Unsettling ride down a darkened path
The Bird’s Nest By Shirley Jackson Penguin Modern Classics, 272pp, $19.99 The Sundial By Shirley Jackson Penguin Modern Classics, 240pp, $19.99 ‘‘THIS review of Shirley Jackson’s new novel properly begins with the confession that I am not sure of anything about it except its almost unflagging interest.” So began The New York Times review of The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
That book has always remained Jackson’s most famous novel, compressing many of the tricks deployed across her oeuvre. What’s striking about the review is that, more than 50 years later, it remains the most appropriate response to anything the American author has done: confusion, and the curious — perhaps concerning — need to let her lead you farther along a darkened path.
The strangeness of this feeling, both upsetting and a thrill, perhaps accounts for the peculiar state of her legacy. Jackson died in Vermont in 1965 at what was then understood to be the age of 45, but was later revealed to have been 48 (she’d wanted to seem younger than her husband). Most of her works were successful in her lifetime, but only three of them have been anything close to canonised: The Lottery, a short story; We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a short novel; and of course Hill House, which has been filmed twice — once acceptably, once dreadfully.
Hill House is remarkable for its location of horror in the mind, rather than in physical happenings. The house, with an impressive list of tragedies connected with its past (“but then again, people have to live and die somewhere”), causes or amplifies the psychological disturbances already present in its visitors: or really, the reader is never quite sure what it does. But it’s also noteworthy for its mixture of lyricism with workmanlike prose.
Stephen King, another architect of convincing haunted buildings, said there were few descriptive passages in English “any finer” than the opening of Hill House, which is: “No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” Although nothing in Jackson’s writing is exactly what it seems, its quality stands only for itself.
Yet although her most famous works are influential, the rest of her catalogue has somewhat languished. Penguin is seeking to redress this with the release of her lesser-known works in classic format, the latest being two novels: The Bird’s Nest (1954) and The Sundial (1958).
Like Hill House, The Sundial is set on a forbidding estate, with the titular object having arrived from its manufacturer inscribed with the ominous text “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?”. (It’s from Chaucer.) As with We Have Always Lived in the Castle — a slight and perfect book — it stars a family that exaggerates the extreme oddness of all families; in both books, this possibly extends to murder.
But most significant is the DNA it shares with The Lottery. Here, the shared characteristic is that its powerful ideas are still visible throughout culture in ways that go largely unaccredited, perhaps a testament to how naturally they’ve pervaded common thought.
The Lottery, published in The New Yorker in 1948, tells of a long-held lottery in a small American town whose outcome turns out to be less than positive for its winner. The twist is well-known, but just in case, it’s also worth not spoiling it. Although the story does hold up to multiple reads, the sting in its tail can be felt only the once.
Nobody was sure exactly what this story meant to say, and Jackson’s oft-quoted explanation is wonderfully faint: “Well, really it’s just a story.” But readers sensed that it said something unappetising about themselves, and for a time they sent Jackson about a dozen hate letters a day. Many of them cancelled their subscriptions to The New Yorker; imagine a short story causing such a reaction today.
Its premise is ever-present in 2014, most prominently in The Hunger Games. Similarly, the set-up of The Sundial is better-known than its parent novel. It’s about a dysfunctional fam- ily, and their hangers-on, on a garish property, preparing for an imminent apocalypse. Readers may recognise this from Melancholia, the Lars von Trier film. Deeper in the book, they may recognise themes that still turn up in many stories about doomsday cults (this apocalypse, if it occurs, may be the rapture). Although the story has a durable, iconic feel, The Sundial is less funny and less frightening than Jackson’s other books; indeed, it is interesting for its roughness.
The essential reissue is The Bird’s Nest, with each page a wonder of the rare electric territory between hilarity and horror. It’s the story of Elizabeth, a repressed young woman employed by a museum that has lately begun to lilt and sag. (As often for Jackson, the state of one’s architecture is linked to one’s sanity.) Elizabeth has begun to receive threatening notes at the office: “watch out for me lizzie watch out for me”.
Dr Wright, who reluctantly takes up Elizabeth’s case, is the first to find that the notes are being written in Elizabeth’s own hand — and to negotiate with Beth, Betsy, and Bess, which may be her better selves, or her worse. When Betsy appears, the scenes are worthy of The Exorcist, making Elizabeth’s body buck and writhe on the doctor’s couch. It’s delicious that she’s also the most fun.
When Elizabeth and sundry escape on a bus to New York, it’s a classic Jackson fish-out-ofwater scenario: the young woman on the bus who’s in over her head, except the people around her have no idea how busy that head is, with multiple girls invisibly warring for dominance. This is a fiendish bit of writing: a story from shifting points of view that interact with each other and the outside world, which they can affect only singly.
Odd, then, that The Bird’s Nest is Jackson’s most coherent novel. Even Hill House, with its relatively straightforward point of view, contains a famous scene in which one character looks behind her and is provoked to scream by some sight we’re never allowed to witness. Many writers can evoke the sense that something’s just not right; Jackson extends such tensions for entire novels. The Bird’s Nest is surprising because its story has an end, even one that distributes punishments and rewards justly.
There is no shortage of modern writers who can be compared with Jackson, by way of explaining her work, up to a point. She would be just as willing as David Lynch to drop a severed ear on a well-watered patch of suburban lawn — except her loves of the domestic and the gothic are roughly equal. (She also published “disrespectful memoirs” of raising children.) She wrote neuronovels years before there was such a modish term — except that medical diagnosis is about isolating maladies, and this seems antithetical to the aims of Jackson’s work. In her evasions, she is a Henry James with a worse outlook on the heart; in her humour, she is a crueller Muriel Spark.
Her legacy is visible in her every sentence. The trouble is, none of these authors stick around for long; the next sentence will forecast someone else, like as not. But you suspect that Jackson would want you to think you know her, the better to then unsettle, to shock.