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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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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.

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