Guest blogging here in October Country today is Maryelizabeth Hart, my wife and occasional collaborator, and also publicity manager of Mysterious Galaxy, the specialty sf/fantasy/mystery/horror bookstore we own with a third partner, in San Diego.
Her topic is Shirley Jackson--certainly an author worthy of being profiled during this month-long celebration of horror. Not only is Jackson a fine writer, but some remarkable films have been made adapting her work, most notably The Haunting, which might just be the best horror movie in the history of movies. The original one, not that travesty from a couple of years ago.
Without further ado, here's Maryelizabeth's take:
“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”
-- We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Last weekend I spent a few hours staffing the tables of the Friends of the Douglas Library Book Sale at the Two Flags Festival of the Arts. It was held in one of our local parks, and I went down early for my shift, as it had rained the night before. Fortunately a combination of tents, tarps and watchful security kept most of the books safe. As the first staff member at the park, I had the advantage of being able to eyeball the many donations as I oriented myself with the layout. My most joyful discovery was eight Shirley Jackson books in their Popular Library editions, the editions I remember reading in my public library in my youth. I can’t remember another occasion when $2.00 has brought me so much happiness. True, I may not read these copies seated in my parents’ apple tree, but in all honesty, I suspect the tree probably wouldn’t be as comfortable a seat for an adult woman as it was for the adolescent version of me.
Weirdly enough, for as passionately as I adore Shirley Jackson and her works, I don’t remember when I first encountered her writing, or which work it was. I remember that when we were assigned “The Lottery” in middle-school English, I was already familiar with other works of hers, most especially, of course, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
In some ways, I think her writing led to my appreciation of Stephen King. When I first read Carrie, not only was I ripe for a tale of mother / teen-age daughter conflict because I was at that stage myself, but also Jackson had laid the groundwork for that kind of suburban horror. Before Nancy Holder bore the “Housewife of Horror” crown (see here), Jackson wore it deservedly. Hers was not the exotic world of H.P. Lovecraft or Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker, hers was a world of horror that lay in the house next door – or maybe just in the minds of its inhabitants.
“Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its 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.”
-- The Haunting of Hill House
One of the best things about The Haunting of Hill House, of course, is the way Jackson gives just enough detail to vividly transport the reader to those long hallways with thundering sounds and ghostly laughter and clasped hands in the night … but still leaves what exactly happened to Eleanor Vance and the rest of her party, and who was responsible, to the reader’s interpretation. I have read the book multiple times, and emerged with equally deep conviction at different times that the phenomena were: caused by a supernatural presence in the house; caused by Eleanor suffering from some form of dementia; and a combination thereof.
“Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.”
-- “The Lottery”
One of my favorite non-fiction pieces by Jackson is her essay in Come Along With Me, where she discusses the public’s response to “The Lottery” appearing in the New Yorker. Her tone, as she commemorates the letters the magazine received, is that of a bemused parent, who has sent a child into the world and is slightly taken aback by the world’s response to her offspring. While I am appreciative of the body of Jackson’s writing, from her pre-Erma Bombeck tales of her family to her children’s books, including 9 Magic Wishes, the reason Shirley Jackson holds a special place in my heart is for her slightly skewed views of the world that leave me and other readers wondering whose perspective is to be trusted – ours or hers.