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Martyn Wendell Jones

Who's Afraid of Shirley Jackson?

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

In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike remembers an "intimation of deep, cosmic joy" from his childhood: "the sensation of shelter, of being out of the rain, but just out." For him, pure bliss is standing in a doorway watching a storm; in moments such as these, he writes, we realize the truth that the "essential self is innocent, and when it tastes its own innocence knows that it lives forever. If we keep utterly still, we can suffer no wear and tear, and will never die."

Here a literary genius invokes a reliable mode of expression for literary genius: to hold the world at arm's length, to be sheltered and safe and able to consider the world's many facets in detail without being either threatened or sullied by it.

Shirley Jackson, a writer's writer, was well acquainted with this longing for the safe remove. A genius in her own right, Jackson is best known for "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House, two major accomplishments in American horror, but her fiction does not surrender easily to genre labels. What lends it its power and its cruel delight is her acquaintance with Updike's joy in standing apart. She is on intimate terms with this joy, but, unlike Updike, she knows its true slant, and the end to which it delivers those who pursue it. That end is death, the ultimate expression of the safe remove. Jackson's fiction plays with our unwitting longing for death in ways that entice and amuse us while also horrifying us, and this mix of entertainment and dark metaphysics gives her fiction a distinctive appeal.

We can find these forces at work in Jackson's debut novel, The Road Through the Wall. A well-to-do California neighborhood sits in relative seclusion behind a large estate wall. Summer has just begun; children are home from school, and the days are long. The world is largely being kept at bay. The men and women who live on Pepper Street "[think] of their invulnerability as justice." When the news arrives that the neighboring estate is dissolving in the wake of the owner's death, and that a new road is going to cut through the wall to join Pepper Street with the world at large, a sense of dread settles over the community. Apocalypse is afoot.

But the irony of the neighborhood's status is clear from the book's first pages. No one lives on Pepper Street who can afford living somewhere nicer. The community is a product of happenstance and prejudice, from the attitudes of the residents to the tenuous existence of the surrounding properties that constitute its barrier with the world. But the illusion of a destined, protective seclusion is important to Pepper Street's residents, who are given to complimentary opinions of themselves.

In sentences that are as cold as they are elegant, Jackson sculpts a community full of variously middle-class people, by turns cruel, two-faced, and desperate, joined in a march toward a fated destruction. There are no "sympathetic" figures here; the 15-year-old athlete, a darling in the eyes of the neighborhood's fathers, is about as full of personality as a piece of toast. Jackson paints younger children on the block more vividly but captures their pet prejudices and schoolyard meanness in better detail, too. The prejudices are inherited, of course. Prominent Pepper Street housewife Mrs. Merriam eventually forbids her daughter Harriet from remaining friends with a Jewish girl down the street because "we have to do what is expected of us."

Intermittently, the story rests on Mrs. Mack, an older woman who lives by herself and reads scriptural prophecies of doom: "Thus will I accomplish my wrath upon the wall, and upon them that have daubed it with untempered mortar, and will say unto you, 'The wall is no more, neither they that daubed it' " (Ezek. 13:15). In a wry moment, she turns to her dog and asks, "You remember about how the Lord destroys evil people?"

Evil, in the case of Pepper Street, is a kind of nostalgia: a longing for home. Like nostalgia in any form, the longing of the Pepper Street community is ultimately directed at a false object, and it betrays them.

Slow disintegration and then a sudden tragedy befall the community, and the utopian dream collapses. The enclosure dissolves, as does the community, which empties into the world it had so zealously held at bay. The play of forces here has a distinctly Freudian character, which comes out more clearly in Jackson's later books.

With Hangsaman, her second novel, we find a narrower scope that transposes the seclusion of Pepper Street's middle-class community into the mind of a single, brilliant, troubled young woman. Natalie Waite "lived in an odd corner of a world of sound and sight past the daily voices of her father and mother," and in this rich interior "visited strange countries, and the voices of their inhabitants were constantly in her ear; when her father spoke he was accompanied by a sound of distant laughter, unheard probably by anyone except his daughter." From a mental distance she interacts with her desperately unhappy mother and egotistical father, seeing everything but saying little.

The account of Natalie's trip to college and subsequent psychological fraying demonstrates many of Jackson's talents, including her mastery of the ever-deepening, ever-darkening mood, but the most surprising strength might be her humor. We're far from the self-seriousness of an H. P. Lovecraft here, but we don't find ourselves in outright farcical territory either. Instead, we're given wry, knowing humor full of astute observation. Consider the atmosphere of this summary passage:

[I]n the dining room one evening, an entire tableful of girls rose and walked out in the middle of the meal because they were refused more bread. A girl on the third floor who was seen crying was reported faithfully as suffering from a venereal disease, and a petition was sent to Miss Nicholas to require the girl to use the basement lavatory… . Two girls in another house tried to kill themselves with double doses of the infirmary sleeping medicine. An unnamed girl, also in another house, was said to have died of an abortion, and several people knew the name of the baby's father, who was reliably identified as a local man who worked as a lifeguard summers and in the gas station winters. It was generally believed that it was completely possible to become pregnant by using the same bathtub as one's brother, although not necessarily at the same time.

These rumors and superstitions are not more humorous than the self-important postulations of Natalie's father, an academic buffoon who fails to see that it is perhaps his daughter who ought to be condescending to him. Jackson shows us a bit of what she thinks of literary intellectuals with Mr. Waite. She picks the thread back up in The Bird's Nest with Dr. Wright, a psychiatrist whose love for Thackeray is evidenced in self-conscious refrains of "dear reader." These representations of vaunted male authority on literature and the mind, two of Jackson's areas of expertise, show us men who are hardly impressive, but very funny to look at.

Some of Jackson's funniest writing is in The Sundial, a gothic tale of apocalypse and the wealthy family that welcomes it from within the safe confines of their mansion. Mrs. Halloran, the presiding matriarch—she took control of the family after pushing her late son down a flight of stairs (he died)—entertains representatives of a doomsday cult to discuss, as their leader Edna says, "supernatural visitations. Prophecies. The end of the world, in fact." Trailing off, Edna "spread her hands eloquently."

Some of these moments are worthy of Wodehouse. When told that, to qualify for safe passage aboard the cult's spaceship to Saturn—where everyone drinks Ambrosia—the family must abandon the consumption of meat, the drinking of alcoholic beverages, and the wearing of all metal fastenings, Mrs. Halloran matter-of-factly states that her household is disqualified on all counts:

"I myself cannot do without fancy wines, and I believe that my associates—except possibly Miss Ogilvie—use entirely metals fastenings. Miss Ogilvie?"

"Zippers," Miss Ogilvie whispered, pale. "Nothing but zippers. Everywhere." Passages like this give us Jackson at her most entertaining. Outside the Halloran home sits the eponymous sundial, which bears an inscription from Chaucer that the manufacturer carved on a whim: WHAT IS THIS WORLD?

The entertainment on hand warms us just enough to make our hearts pliable, and thereby more susceptible to the effects of a sudden chill—which often arrives from a kind of unknowable beyond, a threshold experience of something sinister and overwhelming: reality itself.

The Haunting of Hill House opens with the conceptual equivalent of an establishing shot in a film, and alerts readers to the nature of the imminent horror:

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.

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.

They also give color to Jackson's most magnificent creation, Merricat Blackwood. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of Jackson's shortest books; it is also the one she labored on the longest. Not coincidentally, it is her best.

The novel opens by introducing us to Merricat's unforgettable voice:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

As Oppenheimer tells us, Jackson drew on the personalities of her two daughters to create Merricat, a wild, feral, and pagan 17-year-old, and Constance, ten years older but more reserved and fearful. They live with their aging uncle, the only member of their family to survive an incident involving arsenic in a sugar bowl. The town outside the family estate hates the Blackwood family, as villagers in towns in Jackson's fiction so often hate the wealthy protagonists. Merricat ventures out occasionally to fetch groceries and books, but otherwise, she, her sister, and their uncle remain inside the house or about the grounds.

Like many of Jackson's books, We Have Always Lived in the Castle takes an apocalyptic turn. Villagers form a mob and wreck the home after the fire department douses a blaze on the second floor. The mob viciously torments the girls; Merricat helps her sister to the safety of the dark woods, and the crowd eventually disperses. The reality the Blackwoods kept at bay behind a wrought-iron fence has broken in upon the enclosure of their home, and left it ruined.

But the story does not end there. Merricat and Constance form a hermit kingdom in the blackened manse. They become local legends; the townspeople urge their children not to venture too close to the home's charred ramparts, and leave offerings of food on the porch for the girls they so mercilessly drove into hiding. Merricat and Constance are never seen outside the home again, and become like ghosts. In this semblance of an afterlife, they are happy and free to haunt the town with the memory of its sins. They live in the realization of a bullied child's dream.

In a way, this conclusion represents a peacemaking with the death that results from stasis. Jackson's world is large enough to permit her fictionalized daughters to enjoy a respite from the violence of the outer world without having to be rid of their lives and bodies. There is something in her universe that is stronger than death.

Here Jackson's Freudian materialism merges with her openness to a mythical beyond, which union produces a synthesis of natural and supernatural, cold realism and gothic fable. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Jackson's greatest achievement in this mode.

It was also her last. Come Along with Me, the novel Jackson left unfinished at her early death, marked a decisive break with her earlier work. Instead of coldness, she brings warmth; instead of a diffident adolescent, we meet a mature, middle-aged, and confident woman who is making a break with an earlier life and starting fresh in a new city. "I got off the train with plenty of money," she tells us. "I needed a name and a place to go; enjoyment and excitement and a fine high gleefulness I knew I could provide on my own." She is so new to her own life that she has not yet taken a name.

Jackson was here opening up new tracks for herself to follow into fresh thickets. The wry humor remains, as do elements of the creepy mood she perfected, but the warmth and dynamism and downright likability of the central character are largely new. It is tragic that she never got the chance to follow this new path to its end.

Still, we're blessed to have the books she did write, which are as apt to entertain, chill, and delight as ever. The horror of her darkest books and the pleasures of her funniest books have not lost either edge or shine. The human mind has not become less frail, and humanity has not graduated from its hypocrisy. If anything, our natural frailties and self-deceptions have been exacerbated by galloping advances in personal technology. In this buzzing world of electronic stimuli, it's natural to long for the safe remove, and even to try to set up a home there. Jackson has a raised eyebrow for those who are tempted in this way. Read her and receive her cool chastening, lest you believe you can live forever under the awning of a porch.

Martyn Wendell Jones is a technical writer from Madison, Wisconsin. He has written for numerous publications including First Things, The Curator, The Behemoth, Open Court Press's Pop Culture and Philosophy series, and Christ and Pop Culture.

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