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Martyn Wendell Jones


Who's Afraid of Shirley Jackson?

Glimpses of something sinister, overwhelming—and often quite funny.

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There is no nightmare in Hill House; existence in itself is a plane of terror and insanity. Bad dreams would provide a respite from it. In the narrator's view, all the work of consciousness is an act of resistance against an eternally encroaching pandemonium. It is here that Jackson's use of Freud becomes most clear.

For Freud, consciousness is a kind of shield against the external world; it filters stimuli in order to prevent them from overwhelming the organism, and once sensory data has been received, the resulting excitations and expressions of force must be bound and "cathected" in order to be released without shaking the mind into pieces.

At his most metaphysical, Freud divined a pair of competing forces at the heart of all conscious life. These are commonly known as eros and thanatos: the sex drive and the death drive. The first is responsible, through sublimation, for all of the great achievements of culture and civilization; it is the impetus to go out beyond oneself to achieve, conquer, and accomplish. In eros we see the fundamental springs of all human action.

Thanatos manifests itself in a primordial desire to be at rest. It does not press outwards; rather, it quells one's strivings and manifests in an overwhelming desire to be left alone. It is not a force at work so much as an absence of one. It is a longing for union with the blankness of inert matter. If the spark of excitation does not overcome one's longing for protection, quiet, and stillness, then one risks death and a concomitant reabsorption into the tumultuous sea of warring forces and energies.

Freud fell out of favor as a researcher long ago, although in many places he is still read as a philosopher. In Jackson's day his influence was ubiquitous. Her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a devout Freudian who even kept his own curio cabinet, as Jackson's biographer Judy Oppenheimer tells us. The vocabulary of psychoanalysis energized years of wide-ranging, drink-fueled conversation in the raucous Hyman home, and in this way Shirley and Stanley were good citizens of their age: they lived in a time when Freud's concepts were the lingua franca of the educated classes. Jackson—not immune to the fashions of her day, having helped run a short-lived Marxist journal of opinion at Syracuse while a student there in spite of lacking significant political convictions—plumbed psychological depths with the most durable and robust equipment available to her, and found thanatos more amenable to her mind and purposes than its wild sibling. (Jackson's fiction is devoid of express references to sex—one of the most basic expressions of eros—save two insinuations of rape, both oblique enough to be almost hidden.)

With Freud now in tow, we might return to her books, particularly to those concerned with structures and places. Pepper Street's community hopes to preserve a static self-enclosure against the world that carries on outside it in The Road Through the Wall; the Hallorans from The Sundial long for the destruction of the world and their own safe passage through the apocalypse in the walls of their mansion. The Bird's Nest, Jackson's fascinating novel about multiple personality disorder, opens in a stuffy museum, which stores in stillness the artifacts of civilization—counted, curated, and enclosed in glass. Hill House, "not sane," calls out to Eleanor to settle within its walls permanently. And finally, in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, there is the Blackwood home, presided over by Merricat and Constance, cold monarchs over an "empire [of] stasis," as Jonathan Lethem says in his introduction to the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the novel. Again and again, structures stand against an outer tumult, oases of reason amid a blasting chaos—or sinister accomplices in purveying this chaos. Buildings betray characters as our minds betray us, proving insufficient as shields against the storm of reality outside.

But Jackson was no true believer in the way her husband was. When pressed by her younger daughter, she conceded that she could not bar the possibility of there being "something" out there beyond the material. Freud's system was not large enough to contain her, so she found a point outside the enclosure of immanence and staked a provocative claim there. Her interest in the occult took her far beyond the purview of her husband's impeccably orthodox mid-20th-century ideas. Oppenheimer relates that Jackson kept a library of over two hundred books on witchcraft, and her interest in the subject was not purely academic. She was a practitioner. Her incantations reportedly helped her find numerous errantly stowed kitchen utensils.

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