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Some Thoughts on Shirley Jackson
"The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock" — from "The Lottery"
I had an encounter at the library a few weeks ago which returned Shirley Jackson to the forefront of my thoughts.
She is always there, one way or another. Some writers never loosen their grip on you. Especially those discovered during your formative years, when the brain is at its most absorbent, and reading can still seem a transformative experience. I remember the exact moment when I encountered Shirley Jackson’s work for the first time. It was at the paperback rack in the neighborhood convenience store where The Haunting of Hill House caught my eye, the movie tie-in edition with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom on the cover.
I had been on a steady diet of spooky stories, with no discernible effect on my impressionable psyche; but that night I made the mistake of reading the entire novel in one sitting (in an empty apartment) and experienced something I hadn’t known before, a sort of genuine dread, although at that tender age I wasn’t precisely sure of what.
For all you Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz fans, I advise you in advance that this is not the kind of story where zombies come lurching after people, munching on intestines. Its unnatural elements are far subtler. Who was holding Eleanor’s hand? What was the smell in the library which made it impossible for her to enter (always a valid question for librarians)? How did the dog (or whatever it was) get into the house at night? Was Eleanor alone in the car? While there seem to be genuinely supernatural elements at work in Hill House, the underlying fear is that of a fragile mind slowly losing control of itself, of a personality dissolving into something other. Even as a boy I sensed this. That other is Hill House itself, which has as much substance as any of the other characters in the book.
“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
What I might not have understood during that first reading were the subversive elements at work. There are hints of desire. There is a whisper of lesbianism. There is a game of power being played among the four ghost hunters. And there is Eleanor Vance herself, a fascinating character whose empty, fettered life finally, in the haunted confines of Hill House, begins to assume shape and meaning. Over the years I’ve reread this novel many times but, even knowing where the shocks lurk, I can still work up a fair approximation of that original dread. That, I believe, is because each reading brings a new angle or perspective to the characters, a sense of them as messy, autonomous beings who might at any moment violate the story which encloses them and act in unexpected ways.
When I finished The Haunting of Hill House, I went on to explore all of Shirley Jackson’s books and stories and even now, many years later, continue to be both moved and disturbed by her images of loneliness, dissociation, and violence. She has become a part of my mental terrain, impossible to dismiss. While I know that Shirley Jackson is not exactly a household name, many people who have never heard of her still seem to know the short story “The Lottery.”
It is a staple of high school literary anthologies, where I imagine it inspires countless essays on the story’s hidden meaning; but I think this is an oddly inappropriate setting, akin to hearing John Lennon for the first time in a supermarket. While high school students can certainly comprehend the story’s obvious violent implications, I think it takes a few years of adult bruising, more than a little paranoia, and a repeated acquaintance with the horrors of the daily newspaper to understand what’s really going on when that first stone is picked up. This story drew more comment when it first appeared in the New Yorker than any other piece in that magazine’s history. Most letter-writers were bewildered and demanded an explanation; others, in a frenzy of illiteracy and anger, accused Jackson of Communism, witchcraft, and a variety of other even less savory practices. (Think of the comments posted on almost any You Tube clip for a modern equivalent.)
Although “The Lottery” is a powerful and iconic story, I don’t necessarily think it is Shirley Jackson’s best. She wrote in a variety of styles and explored a number of themes, and many more complex and ambiguous stories are to be found in her collections The Lottery and the posthumously published Come Along With Me. The single woman in “The Daemon Lover” who sets off in search of the fiancé who abandoned her on the morning they were to be married (and may not, in fact, ever have existed) is a particular favorite. “Pillar of Salt,” “The Tooth,” and “A Day in the Jungle” also depict the dissonant and fragmented lives of women set against the backdrop of a New York City as carefully drawn as an Edward Hopper painting. Another collection of unpublished and previously uncollected stories titled Just an Ordinary Day, first issued in 1996, is not the place to begin an appreciation of Shirley Jackson, as some of the stories are uneven. Once her major work has been read, however, and there are prickling regrets that nothing more will be forthcoming, this is a book to be infinitely grateful for.
The early novels are well worth seeking out, whether in the circulating libraries or, for the more obscure ones, the research collection. (I have linked to the circulating copy where one exists and the reference copy where one does not.) The Road Through the Wall, Hangsaman, The Sundial, and The Bird’s Nest are very much a part of me now, and I can never shake off their disquieting effects. Although the plots of these novels are wildly different, they share a peculiar unease that comes when the commonplace and the fantastic intertwine so closely that it is impossible to tell one from another.
In many ways, Shirley Jackson is the most naturalistic of writers, offering as clear a dissection of American attitudes and ambiance throughout the forties and fifties as you are likely to find. Much of this fiction takes place in the kind of bucolic American town we have all passed through at one time or another, with manicured lawns, colorful gardens, perfect little homes--and underneath it all a sense of foulness almost palpable. The Road Through the Wall chronicles the effects of a three-year old girl’s disappearance on the residents of a small town; their prevailing mood is “one of keen excitement: no one there really wanted Caroline Desmond safe at home.”
Hangsaman’s Natalie Waite, a seventeen year old removed from her parents' cloistered world and sent to a small women’s college, begins to experience increasingly schizophrenic episodes, until she meets a strange girl named Tony who will either strengthen her identity or consume it. For apocalypse enthusiasts, The Sundial tells the story of a group of eccentrics gathered in a garish monstrosity of an old house (a precursor of Hill House) to await the end of the world. And The Bird’s Nest presents four vividly differentiated characters who happen to be parts of the splintered personality of a single young woman. The opening of her final completed novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, almost defies you not to read on:
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
In many ways, this is Shirley Jackson’s most perfect work but also the most difficult to describe. It takes various elements of gothic fiction and elevates them to something far more difficult and disturbing. While the ghosts of Hill House are frightening, the violence of the idiot mob in this novel is something I can never let go of, one of the cruelest episodes in all fiction, and one which seems as pertinent today as when it was first written. It makes “The Lottery” feel like a church social.
After reading Shirley Jackson’s other work, it is curious to encounter her fictionalized memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. These linked tales of raising four children in a huge white house with pillars are funny, charming, truthful, and deeply humane, but it is hard to reconcile the mother stirring pots of chocolate pudding and the housewife driving her husband (the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman) to his college job with the author of one of the world’s most famous stories of ritualized evil. These contradictions are analyzed in the excellent biography Private Demons: A Life of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer.
I do not know what Shirley Jackson’s academic standing is right now, but I’m well aware that the afterlife of many writers is founded on how many dissertations are written about them. I also know that this is not the way most people discover an author for the first time. One of the secret pleasures of my job at the library has been the opportunity of encountering perfect strangers at the reference desk and finding--in those few moments when our lives intersect--that we share the same reading enthusiasms.
As I mentioned when I started out this lengthy post, I recently met a young woman at the library who was in some confusion about whether or not she could borrow a book from the research collection. I went to the computer to help, and when I asked the title of the novel, she said it was The Haunting of Hill House. Although I generally avoid such temptations, I couldn’t resist telling her this was one of my favorites and asked how she had heard of the book, wondering if it was from seeing the wonderful 1963 film version or even the abortive 1999 remake. She said that Shirley Jackson was one of her mother’s favorite authors, and The Haunting of Hill House one of her favorite books.
That is how authors will endure, I thought, passed from person to person and generation to generation and culminating in a trip to the library. I located a copy of the novel at the Mid-Manhattan library, where it was waiting to be checked out, and sent her across the street to pick it up.
Book jacket images from the Shirley Jackson Book Cover Project.