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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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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.
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