Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Humorous or Haunted: Will the Real Shirley Jackson Please Stand Up?

Some readers think of Shirley Jackson as a highly perverse writer with a taste for the macabre, the author of such creepy stories as “The Lottery.” (Stephen King is a serious fan.) Others remember her as a happy homemaker, someone who chronicled the misadventures of her four kids with both exasperation and amusement. Jackson’s Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, highly popular in their day, made her a kind of forerunner to Jean Kerr (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies) and Erma Bombeck, both of whom wrote about domestic life with love and glee. I’ve just finished a fascinating new biography by Ruth Franklin. It’s called Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, and it argues that Jackson’s spooky predilections and her affectionate regard for her brood reveal two sides of a very complex personality.  

Shirley loved her kids and her kitchen. In an era (the Fifties) when being a housewife was considered a high calling, she excelled at whipping up creative meals, tending the family pets, and stimulating her children’s already-active imaginations. On the other hand, surrounded by her busy brood and a husband (critic Stanley Edgar Hyman) who was not a reliable helpmeet, she had to fight desperately to find time to sit down and write, an obligation that was all the more necessary because she was the family’s financial mainstay. Nor did her own inner resources make life easier: she hated her physical appearance and fought a losing battle to please her stern, unyielding mother. Later in life (she died of heart failure at the all-too-early age of 48) she struggled with agoraphobia. Which meant that for months at a time she was reluctant to stir from her large and ramshackle Vermont house. Given her penchant for writing haunted-house stories, her neurotic fear of leaving her own hearth and home speaks volumes.

In movie terms, Shirley Jackson is best know for The Haunting of Hill House, the 1959 novel that was Hollywoodized as The Haunting (1963). Directed by Robert Wise soon after his 1961 triumph with West Side Story, it’s an elegant black-&-white depiction of psychological terror, focusing on the effectively fragile Julie Harris. But the main character must be – and is – the huge, gaudy, and thoroughly enigmatic Hill House, in which a small clutch of psychic investigators plan to stay the night. Wise comes from a background as a film editor (he worked on Citizen Kane), and his startling shots do convince us that evil is afoot. The Haunting has been compared to Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents, a movie that shook me to my core when I was a teen. For me The Haunting is not nearly so disturbing, though—despite small departures from Jackson’s original story—it remains an effective exploration of the ambiguity of evil. (I haven’t seen the big-name 1999 remake, but it’s been universally panned.)

After finishing the Jackson biography, I was moved to read more of Jackson’s own writing. I was promptly floored by the power of her last completed novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). This eerie experiment in first-person narration takes us into the mind of a young girl with a very unusual perspective on life. Once again there’s a disturbing old mansion, and two unforgettable female characters who live in a world of their own making. (Yes, it sounds a bit like the real-life Grey Gardens.) Upon reading it, I thought it was ripe for film adaptation . . .  then discovered that a new British film of the novel will be released this year. Will it do Jackson justice? We shall see.

This isn’t much of a Valentine’s Day post, I realize, but some might argue that Jackson’s personal dichotomy illustrates what marriage is all about: two parts domestic delight and one part horror. Not that I’m speaking personally, of course.

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