Showing posts with label Shirley Jackson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shirley Jackson. Show all posts

09 October 2021

So Good, She's Scary



It's October, and for the season I'll swim out alone to the literary lake's deep pool, where the water turns dark and you can't see the bottom and something just brushed against my feet.

Let's talk Shirley Jackson.

That Shirley Jackson, the self-proclaimed witchcraft dabbler and landmark American author. In 1948, Jackson wrote "The Lottery," among the most celebrated of short stories. In 1962's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson created a masterfully enduring--and deranged--lead character, Merricat Blackwood. 

Original 1952 cover

In between, Jackson pulled off The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Many consider it the finest haunted house novel, period--because it's not about ghosts. Don't misunderstand. At Hill House, things definitely go bump in the night.  But the novel's genius is in its layers beneath, a study of what haunts our own minds. 

The novel's synopsis: Dr. John Montague, an anthropologist secretly pursuing paranormal studies, craves hard proof that disbelieving peers would have to accept. To get it, Montague spends above his means to rent the notoriously haunted Hill House for the summer. Hill House, built 80 years earlier by the spiteful and greed-mongering Hugh Crain, who believed himself damned to hell. The sprawling house had only known dead wives and suicides and shut-in orphans. Constant tragedy and abandoned ownership led to village rumors of curses and the supernatural, or as Jackson wrote it, "whatever walks there, walks alone." 

Montague won't dare name this whatever until he's documented it scientifically. To draw out activity, Montague invites potential guests with paranormal brushes or apparent psychic ability. Everyone roundly declines or ignores the invite except the "bohemian" artist Theodora--just Theodora--and our protagonist Eleanor Vance. After her father died, Eleanor had a run-in with poltergeists--or likely her own burgeoning psychokinesis. Whatever it was, it rained stones on the Vance home for days. Her family  speaks no more of it. Rounding out the group is rakish Luke Sanderson, the owner's nephew sent to keep precautionary tabs on both house and guests--and to shake some adulthood into him. Luke is set to inherit Hill House. 

The four settle in amid the suffocating gloom. The house is vile, Eleanor thinks on arrival, but we've already learned her mind runs amok on its own. Still, she's not wrong. Hill House is designed to confound with corridor mazes, rounded corners, and architecture built off-angle. Wallpaper patterns turn the eye dizzy. Cold drafts abound. Doors won't stay open, even when propped. Eleanor's rampant imagination is our lens, through her initial dread, her exhilaration to have stumbled upon friends, her surprise at a restful sleep and a sense of belonging. 

And there's the novel's magic: belonging, where we do and where we don't.

Montague's invite is the escape Eleanor has waited to grab. To then, Eleanor hasn't made a single human connection in her thirty-two years alive. She hated her recently-deceased mother, who Eleanor nursed through a slow death, and Eleanor hates her sole surviving family member, the sister who keeps Eleanor as a nanny. A litany of doubts and assumptions blaze through Eleanor's head for every thought she risks sharing. Her calming ritual is a whispered saying that dear Mother taught, dear Mother who died on Eleanor's watch. "Journeys end in lovers meeting," a line Shakespeare wrote for Twelfth Night's court fool. 

What Eleanor really wants is to shut herself off from the world. On her drive to Hill House, Eleanor marvels at each New England cottage as a quaint shelter--if perfected with high walls and oleander hedgerows. Eleanor is clueless how stunted being locked away has left her, that her over-indulgence of someday dreams crowds out real human contact here and now. It's a safe and beautiful retreat--that beckons delusion and isolation if one rambles there too long. Eleanor has rambled there those thirty-two years. When others don't recognize her inner depth, out lashes her resentment-fueled temper. 

Eleanor isn't someone to make angry. Even Hill House finds that out.

Hill House conjures manifestations in due course, but Jackson hardly bothers showing the ghosts. The only spectral event directly on the page is a vision Eleanor has beside the manor's brook, of a family enjoying a picnic.  Otherwise, things stay corner-of-the-eye, and the nightly presence stays banging and giggling outside of bedroom doors. It's fear Jackson focuses on. Our houseguests are most afraid of what they might experience, and it stops them from flinging open doors and confronting what walks there.

As the manifestations grow more violent, Eleanor's psychokinesis becomes plausible--and formidable. Every supernatural incident in the novel can be pinned on Eleanor, be it a wild imagining or stress hallucination or her paranormal gifts. Whenever Eleanor is thinking of dear old Mother or has her pride wounded, Hill House lurches alive.

And it comes regularly for Theodora. Theo is the anti-Eleanor, elegant and confident and outwardly rebel. Eleanor needs a home and purpose, Montague needs peer acceptance, and Luke needs to earn his inheritance. Theo doesn't even need a last name. Theo only rushed to Hill House last minute after a major fight with her live-in "friend." My Nell, Theo dubs Eleanor as soon as they get acquainted. If Eleanor is finding Hill House more a home, Theo is ready to burn it to ashes.

Jackson danced around Theo's orientation and whether Theo and Eleanor have sexual tension or a sisters' bond. Either way, Jackson makes it clear Eleanor and Theo aren't up to each other's impossible standards. It's central to their isolation. Eleanor finds no one worthy of sharing her inner life. Theo can't speak her truth or let down her guard. She might've even been stripped of her family name.

As claustrophobic manor houses will do, soon friends are squabbling. Theo has a straight-razor wit and takes pleasure training it on Eleanor. Naïve Eleanor sees Theo as competition for Luke's attentions, although Eleanor isn't much into Luke anyhow. She's just casting about for a lovers meeting. Theo's real crime is growing familiarity, the latest domineering figure in Eleanor's life. Next thing, Theo's bedroom is smeared in a foul-smelling substance that could be ectoplasm. Later, as Eleanor is lost in that picnic vision, Theo senses a descending and never-shown horror that forces them to run as if their souls depended on it. Whether Eleanor summoned the horror is another thing left open.

It makes you wonder why exactly Eleanor's family kept her locked away. 

The novel reaches its climax when Montague's wife arrives. Mrs. Montague is the real ghost chaser here, and she and her comic sidekick set about actually investigating Hill House. Up to then, Dr. Montague's methods involved journaling and afternoon cocktails and catching up on his reading. He's the father figure seeking to negotiate co-existence with Hill House. It hasn't worked. The house, or the charged environment, is changing the ad hoc family hour by hour, cycling them between fear and rationalization and euphoria at each violent disturbance survived. Nightmares have seeped into Eleanor's peaceful sleep now, something disembodied holding her hand. Hill House is awake, and this is what Mrs. Montague wants to call forth. 

Mrs. Montague gets a fast answer from an entity calling itself: "Eleanor Nellie Nell Nell." In short order, Hill House is all buckling walls and banged doors. Eleanor disassociates and gives in to whatever stalks her imagination--her lover's meeting, at last. Eleanor wakes the next morning to find Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague exhausted from a constant fight against Hill House. Meanwhile, new arrival Mrs. Montague didn't experience a thing. 

In her waking dream, Eleanor can--or believes she can--sense activity across the grounds, down to the mice and blades of grass. She is a sprite losing coherence and playing dangerous games of hide and seek. Dr. Montague orders Eleanor to leave and never return. No appeals heard, just bags packed and loaded into her car. 

1963 film version
Hill House won't let her leave, we think. Eleanor's melding into it was a gothic inevitability, we think. Eleanor has gazed upon the treacherous curve in the driveway, where Dr. Montague spoke of carriage accidents when past guests fled in terror, the same spot where Lady Crain died eighty years earlier. Eleanor is all detached smiles as she plays along as if to leave, all smiles thinking the hide-and-seek had just begun, all smiles when she swerves toward a tree. It's where her descent was always signaled to end.

Eleanor's dying thought is, "Why didn't they stop me?" 

Regret. Confusion. Jackson spent 181 pages setting that trap. Eleanor seems finally aware she took her dreaming much too far. No one escapes themselves. Eleanor is and will be forever who she is, awkward Nell with the family baggage and mommy issues. Suicide might've been a supernatural pull or despair at her evaporated fantasy world. Eleanor dies haunted either way. 

Seriously, though: Why didn't they stop her?

So untethered, Eleanor didn't need to be driving such roads on her own. Everyone understood that, and yet Dr. Montague insisted Eleanor leave alone. It was important, he claimed, and neither Theo nor Luke objected. This could've been basic psychology, Eleanor needing agency and a clean break. It could've been Hill House's influence. The others had been there as long as Eleanor, long enough to have the same warped judgment. Or it could've been fatalism, Montague believing anyone else in that car was needlessly doomed. More questions Jackson left floating. 

But there's this: Several times previously, Dr. Montague promised Eleanor he'd shepherd her safely away if things ever came to it. Things did. He didn't.

Shirley Jackson,
Wikipedia
With Jackson, never discount cruelty as a motive. In "The Lottery," human nature lets horrors evolve into institutions, even of forgotten origin. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, families and whole communities can justify violence with speed and ease. Cruelty seeps throughout The Haunting of Hill House. A cruel man built the place. A cruel mother raised Eleanor. Friends and family tear at each other. Jackson understood humanity to our blotched souls, the brimstone stuff we don't admit we're capable of. Jackson was so good at capturing this, she was scary. 

Jackson was alternately imposing and feeling overshadowed as a Bennington faculty wife, despite her successes. Her health was failing when she came across records of an overly-academic 19th Century paranormal society. Well-intended but deluded work, to her opinion, and it inspired The Haunting of Hill House. The society's fixation on rationalizing phenomena tripped past an answer obvious to Jackson: Ghosts existed, as natural as you and I. Accept that, Jackson held, or let fear and ignorance remain more harmful than any spirit. Face these things head on, that's the Mrs. Montague approach. Understand it. Name it.

In fairness, Jackson didn't necessarily recommend that path. It's in her opening sentence: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream." It's a warning. Seek ghosts or human nature if you must, but beware: True knowledge can be a terror staring back at you. 



03 March 2021

Digging Shirley Jackson


 


During the last year I have developed the habit of reading humor at bedtime.  I find this better than  perusing the latest volume in The Man Who Chopped Off People's Heads For Brunch series, which  tends to give me nightmares.

I just finished reading a book by Shirley Jackson, who handed out plenty of nightmares with her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, not to mention her classic story "The Lottery."  (Although, as I always say when bringing up this author, I prefer her "The Possibility of Evil.")

Raising Demons (1957), in spite of its title, is not horror.  It is domestic humor, describing the joys and miseries of taking care of a home and raising kids.  See Jean Kerr, Erma Bombeck, etc.  (Two obvious questions: Are there any books like this written by men?  And are any women still writing them?)

I finished the book but I didn't think it was wonderful. (I have heard that her previous memoir, Life Among The Savages, is better.)  I found the parts about the children cloying, but  there were occasional moments of brilliance.  Take this scene at a party given by some  of the students at the girls college where the husband of the nameless narrator is a professor.  A student addresses her:

"Listen, when you were young - I mean before you kind of settled down and all, when you were -- well, younger, that is - did you ever figure you'd end up like this?"  She waved a hand vaguely at the student living room, my "nice" black dress, and my glass of ginger ale.  "Like this?" she said.

"Certainly," I said.  "My only desire was to be a faculty wife. I used to sit at my casement window, half embroidering, half dreaming, and long for Professor Right."

"I suppose," she said, "that you are better off than you would have been.  Not married at all or anything."

"I was a penniless governess in a big house," I said.  "I was ready to take anything that moved...."

"And he's lucky too, of course.  So many men who marry young silly women find themselves always going to parties and things for their wives' sake.  An older woman--"

"He was only a boy," I said.  "How well I remember his eager, youthful charm; 'Lad," I used to say, fondly touching his wonton curls, 'lad, youth calls to youth, and what you need--"

""He's still terribly boyish, don't you think?"

And so on.  There's a lot going on there, and it all cracks me up.

But the reason I am bringing Ms. Jackson up at all is that at one point in the book her oldest child, a boy of perhaps twelve, starts speaking in slang, and gets fined by his father for doing so.  Here are examples of the slang:

Crazy mixed up daddy

Dig her

Dig me

Real cool

Real gone

Tipped (meaning crazy)

Later in the book the father has to fine himself for using the word "cool."  Slang does slip in, doesn't it?   Although the term never appears in the book I would call those examples of beatnik slang.


This is of particular interest to me because of something I'm working on.  Back in 2012 I won the Black Orchid Novella Award for "The Red Envelope," which was set in 1958 and starred a beat poet named Delgardo.  Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine recently purchased the sequel, "Please Pass The Loot."  I am presently editing the third in the series.

Now, Delgardo is definitely beat.  Don't call him a beatnik.  But the language overlaps.  I have found a fascinating glossary of beatnik slang from the time period, some of it so bizarre that I imagine that either the informant or the compiler was pulling our legs.  Here are some definitions that are "wild" and others that are just "graveyard."

Bread: Money

Far out: Weird, exciting

Gooney Roost: Library

Handcuffs: Parents

Mickey Mouse: Watch

Shades: Sunglasses

Squatchel: Lovemaking

Whistleburg: Corner where many girls pass by

You get the idea.  The question for me is: How much slang can I put in Delgardo's mouth to make him sound authentic without making him sound like an idiot?  Because as our own John Floyd noted: "An overdose of dialect can kill your story deader than Billy Bob Shakespeare."

Mostly I have settled for letting Delgardo end sentences with "man," and the occasional "cool" or "groovy."

Unfortunately, Shirley Jackson is not around to help me.


27 February 2014

Tales Around the Fireside


I am a short story writer.  Yes, I've written two novels, one (The Best is Yet to Be) as part of the Guideposts mystery series, "Mystery and the Minister's Wife", the other a sci-fi/fantasy piece that is still sitting in my closet.  I've written plays.  I used to write songs for myself and, later, a Southern rock-and-roll band called "Fantasy's Hand." (Those were fun days...)  But what I really feel most comfortable with is short stories.
I think a lot of this comes from my childhood.  I was an only child, and my parents were 40 when they adopted me; everyone around me was (it seemed) at least 40 years older than me, and back then children were expected to keep their mouths shut and just be there while the adults talked, talked, talked.  Luckily for me, most of them were storytellers.  A story, told in the night, to make you sigh or smile or shiver...  still pretty much the ideal.
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John Collier

And I like reading short stories.  I don't understand why so few magazines carry short stories anymore.  Why there are so few short-story magazines.  (Especially considering that attention spans seem to be growing shorter and shorter all the time, but that's another rant.)  I love them.  And some of the finest writing anywhere has been done in that format.  Here are my picks for some of the greatest short story writers:

John Collier.  "Fancies and Goodnights" contains some of his best work.  (It won the Edgar Award in 1962.)  Read "Bottle Party" to find out what really happens with a genie in the bottle.  "The Chaser" - on how tastes change over time.  "If Youth Knew What Age Could"... One of my favorites, "The Lady on the Grey."  And on and on.  Many of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays (including "Sylvia Scarlett", [uncredited] "The African Queen", and "I am A Camera"), and a couple of novels of which my favorite is the mordant, devilish, unforgettable "His Monkey Wife."

File:Ray Bradbury (1975) -cropped-.jpgRay Bradbury.  There are not enough words in the English language to praise his amazing output of short stories.  From "The Fruit in the Bottom of the Bowl" to "I Sing the Body Electric," "April Witch" to "The Veldt", "A Sound of Thunder" to the heartbreaking "There Will Come Soft Rains", "Dark They Were and Golden Eyed", the whole body of "The Martian Chronicles", and on and on, I gobbled each and every one of his stories I could get my hands on. His work inspired me, amazed me, touched me...  couldn't get enough of it. And he was primarily a short-story writer:  aside from "Fahrenheit 451", his other novels didn't really gel for me.  ("The Martian Chronicles" is a collection of short stories, with a narration in between.)  He showed what could be done in the medium of short fiction.  And, of course, he was a regular writer for "Twilight Zone" and other TV shows...

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Somerset Maugham.  One of the few who could write both great novels, and great short stories.  "The Letter" - made into film twice, most notably with Bette Davis as the cool and collected murderess.  "The Lotus Eater" - when Paradise runs out...  "Red" - what really happens when you look up your old childhood sweetheart...  "The Luncheon" - never ask questions you can't take the answer to...  The hilarious "Three Fat Women of Antibes", "The Vessel of Wrath", "The Verger"...  and, of course, the "Ashenden" series which practically began secret agent stories.  (Alfred Hitchcock combined "The Hairless Mexican" and "The Traitor" into the 1936 movie "Secret Agent" with John Gielgud and Peter Lorre.) Seriously, his short stories are like popcorn at the movies - once I start reading them (I have a four-volume set), I can't quit until I've worked my way through...  way too many.
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Poe

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Lovecraft
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Jackson
H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shirley Jackson.  And how do you want to be scared today, my precious?  My sweets?  By many-tentacled horrors from beyond space, or by crumbling ruins of decay and death, or the quiet malevolence of a quiet house or neighborhood? By the breathing darkness or that strange emptiness?  By the sudden creak or that high whistle in the depths?  Any of these will leave you wondering what's really going on next door, when you'll be able to turn the lights off again, and what is that sound in the closet or over head or under the floor...

File:Conan doyle.jpgArthur Conan Doyle.  Let us never forget that 90% of the Memoirs of Dr. John H. Watson about his inimitable companion, Sherlock Holmes, are short stories. We all have our favorites.  (Sadly, the relentless reinterpretations of Holmes and Adler have reduced my pleasure in "A Scandal in Bohemia".)  Among mine are "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches", "The Speckled Band", "The Greek Interpreter", "The Devil's Foot", and "The Norwood Builder".  I have spent many a rainy afternoon curled up in a couch with a hot cup of tea and my father's one-volume "Complete Works", reading, reading, reading, time travelling to Victorian/Edwardian London, as Sherlock Holmes - the world's only private consulting detective - solves case after case after case...  Ah...  Excuse me, I have some reading to do...

NOTE:  These are, of course, only a few of the many tremendous short-story writers I've read.  Flannery O'Connor, Guy de Maupassant, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, Daphne du Maurier ("The Birds", yes - but never forget "The Little Photographer"), Nikolai Gogol  and Anton Chekhov, Ursula LeGuin and Isaac Asimov, and so many of my esteemed colleagues...  I really do have some reading to do!