Un­set­tling ride down a dark­ened path

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ron­nie Scott

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.