The Uncanny Shirley Jackson

Recent years have seen a renewed interest in the writing of Shirley Jackson, whose most famous works–the short story The Lottery  and the novel The Haunting of Hill House–are well-known classics. Jackson wrote primarily in the short form, publishing stories, tales, essays and reviews in the magazines of her day. Some of these stories found their way into her debut collection, The Lottery and Other Stories, though most of them did not.

Over the years, Jackson’s husband and children have collected and published much of her work in the anthologies Come Along With Me, Just Another Ordinary Day,  and most recently, Let Me Tell You.

The 2015 release of Let Me Tell You  was occasioned by the release of formerly unpublished Jackson stories in The New Yorker,  Tin House,  and McSweeneys.  The same year saw the publication of the novel Shirley  by Susan Scarf Merrell, whose narrator is Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman.

jackson the sundialIn spite of this Shirley Jackson flurry, many readers are still unaware of her work, a sad fate for many excellent writers in America (especially female writers). This is doubly unfortunate given the length of Jackson’s shadow. Her influence can be felt in writers like Stephen King, T.E.D. Klein, Kelly Link, Dan Chaon, Sophie Hannah, Neil Gaiman, and Joyce Carol Oates, to name a handful. The critic Elaine Showalter considers Jackson’s overall body of work to be the most important writings of any author in the mid-20th century.

Stephen King–who dedicated one novel to Jackson–constructed his classic tale of terror The Shining  with Jackson’s grand Gothic novel The Sundial  very much in mind. Both entail disturbed families trapped within secluded haunted surroundings.

While there are many stories and a handful of novels to choose from when examining Jackson’s work, let us pick but a few and hope they stand in for the whole. As her most well-known works, Hill House  and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, are easily available and better known, I’ll steer down the lesser-trodden byways.

Jackson’s first novel, The Road Through the Wall, is often overlooked. It is her most autobiographical work and the least supernatural. To paraphrase one critic: there are no ghosts in any of the houses, but the people inside are surely haunted already.

The Road Through the Wall  is set in the mild and apparently mild-mannered suburb of Pepper Street, a well-to-do but not quite wealthy neighborhood in California.

The weather falls more gently on some places than on others, the world looks down more paternally on some people. Some spots are proverbially warm, and keep, through falling snow, their untarnished reputations as summer resorts; some people are automatically above suspicion.

From the very beginning of her career, Jackson was concerned with the difference between the pleasant face put forward by the middle-class suburbanites of the 1950s and the simmering hates and petty jealousies that churned just beneath surface. Pepper Street appears to be gentle, warm and untarnished. But inside all those nicely-painted homes sitting behind well-manicured lawns are the very people who shouldn’t  be above suspicion.

Jackson peoples Pepper Street with adulterers and racists, unhappy couples and abusive teenagers, an old lady who refuse to help search for missing children because her eggs will over-boil, and a woman who actively sabotages her sister’s love life because she wants her sister’s boyfriend for herself.

Jackson’s novel was truly ahead of its time. There isn’t a single likable character in the novel. Had it been written today, it would make a fabulous HBO mini-series, thematically and morally akin to Mad Men  and Breaking Bad.

jackson road throughThe novel’s climax, in which the three-year-old daughter of Pepper Street’s most illustrious family is found dead, her head smashed in with a rock, is left unnervingly ambiguous. It is never determined who killed the poor girl, or even if she was murdered at all (there is some question that she may have simply slipped and hit her head on the rock). But suspicion is turned immediately to another boy on the street, and the pressure is so great that the boy hangs himself. Jackson leaves it unclear whether his suicide is out of guilt or fear.

If there is any effect that Jackson mastered better than other writers, it is a deeply disturbing ambiguity. It is the lens by which she viewed the world. If this seems like a minor-key achievement, ponder for a moment how many other writers employ it as well. I can’t think of any.

Jackson’s hallmark is an unsettling, ever-creeping perturbation detected by the reader, an uneasy feeling that your certainty in the world is slowly bleeding away.

Consider one of Jackson’s finest stories, The Missing Girl, originally published in the December 1957 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and later collected in Just Another Ordinary Day.

The story opens with the titular character walking out of the room she shares with another girl at camp. I’m going out, she tells her bunk mate. I’ve got stuff to do. All well and good, except Martha Alexander never returns. Not that night, not the next, and not the night after that.

A slow and ponderous search begins. The Camp Mother calls Martha’s mother, confirming that the girl did not run away from camp back home. But when the search turns to the camp itself, the campers and counselors have difficulty placing young Ms. Alexander.

Her roommate can’t remember much of anything about her. Neither can the counselors. The camp records are rather shoddy, and it is impossible to tell if the girl was involved in drama or outdoor activities or painting, which sessions she showed up for and which ones she skipped. Her picture on her camp application is so blurred that no distinct features can be made out, aside from the fact that she had dark hair.

In the vicinity of the camp, various people call in, claiming they may have spotted the girl along the road, or in a nearby town, or hitch hiking. But the descriptions are equally vague, and no one can offer any definite description of the missing girl.

In the camp it was generally believed that one of the low bloods around the town–and try to match them for general vulgarity and insolence, and the generations of inbreeding that had led to idiocy in half the families and just plain filth in the rest–had enticed the girl off into an assignation on the mountain, and there outraged and murdered her and buried her body.

Again we see Jackson’s interest in social dynamics at work. Martha Alexander is ostensibly such a forgettable loser that no one remembers anything about her at all. And immediately the town folk and the camp folk begin pointing fingers, instead of genuinely searching for the poor girl.

jackson magazine of fantasyWhat’s worse, Martha’s own mother seems hardly interested in finding her. Near the story’s end, the woman claims she’s not even really sure Martha went to camp in the first place, that she seems to remember Martha begging off attending this year. That closes the case. The search peters out, and Martha is never found.

The Missing Girl  closes with the discovery of a body the following summer. It is a young girl of roughly the right age, but the body is decomposed and identification impossible. The body is buried in an unmarked grave, and the Camp Mother and the Chief of Police attend the funeral, but no one knows for sure whose body they are burying.

The Missing Girl  rides the fine line that is consistently found in Jackson’s best work: eerie, possibly supernatural, and lacking in definite answers. The more you read her work, the more unsettled you are.

A formerly unpublished story finally collected in Let Me Tell You  is another masterpiece in this vein. Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons  tells the story of two families, the Spencers and the Oberons. Mrs. Spencer is Jackson’s typical social climber: everything shiny on the outside, but underneath a web of jealousies, hatreds and general nastiness.

When the Oberons come to town, Mrs. Spencer’s life is disturbed. The Oberons claim to be old friends of Mrs. Spencer’s sister, but Mrs. Spencer can’t remember them at all. The story opens when Mrs. Spencer receives a letter from the Oberons asking for help in finding a house for sale, a task Mrs. Spencer refuses to be a part of.

“Some people really have no consideration for other people,” Mrs. Spencer said, touching the letter with one finger.

“They only want to know if you’ve heard of any summer places nearby,” Mr. Spencer said. “Three bedrooms.”

“Really,” Mrs. Spencer said. “Really,  Harry.” She pushed away her half-finished coffee. “What earthly  right…”

As it turns out, Mrs. Spencer never actually runs into the Oberons. When she calls them, all she hears is static and a bad connection. In town, the Oberons quickly become one of the most popular families around, though Mrs. Spencer only ever hears of them second-hand. When she goes to the store, for example, the grocer claims to have just served Mrs. Oberon, who claimed she was a good friend of Mrs. Spencer, a claim Mrs. Spencer vigorously denies.

Jackson builds these odd little incidents with great skill. None of them, alone, are enough to strike the reader as odd. It is the way they pile one atop another that slowly becomes bizarre.

jackson the lotteryMrs. Spencer’s son becomes good friends with the Oberon boy. Mr. Spencer works with the Oberons, helping them acquire a loan from his bank. An old friend of Mrs. Spencer sells the Oberons a summer home, and half the town is there on a regular basis…but never Mrs. Spencer. It is as if everyone knows the Oberons and is constantly running into them, except Mrs. Spencer.

“They’ve been using my name. Nothing serious, of course, and I’m sure everyone around town knows me well enough to recognize the kind of people I  know, but they told Mr. Sanson at the market that they were friends of mine, and today I was disturbed when the florist just happened to mention that Mrs.–what  is the name? Oberon?–was buying white roses because they were my favorite flower and she was expecting me to call–“

“You ought to, as a matter of fact,” Harry said. “Common courtesy.”

“But I don’t even  know them,” Mrs. Spencer said.

In the penultimate scene of the story, Mrs. Spencer is driving up and down the lake road trying to find the Oberons’ new summer home. Her entire family is attending a big summer bash being thrown at the Oberons, though she has refused to go. As she drives back and forth along the lake in the dark, she can hear the music and the laughter and the chatter of the party, but she cannot seem to find the house.

In classic Jackson fashion, it remains unclear whether or not Mrs. Spencer just simply can’t find the road to the house in the dark, or whether there is some supernatural element at play, some unseen power emanating from the Oberons that keeps her forever at bay.

The real genius of Shirley Jackson was her uncanny ability to subtly and carefully uncover the darker side of human nature lying beneath the placid surface of middle-class life. In doing so, she presented us with stories and novels that were artfully constructed to make us deeply dis-eased with what she found. It was her special skill to write in such a way that you were never fully sure where the line between inner and outer hauntings began and ended, or whether the line was actually there at all.

Many fine writers of the supernatural and the Gothic have come after Shirley Jackson, but few of them wrote so well or so intelligently. And each new collection of her work released posthumously only makes her absence more keenly felt.

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3 thoughts on “The Uncanny Shirley Jackson

  1. You chose some great covers; they’re chilling. The newer Penguin editions are no where near as eerie and pay more attention to maintaining the Penguin look instead of thinking of the contents of the book. I felt that the road through the wall had lots of creepy potential, but the ending didn’t land quite right. I really enjoyed Hangsaman, too.

    I’ve always thought it is interesting that Jackson’s stories and books are so unsettling because her personal life was so…adorable, I would say. She was a stay-at-home wife and mother, and she writes about getting so bored doing dishes and keeping a home that she would imagine the kitchen appliances getting into arguments and needing to be separated. Her family, she said, was never surprised to find things in the house moved about because the items couldn’t get along. I love that story! I got my hands on a copy of Let Me Tell You and read most of the essays about her home life and writing. Some of the essays read as incomplete, like she wasn’t finished with them, but they got published anyway.

    1. You know, it was actually as I was reading your own blog that I got the idea for this post. Your blog got me thinking about some of my favorite female writers, a number of whom aren’t as widely read as they should be.

      I agree with you that The Road Through the Wall is not entirely successful. I think it’s a fine novel, but it is clearly a first novel. Jackson really developed book to book. The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are masterpieces.

      I was glad to see that Penguin had brought out new editions of her lesser-known novels, even if the covers aren’t exactly stunning. They’ve been out of print and hard to find for years. I hope more people find her work, because she really is a great writer, and I haven’t found many other writers who can do what she did so well (although, for my money, Joe Hill has a similar subtle touch, at least in certain stories).

      Thanks for reading the post! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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