Domestic Horror: Shirley Jackson - Horror at Midcentury - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Domestic Horror: Shirley Jackson
Horror at Midcentury
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Shirley Jackson (1916—1965) is something of a forgotten figure in American literature. Even the year of her birth was, until recently, a matter of doubt, since she herself cut off a few years and claimed to be born in 1919, so as not to appear older than her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (1919—1970). Because she was not firmly ensconced in either mainstream fiction or weird fiction, critics in both genres have tended to ignore her. Although mainstream critics admire her artistry in the short story, they disdain the oftentimes grim and horrific subject-matter of her tales and novels; while the horror community, noting that she published in the New Yorker and Mademoiselle instead of the horror or science fiction pulps (or, as they were on the point of dying, their successors, the digest magazines), seems to regard her as a dilettante who is merely slumming in their field.

It is unclear to me how much orthodox weird fiction Jackson read; there is little evidence, judging solely from the internal evidence of her fiction, of any significant influence—or, indeed, any influence at all—from Lovecraft or other Weird Tales writers or even of older figures such as the Victorian ghost story writers, Bram Stoker, or Arthur Machen. Jackson’s weird writing, intensely character-based and domestic as it is, appears to have been a kind of strange outgrowth of her family life: the mother of four children and the wife of a notorious philanderer, Jackson papered over the traumas of her life in the dozens of sketches that she collected in her two utterly captivating books about her family, Life among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). So many of Jackson’s weird tales involve perversions of domestic or social scenarios that no dominant literary influence can or should be brought forth to account for their subject-matter or execution.

One of Jackson’s relatively few comments on weird fiction occurred relatively early in her career, in 1948, when she addressed the issue of using the supernatural as a metaphor for human beings’ relations to each other and to society:

I have had for many years a consuming interest in magic and the supernatural. I think this is because I find there so convenient a shorthand statement of the possibilities of human adjustment to what seems to be at best an inhuman world… . [E]verything I write [involves] the sense which I feel, of a human and not very rational order struggling inadequately to keep in check forces of great destruction, which may be the devil and may be intellectual enlightenment. (Oppenheimer 125)

The ease with which Jackson can alternate between domestic fiction and weird fiction is illustrated by a single example. An uncollected story, “The House” (Woman’s Day, May 1952), was included in Life among the Savages—but not all of it. What seems, in that book, like an engaging autobiographical account of moving into a new house proves, in the magazine appearance, to be a ghost story about a physician (the original builder of the house, in 1816) whose presence continues to be felt.

If it is the case that Jackson’s first weird tale is “The Lottery” (New Yorker, 26 June 1948), then we must ask why she wrote a spate of borderline horror stories at this precise juncture. I’m not sure of the answer, and I’m not sure an answer can be given. Even “The Lottery,” manifestly non-supernatural as it is, fits only uneasily into the rubric of weird fiction, unless we assume that the overall scenario—the very existence of a lottery of the sort depicted in the story—throws the tale into the realm of alternate-world science fiction. What “The Lottery” is about is, of course, scapegoating—but, more specifically, it is an instantiation of a comment Jackson made in her novel Hangsaman (1951): “Another instance … of ritual gone to seed” (62). The lottery is based on the continuing belief that a human sacrifice must be made to ensure good crops, and it is precisely the townspeople’s resolute determination to preserve this outmoded and irrational rite that generates horror.

Another story from this period, “The Summer People” (1949), is a potent tale of psychological horror. When a couple decide to remain in their summer cottage past Labor Day—something that has never done before—they quickly find themselves the recipients of increasingly vicious vengeance on the part of the locals, who resent this violation of long-held custom.

Some of Jackson’s most effective tales are those that tread the borderline between psychological and supernatural horror, resulting in an unidentifiable atmosphere that Robert Aickman would simply label “strange.” The celebrated tale “The Daemon Lover” (1949) tells of a lonely young woman, Margaret, who seeks to lend meaning to her existence by apparently fabricating the existence of a lover, James Harris, to whom she believes herself to be engaged. When he fails to show up at her apartment, she ventures out to look for him. Various individuals seem to point her in the direction where they think Harris has gone—but the perennially unanswered question is: Does James Harris have any existence outside Margaret’s imagination? But if he does not, why are these other people apparently fostering her delusion?

Then there is “The Lovely House” (1952), perhaps Jackson’s most subtle weird tale. Here a college girl, again named Margaret, comes to the home of her friend Carla Rhodes for a visit. The tale develops a powerful atmosphere of weirdness through the deliberately artificial dialogue—it is as if all the characters know they are in a work of fiction. Carla’s mother has, throughout the story, been weaving a tapestry of the house. At the conclusion we read the following:

“You will not leave us before my brother comes again?” Carla asked Margaret.

“I have only to put the figures into the foreground,” Mrs. Rhodes said, hesitating on her way to the drawing room. “I shall have you exactly if you sit on the lawn near the river.”

“We shall be models of stillness,” said Carla, laughing. “Margaret, will you come and sit beside me on the lawn?” (Come Along with Me 120)

What has apparently happened is that Margaret is being woven into the fabric of the house by way of the tapestry.

Other tales by Jackson are perhaps too tenuous—or too much on the borderline of the weird—for detailed analysis. There is “The Renegade” (1948), in which a family newly moved into a country town find the neighbours recommending increasingly hideous and cruel punishments for their purportedly misbehaving dog. There is “Pillar of Salt” (1948), about a woman from the country so terrified of being in New York City that she is unable to cross a street. And there is “The Intoxicated” (1949). A man at a rather boring party encounters a girl of seventeen who is harrowingly certain that the world is going to come to an end soon. Is she right?—in which case she is (supernaturally) clairvoyant. Is she insane?—in which case the tale is one of psychological suspense. Or is she merely a kind of tease?—in which case she is a little sadist, making the tale a different kind of psychological suspense. That Jackson refrains from answering these questions attests to the artistic restraint of her work.

Jackson published six novels in her lifetime, from 1948 to 1962. Of these, at least four are of interest from a weird context. The Bird’s Nest (1954) is perhaps the most disappointing of them: an account of a woman with multiple personalities, the novel could have been an effective tale of psychological horror were it not for its clumsy execution and the unsuccessful portrayal of the excessively rational psychologist who is treating the woman. The Sundial (1958) is an utterly unclassifiable tale of the Halloran family, which is convinced that the rest of the world is soon going to end. The entire novel takes place within the house where a motley array of family members are gathered, each with their own idiosyncrasies and all of them tyrannised by the domineering Mrs. Halloran. The atmosphere of claustrophic bizarrerie is unmatched, for all that nothing overtly supernatural occurs.

The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) are Jackson’s most exhaustive contributions to weirdness, the one from a supernatural, the other from a non-supernatural perspective. I am far from endorsing the common view that The Haunting of Hill House is the best haunted-house novel ever written; for my money, the palm ought now to be awarded to Ramsey Campbell’s The House on Nazareth Hill (1996). Hill House—whose premise is the attempt by Dr. John Montague to enlist three other individuals (all with purported psychic abilities) to investigate the nature of the “haunting” of Hill House—is, in fact, a bit diffuse and unfocused, and its plethora of supernatural phenomena seem to be paraded somewhat unsystematically merely to create a shudder. Where the novel triumphs is in its exquisitely delicate but cumulatively powerful portrayal of its central figure, the lonely spinster (the sexist word precisely suits this context) Eleanor Vance, perhaps Jackson’s most skilfully etched portrait of the weak-willed, love-starved woman. Some of the details in this novel are uncommonly fine. At one point, the guests find some crude writing on the wall—“HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” (103). The wording is significant: it is not “Help Eleanor go home,” which would seem to be the more natural expression if the sense is that Eleanor should leave Hill House; rather, the sentence suggests that Eleanor must be made to feel at home, that Hill House is where she belongs—or, as she herself says toward the end, “Hill House belongs to me” (173). It is in this context that we are to understand the constant repetition of the plangent Shakespearean line “Journeys end in lovers meeting”—for Eleanor has made a long journey to be at Hill House, the only entity that has truly loved her and where she has become the person she wants to be. It is inevitable, therefore, that she kills herself in a car accident when she is forced by the others to leave the edifice, echoing the fate of the last occupant of Hill House two decades before.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle brings Jackson’s satirical skills to the forefront in its searing display of the hatred and occasional violence directed at the Blackwood family for past derelictions that are only revealed at the conclusion. The town’s shunning of the family, especially the sisters Mary Katherine (called Merricat) and Constance, escalates to the point where the house is finally burned down. Ostensibly, this ostracism is incited by the deaths of several family members by poisoning six years earlier, a crime for which Constance was tried and found innocent; it is perhaps no surprise that, in the end, we learn that Merricat is the true culprit. The vicious mutual hatred exhibited by the townspeople and by the Blackwood sisters, especially Merricat, raises this novel to a Biercian level of misanthropic horror.

Although the number of actual supernatural specimens in Jackson’s work is quite small, her work as a whole is pervaded with an abiding sense of the weirdness that can emerge from the commonest elements of ordinary life. Her penetrating understanding of human character, and especially of human loneliness even in the midst of crowds, and the rapierlike satire that she frequently directed at the bountiful instances of greed, stupidity, smallmindedness, hypocrisy, and other lamentably common human foibles render much of her work chillingly terrifying even when nothing overtly bizarre occurs. Jackson now seems, belatedly, to be garnering the attention in the mainstream community that she deserves, as the recent (2010) Library of America volume of her work attests; it would be welcome if the weird community similarly embraced a consummate literary artist who was able to span what can occasionally seem like a yawning gulf between the mainstream and the weird.