartment was waiting for her, silent, barren, afternoon shadows lengthening from the window. For a minute she saw only the empty coffee cup, thought, He has been here waiting, before she recognized it as her own, left from the morning. She looked all over the room, into the closet, into the bathroom.

“I never saw him,” the clerk in the drugstore said. “I know because I would of noticed the flowers. No one like that’s been in.”

The old man at the shoeshine stand woke up again to see her standing in front of him. “Hello again,” he said, and smiled.

“Are you sure?” she demanded. “Did he go on up the avenue?”

“I watched him,” the old man said, dignified against her tone. “I thought, There’s a young man got a girl, and I watched him right into the house.”

“What house?” she said remotely.

“Right there,” the old man said. He leaned forward to point. “The next block. With his flowers and his shine and going to see his girl. Right into her house.”

“Which one?” she said.

“About the middle of the block,” the old man said. He looked at her with suspicion and said, “What are you trying to do, anyway?”

She almost ran, without stopping to say “Thank you.” Up on the next block she walked quickly, searching the houses from the outside to see if Jamie looked from a window, listening to hear his laughter somewhere inside.

A woman was sitting in front of one of the houses, pushing a baby carriage monotonously back and forth the length of her arm. The baby inside slept, moving back and forth.

The question was fluent, by now. “I’m sorry, but did you see a young man go into one of these houses about ten this morning? He was tall, wearing a blue suit, carrying a bunch of flowers.”

A boy about twelve stopped to listen, turning intently from one to the other, occasionally glancing at the baby.

“Listen,” the woman said tiredly, “the kid has his bath at ten. Would I see strange men walking around? I ask you?”

“Big bunch of flowers?” the boy asked, pulling at her coat. “Big bunch of flowers? I see him, missus.”

She looked down and the boy grinned insolently at her. “Which house did he go in?” she asked wearily.

“You gonna divorce him?” the boy asked insistently?

“That’s not nice to ask the lady,” the woman rocking the carriage said.

“Listen,” the boy said. “I seen him. He went in there.” He pointed to the house next door. “I followed him,” the boy said. “He give me a quarter.” The boy dropped his voice to a growl, and said, “’This is a big day for me, kid,’ he says. Give me a quarter.”

She gave him a dollar bill. “Where?” she said.

“Top floor,” the boy said. “I followed him till he give me the quarter. Way to the top.” He backed up the sidewalk, out of reach, with the dollar bill. “You gonna divorce him?” he asked again.

“Was he carrying flowers?”

“Yeah,” the boy said. He began to screech. “You gonna divorce him, missus? You got something on him? He went careening down the street, howling, “She’s got something on the poor guy,” and the woman rocking the baby laughed.

The street door of the apartment house was unlocked; there were no bells in the outer vestibule, and no lists of names. The stairs were narrow and dirty; there were two doors on the top floor. The front one was the right one; there was a crumpled florist’s paper on the floor outside the door, and a knotted paper ribbon, like a clue, like the final clue in the paper-chase.

She knocked, and thought she heard voices inside, and she thought, suddenly, with terror, What shall I say if Jamie is there, if he comes to the door? The voices seemed suddenly still. She knocked again and there was silence, except for something that might have been laughter far away. He could have seen me from the window, she thought, it’s the front apartment and that little boy made a dreadful noise. She waited, and knocked again, but there was silence.

Finally she went to the other door on the floor, and knocked. The door swung open beneath her hand and she saw the empty attic room, bare lath on the walls, floorboards unpainted. She stepped just inside, looking around; the room was filled with bags of plaster, piles of old newspapers, a broken trunk. There was a noise which she suddenly realized as a rat, and then she saw it, sitting very close to her, near the wall, its evil face alert, bright eyes watching her. She stumbled in her haste to be out with the door closed, and the skirt of the print dress caught and tore.

She knew there was someone inside the other apartment, because she was sure she could hear low voices and sometimes laughter. She came back many times, every day for the first week. She came on her way to work, in the mornings; in the evenings, on her way to dinner alone, but no matter how often or how firmly she knocked, no one ever came to the door.

35 thoughts on ““The Daemon Lover” by Shirley Jackson

  1. As truly mysterious, unnerving and quietly dislocating an atmosphere as Ms. Jackson conjured up in “The Daemon Lover”, nonetheless I’ve always believed that the subtext of the story was about the terrifying, possibly mind-wrecking insecurity many women experience in their relationships with men who never actually commit to them, whose presence in their lives remains as nebulous and as shadowy as stingy ghosts. This interpretation is not a feminist response to the story. I’m a fifty-five year old man whose first impression of “The Daemon Lover” was formed as a teenager and still hasn’t changed.

    I look forward to visiting your site again, and soon. Reading and writing bring such mutlifaceted pleasures into our lives, and it’s even more gratifying to see literary values being nurtured and celebrated on the Web in sites such as yours.

    Thanks for posting the story.


    1. A very effective and memorable story. Everybody knows Shirley Jackson for “The Lottery,” but for my money “The Daemon Lover” is a much better story. Thanks for your insights.

      1. i do agree with you. “The Lottery” is nice but maybe it is too simple and is written in a popular way. “The Daemon Lover” makes you feel like watching a movie, you can feel the anxiety as the character does.

  2. It seems best, rather than mere feminist neurosis, to pull the lens out further, and see the “Daemon Lover” as a succinct depiction of personal virtuality. How wasteful that Shirley Jackson is always thought of as woman first. It seems richer to think of her as a chronicler of the artificiality of all personal narratives.

    1. Matthew, I don’t think you meant to write anything offensive, but I’m not sure if you’re aware of how sexist your comment is. I’d like you to compare this to a story that has racial subtext. Would you ever respond to it by saying “rather than mere African-American neurosis…”

      Of course The Daemon Lover has a meaning and a message that men can relate to as well, but its feminist subtext is part of what’s great about it. And the idea that you would think it’s a shame that Shirley Jackson was thought of as a woman first is part of the problem. Being a woman is a great thing, just as being a man is a great thing, too.

      1. bitch this woman was about to marry a fucking ghost this is not showing “sexist” thoughts or showing “feminism” this woman is mentally ill.

      2. well said. There are lot of men who dont want to commit to a women they just use them and run away. mr. mathew wont understand all that as he might also be doing the same to some women

  3. I love this story but the operative word lies in the title. Daemon means either a being between gods and humans or, more commonly, is an earlier spelling of Demon.

    Certainly Shirley Jackson combines the reality of a woman of her time, whose primary function was to marry and have children and who is afraid of being left a spinster all her life, with a classic- and very subtle – tale of the supernatural.

    The ending mentioning the desolate empty room full of rubbish and more importantly, the image of the rat (used to great effect in Bram Stoker’s classic tale The Judge’s House) is a clear indication, as are the sounds of laughter behind the closed door. The female is not insane and does not hear things other than when she stands in front of the apartment.

    Jackson’s The Tooth is even more disturbing because you just don’t know where she ends up.

    1. It’s sad that you can’t see the beauty of this story. If it’s dull or confusing to you, perhaps you simply don’t have the capacity to process it or determine any literary devices. Please take just one ninth grade English class, at least.

  4. Through characterization, Shirley Jackson, in her short story “The Demon Lover” demonstrated a woman struggle in the face of a male-dominated society.

  5. Honestly bruh this story was mid. It felt like a whole ass build up and accumulation for kind of a blue-ball ending. The subtext and message this story conveys, however, is very powerful, and will probably keep me thinking about it for the next week. I thought it was interesting how insecure and meticulous the main character was about her appearance and what her fiancé thought of her. Her character denounces the sexist and patriarchal society of Jackson’s time, while still pertaining to today. But I’m finna keep it real bruh that plot was straight ass. On god that shit just went on and on (mf was like 20 pages long) and never really ended in anything satisfying (perhaps how this James Harris dude couldnt satisfy his fiancé). Shit was anti-climactic asf i give it a 5/10

    1. To Sandal… I find it interesting that you didn’t like it and you Express it with slang and cursing on a literary website. I like Shirley Jackson and have since highschool. I understand it better now at 45 than I did then due to life experience and continuing education. Yes times were very different in her day, but love and our reactions to it are. In some ways universally the same. I hope you learn to appreciate Shirley Jackson a little better😊

  6. This story is timeless. It is a story of a man taking advance of a woman’s trust and perhaps naivety. It is story of wholesomeness of a woman and her abrupt awakening. She may never trust again – that is a sad effect – to not trust again.

  7. This is one of the most chilling and haunting short stories. The description of a woman of that time, the expectations and humiliations she endures, her sense of being too old, her clothing too youthful – all the insecurities women have felt forever, but certainly moreso before Women’s Lib. I have read it many times over the years, and it never fails to engage me instantly and cause intense anxiety as she makes her way through her day/days, never certain of anything ever again.

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