I dont fangirl out over authors. But when I do, it’s over Shirley Jackson.
A year of reading isn’t complete unless I throw Jackson into the mix, whether it’s an old standby or a set of previously unpublished works or a fresh adaptation of her work. I had the great fortune of reading all of the above, as a treasure trove of new material was recently published.
To honor my favorite writer of all time on her 100th birthday, here’s a recap of my year with Shirley Jackson: a little haunted, a little ritualistic, and a lot of love for all the creepy weirdos in and out of fiction.
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. 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.
– The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The paragraph above might be the greatest opening lines penned in human history.
I am unabashedly unashamed in my love for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, so much so that I memorized the first paragraph and recite it at random to anyone who asks (or doesn’t ask.)
I read the novel at least once a year, and for the past two, have listened to the audiobook read by Bernadette Dunne, who does a fantastic job evoking the individuality of each character (and sounding uncannily like the actress who played Eleanor in the 1963 film, The Haunting.) Her reading style also evokes the essence of the time in which the book is set: A late 1950’s vibe where everyone was optimistic and cheery and upwardly mobile and any unsightly dirt, be it mental illness or aberrant sexuality, was discreetly swept under the rug.
Discovering the audiobook led to a trilogy of media experience, whereby each piece complements the other. The source, the actual book, is a masterful ghost story where the scariest hauntings are the ones that take place inside the head. Eleanor Vance is a troubled character, desperate to belong, intensely lonely and prey to imaginative fancies. Like the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Eleanor’s “oddities” might find a community today among all the other weirdos that congregate thanks to the internet (including book-obsessed weirdos like myself), but in that time and era, it was an unacceptable thing for a woman to want something outside the strict prescriptions of society.
The 1963 film directed by Robert Wise, The Haunting, is one of those rare gems, a film that’s just as good as the book. Like Marion Crane’s famous drive in Psycho, Wise and actress Julie Harris set the tone for Eleanor’s fraught state of mind. The film, while probably not scary by today’s standards, is a tightly wound ghost story that remains faithful to the source, and I can’t help but wonder how Shirley Jackson felt in her secret heart of hearts about it.
Speaking of Jackson’s secret heart of hearts…
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
In one of her essays, Jackson spoke of a “heaven-wall-gate,” the concept of something wonderful lying behind a wall, something her characters strive for, only once they discover the gate, they find it locked.
Jackson’s fiction is full of walls, both literal and figurative, from her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, to the infamous gate of Hill House (only that’s the one gate that should stay locked!).
A brand new biography of Jackson was published this year, drawing from excerpts of letters previously unseen and unknown. Franklin does a masterful job of portraying Jackson as a woman with a foot on either side of the “heaven-wall-gate.” Although Jackson could easily reconcile herself as a mother of four rambunctious children, doing battle with daily domestic duties, as well as the writer who created worlds in which all the angles were just a little off, it was difficult for others to accept this. The expectations for women didn’t conceive of a woman who would want to dance outside the domestic ballroom.
Although the ending is strangely rushed (much like Jackson’s too-short life), the book depicts a woman of enormous imagination and desires, a life full of both tragedy and joy.
Shirley Jackon’s “The Lottery”: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation by Mile Hyman
Whenever anyone dares to tell me “that’s how we’ve always done it,” my standard answer is usually “we used to shit in the woods too, but we don’t do that anymore.” A more helpful answer might be to refer the offender to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, an infamous story about a sinister ritual conducted in Sidestreet, U.S.A (if you haven’t read the story, stop right now and go read it immediately).
The Lottery is one of those stories often fated to the syllabi of college and high school English classes everywhere, destined to be underappreciated and overanalyzed until all meaning is wrung out.
The graphic adaptation adds a fresh coat of paint to the old, infamous story, and it’s written by Shirley Jackson’s grandson, Miles Hyman.
The art is deceptively simple, the colors muted, and the faces indistinct and blurry. It’s a rural community that could exist anywhere. The Lottery’s universality is its suckerpunch. The book adheres to the story faithfully (although there’s a naked woman thrown in there because, dudes). There are some beautiful panels focusing on the instruments of the lottery: the black box, the slips of paper.
I don’t know that this new representation is strictly necessary, but it adds a fresh dimension to the old familiar story, which remains perfection.
Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings
The bummer about loving authors who are long gone is that the possibility of them producing new material is close to nil (unless you can find an especially talented medium)
The latest collection of Jackson’s unpublished material is a joy to read. Not every story is The Lottery, but they all help to fill in the colorful outlines of Jackson’s oeuvre. “Garlic in Fiction” might be the greatest writing/food analogy of all time, and “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons” is a paranoic masterpiece.
The book also includes that bane of readers everywhere, the unfinished story. The eponymous story is short, with no conclusion, but it’s like a little bite of cheesecake. You don’t need the whole slice to enjoy it (of course, we want all the cheesecake!).
*doors that close by themselves
- Another much read, much beloved book is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Next to Eleanor, Merricat is Jackson’s greatest character creation, an odd, imaginative young woman who gets a little murdery now and then.
- I’m a little embarrassed about my backwards path to discovering Jackson’s work. It began 1999’s The Haunting which retains just enough details from the book to make it a travesty. The first time I read The Haunting, I wasn’t impressed. I was also forced to read The Lottery in school, underappreciating it along with the rest of my dull freshman English class. But Jackson was like a spot of black mold on my heart: she kept growing and growing until she was in the walls and everywhere and it was too expensive to get her out.
- The Haunting of Hill House is also on Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Book list.