Many think of Shirley Jackson primarily as a short story writer, due to her much-anthologized classic “The Lottery.” But for me it’s Jackson’s novels that really demonstrate her lasting contribution to her field.
The most widely-read of these, The Haunting of Hill House, is an amazing literary ghost story. Don’t be put off by the uninspiring 1999 film adaptation “The Haunting,” which scraps the novel’s texture, humor, and carefully-crafted ambiguities in exchange for campy CGI. The film’s inadequacy isn’t wholly its fault. It’s difficult to imagine a successful adaptation. The Haunting of Hill House uses its close, third-person perspective to give readers an exquisitely familiar knowledge of Eleanor, its shut-in, troubled protagonist. This lends itself very well to the novel’s liminal, psychological treatment of its horror premise, and can’t be easily replicated by the comparative “objectivity” of film.
The rhythm of Jackson’s prose is off-putting in its strangeness, yet catching—you’re swept into it very quickly, as though by a strong current, and you begin to think in the books’ patterns. The snippet of text below comes from Eleanor’s initial journey to Hill House in the novel. It shows Eleanor’s dreamy, susceptible personality, even before the house’s atmosphere of paranoia starts to seriously affect her. It also displays Jackson’s skill at depicting her characters’ interiority via their encounters with the exterior world. And it’s a simple, beautiful moment of language.
Eleanor looked up, surprised; the little girl was sliding back in her chair, sullenly refusing her milk, while her father frowned and her brother giggled and her mother said calmly, “She wants her cup of stars.”
Indeed yes, Eleanor thought; indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course.
“Her little cup,” the mother was explaining, smiling apologetically at the waitress, who was thunderstruck at the thought that the mill’s good country milk was not rich enough for the little girl. “It has stars in the bottom, and she always drinks her milk from it at home. She calls it her cup of stars because she can see the stars while she drinks her milk.” The waitress nodded, unconvinced, and the mother told the little girl, “You’ll have your milk from your cup of stars tonight when we get home. But just for now, just to be a very good little girl, will you take a little milk from this glass?”
Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl.
Haunting is stunning, and while it’s a must-read for anyone interested in ghost stories, haunted houses, or psychological horror, it also stretches beyond its demographic. If the aforementioned narrative elements do less-than-nothing for you, I’d still recommend reading a few pages and seeing whether Jackson’s unique style draws you in.
If you’ve already read Jackson’s most famous novel, or if you’d just like to start with something different, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an excellent choice. I think it gets less academic and popular love than Haunting (which dovetails neatly with liminal gothic novels like Turn of the Screw and thus, I believe, show up on syllabi more frequently), but is perhaps the more interesting book.
Some years before the novel opens, the large, wealthy Blackwood family was almost entirely wiped out over the course of a single dinner by an unexplained arsenic poisoning. The only survivors were Constance, the eldest daughter of the house; Merricat, the youngest; and their elderly Uncle Julian. All of them have been marked by the experience. Constance is now agoraphobic. Merricat has almost gone feral. Uncle Julian, who barely survived the poison, remains weak, addled by its after-effects. They live reclusively in their estate, which is falling into disrepair. They are feared and hated by the people of the nearby town, who simultaneously resent the Blackwood’s privilege (even though it’s in decline), and the transgressions against the moral order the mysterious poisoning implies.
Like Thomas Hardy, Jackson is big on evocative description of environments. The Blackwood “Castle,” the forest that surrounds it and the village beyond it are, like Hill House, fully realized, dense, and smotheringly sensual. You cannot escape forming not only pictures of these homes, but whole floor plans, even if, like me, you’re not a visually-minded reader.
Space, as I mentioned earlier, is intensely important to Jackson, who herself became agoraphobic later in life. We Have Always is an evocative portrait and exploration of that condition. The girls physically and mentally construct elaborate narratives of food and home, despite and because of such narratives’ disruption by the multiple-murder. Constance—who stood trial for poisoning her family, perhaps accidentally, perhaps on purpose—gardens and cooks, preserves and serves, all day, every day.
Merricat practices her own personal form of protective domestic witchcraft, more based on spells than jam. Her system of magical thinking is at once primitive and shrewd. Merricat is a sharply intelligent child who’s drifting away from the influences of the wider world. She refers to an unbreakable continuity of Blackwood Women (“the Blackwood Women have always”), and of Constance as the inheritor of these traditions, while she herself—never womanly in any sexual sense—is always divorced from them. Her trajectory suggests the frightening and seductive possibility of a life wholly detached from, and at odds with, broader social frameworks. Only the most elemental and primitive of these survive—and even these bonds are denatured and warp into strange configurations. The strength of Merricat’s personality bewitches readers, forcing them into an uncomfortable position of unsentimental empathy with her.
Her more literal witchcraft is no less effective. Cousin Charles, a relative who attempts to ingratiate himself with Constance for the family’s remaining money, is banished by Merricat’s rites, even if he cannot be initially warded off by them. Some might want to quibble about the degree to which the book is truly fantastic. But Merricat’s fantastic rules and rituals are real for her, whether or not they’re real for her world (something that’s never entirely clear), and they have real, sometimes devastating, consequences. Her magic is a system of control which helps her cope with the assaults of the outside world. When this is breached, the girls are pushed towards Merricat’s ultimate refuge—her dream of “living on the moon,” in total isolation.
There’s a hysteria-like continuum between madness and femininity here—and between the strength conferred by both. This power opposes the power of strong, sane, young men, who are actors in the outer, rational world, who are governed by rules about behavior and relationships outside the domestic family unit. Mad Uncle Julian, Constance, and Merricat are removed from that exterior world—exiles, outcasts, and fugitives.
We Have Always is haunting and otherworldly; frightening, transcendent, common-place and glorious as a fairy tale should be. The conclusion simultaneously fulfills a modern narrative possibility—women living on the margins of a small community, in a sort of Grey Gardens scenario—and harmonizes with the destinies of mythical, fairy-tale women. The book is open to several such fantastic readings, all of which are somewhat true. By the end of the novel, Merricat has become the witch who captures Rapunzel and keeps her from all men’s eyes, the witch with the gingerbread house that children are warned not to touch. Meri and Constance have simultaneously become goddesses. They are brought offerings of food. Meri’s cat Jonas is her familiar, and her totem, putting Merricat in a context with Bastet or Freyja or their earthy witch descendents. Constance is the Vesta of the piece, ever tending the fire, ever loyal and homey. Constance and Merricat are Weird Sisters: too intimate a duo to admit a third and comprise the traditional trio.
Jackson’s work draws on the female gothic tradition, and circles a corpus of core themes: the body itself, food and providing, ideas of home, the interactions of psychology and places, and familial or sexual relationships between women. This focus doesn’t feel repetitive, or like rehashing. These are simply the topics Jackson’s compelled to write about, and that compulsion manifests itself as a series of intriguing efforts to map her chosen territory. If you haven’t discovered her (and she’s one of those writers where it feels like a discovery, intimate and profound), or if you haven’t gotten around to either of these books, I strongly recommend them. If you’d like to recommend or talk about other Jackson titles or similar work, please do so in the comments, because I for one would be delighted to hear about it!
Erin Horáková is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.