Ghost writer

The spooky bril­liance of Shirley Jack­son

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - BER­NICE M MUR­PHY ■ Ber­nice M Mur­phy is lec­turer in pop­u­lar lit­er­a­ture in the School of English, Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin. She is ed­i­tor of Shirley Jack­son: Es­says on the Lit­er­ary Legacy and is cur­rently writ­ing a book en­ti­tled Cal­i­for­nia Gothic

Shirley Jack­son’s 1959 novel The Haunt­ing of Hill House is one of the most in­flu­en­tial tales of the su­per­nat­u­ral ever writ­ten. It was Jack­son’s se­cond-last novel, and sealed her rep­u­ta­tion as a writer of el­e­gantly writ­ten but emo­tion­ally dev­as­tat­ing hor­ror fic­tion. It en­sured that she would al­ways be held in high es­teem by the genre’s fans and cre­ators: for in­stance, Stephen King is one of her big­gest cheer­lead­ers, and sev­eral of his nov­els, in­clud­ing The Shin­ing (1977), are vis­i­bly in­flu­enced by her work (the Over­look Ho­tel, like Hill House, is a very bad place in­deed for vis­i­tors with psy­chic pow­ers).

How­ever, the fact that Jack­son was also one of the most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful and and ver­sa­tile Amer­i­can writ­ers of the post-war era is of­ten over­looked. Even be­fore she pub­lished her first novel, she was a lit­er­ary celebrity thanks to her in­fa­mous short story The Lot­tery. When it was pub­lished in the New Yorker in June 1948, the tale’s shock­ing con­clu­sion at­tracted more hate mail than any­thing pre­vi­ously fea­tured in mag­a­zine, and made Jack­son one of the most talked-about writ­ers in the coun­try.

Al­though the Net­flix TV se­ries of the same name is not, as show cre­ator/direc­tor Mike Flana­gan has made clear, a di­rect adap­ta­tion, many of Jack­son’s most no­table themes (and most mem­o­rable scares) have been sen­si­tively wo­ven in to the fab­ric of the show.

Dur­ing her life­time Jack­son pub­lished six nov­els, sev­eral chil­dren’s books, and more than 80 short sto­ries, many of them, like The Lot­tery, justly con­sid­ered clas­sics. In ad­di­tion, thanks to the many hu­mor­ous fam­ily sketches that she pub­lished in women’s mag­a­zines such as Ladies’

Home Jour­nal, Jack­son, a mar­ried mother of four, was one of the most pub­licly vis­i­ble “housewives” of the 1950s – so much so that her writ­ing was cri­tiqued by Betty Friedan in The Fem­i­nine

Mys­tique (1963). Themes re­lated to do­mes­tic­ity, con­flicted moth­er­hood, un­sta­ble iden­tity, and fe­male anger per­vade Jack­son’s fic­tion. Four of her six com­pleted nov­els re­volve around young women suf­fer­ing from se­vere men­tal dis­tur­bance. In The Bird’s Nest (1954), The Sun­dial (1958) and We

Have Al­ways Lived in the Cas­tle (1962), as in Hill House, the con­nec­tion be­tween do­mes­tic space and psy­cho­log­i­cal land­scape is ex­ploited to un­set­tling ef­fect.

In an in­trigu­ing coun­ter­point to the gen­er­ally cheer­ful fa­mil­ial chaos of her comic writ­ing, the nu­clear fam­ily in Jack­son’s fic­tion is char­ac­terised by se­crecy, dys­func­tion, and re­sent­ment. Th­ese ten­sions re­sult in mur­der in both The

Sun­dial and We Have Al­ways Lived In the Cas­tle, the lat­ter of which is set in the af­ter­math of a tense fam­ily din­ner that wiped out six mem­bers of the wealthy Blackwood clan (some­body spiked the sugar bowl with ar­senic).

The Haunt­ing of Hill House owed much to Jack­son’s life­long in­ter­est in ar­chi­tec­ture and in the in­ves­ti­ga­tions car­ried out by the So­ci­ety for Psy­chi­cal Re­search. Hav­ing al­ready de­cided that her next novel was go­ing to be about ghosts (al­though, as she noted in her es­say Ex­pe­ri­ence

and Fic­tion, she was, ini­tially at least, “per­fectly pre­pared to keep those ghosts wholly imag­i­nary”), she be­gan to read ac­counts writ­ten by mem­bers of a late-Vic­to­rian ghost-hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tion, and found that she was more in­ter­ested in the dy­namic that ex­isted be­tween the in­ves­ti­ga­tors than in the houses they were study­ing. As she put it, “They thought they were be­ing ter­ri­bly sci­en­tific and prov­ing all sorts of things, and yet the story that kept com­ing through their dry re­ports was not at all the story of a haunted house, it was the story of sev­eral earnest, I be­lieve mis­guided, cer­tainly de­ter­mined peo­ple, with their dif­fer­ing mo­ti­va­tions and back­grounds. I found it so ex­cit­ing that I wanted more than any­thing to set up my own haunted house, and put my own peo­ple in it, and see what I could make hap­pen.”


The ba­sic premise is there­fore de­cep­tively sim­ple. Dr John Mon­tague, an aca­demic de­ter­mined to sci­en­tif­i­cally prove the ex­is­tence of ghosts, rents a re­put­edly haunted man­sion in ru­ral New Eng­land, and in­vites sev­eral in­di­vid­u­als with psy­chic abil­i­ties to spend the sum­mer there with him. (He be­lieves that such peo­ple are more re­cep­tive to the su­per­nat­u­ral.) Only two of his contacts write back: Theodora (who goes by “Theo” – no last name), a witty, glam­orous and sex­u­ally am­bigu­ous telepath, and her ap­par­ent op­po­site, a painfully re­pressed young woman named Eleanor Vance, who may have demon­strated tele­ki­netic abil­i­ties as a young­ster. Luke San­der­son, the charm­ing but dis­so­lute heir to Hill House, comes along as a fam­ily rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

The house is main­tained by tac­i­turn lo­cal cou­ple Mr and Mrs Dud­ley, whose re­fusal to re­main af­ter dark sug­gests that they have an en­tirely sen­si­ble fear of the place. Al­though the vis­i­tors quickly bond – and are soon, omi­nously, play­fully re­fer­ring to them­selves as a “fam­ily” – it rapidly be­comes clear that Hill House is ex­ert­ing a dan­ger­ous in­flu­ence upon Eleanor. Her ini­tial, hor­ri­fied re­ac­tion to the house was also her most ac­cu­rate: “Hill House is vile, it is dis­eased; get away from here at once.”

Hill House was well-re­ceived by con­tem­po­rary read­ers, and soon adapted for the screen. Robert Wise’s 1963 black-and-white film ver­sion, The

Haunt­ing, is con­sid­ered a clas­sic in its own right, not least be­cause it so bril­liantly stages many of the novel’s most chill­ing episodes, in­clud­ing the spine-tin­gling mo­ment when Eleanor (Julie Har­ris), hav­ing been ter­ri­fied by noises in the mid­dle of the night, sud­denly re­alises that the hand she has grasped for com­fort is not that of her new friend Theo (Claire Bloom), but some­one – or some­thing – else.

The 1999 re­make was a bloated, non­sen­si­cal CGI-heavy fi­asco. Thank­fully, al­though it de­parts even more sub­stan­tially than that ver­sion from Jack­son’s core premise, the Net­flix se­ries in­spired by the novel in­tel­li­gently in­cor­po­rates many of her most no­table themes and sce­nar­ios – in­clud­ing a clever vari­a­tion on the “Whose hand was I hold­ing?” scene. The fact that the se­ries fo­cuses upon five grown-up sib­lings dev­as­tated by the death of their mother is lent ad­di­tional poignancy by the fact that Jack­son her­self died sud­denly at the age of 49, when her youngest child was only 13.

The show marks the lat­est high­point in a re­mark­able resur­gence of pop­u­lar in­ter­est in Jack­son. She has a higher pub­lic pro­file now than any time since her death in Au­gust 1965. Her back cat­a­logue has been re­pub­lished by Pen­guin un­der the Mod­ern Clas­sics im­print. Ruth Franklin’s award-win­ning 2016 bi­og­ra­phy,

Shirley Jack­son: A Rather Haunted Life, helped bring re­newed crit­i­cal at­ten­tion to her life and work. A long-awaited movie adap­ta­tion of We

Have Al­ways Lived in the Cas­tle, filmed in Ire­land, will soon be re­leased. Sev­eral other film, TV and theatre adap­ta­tions are in the works. Fur­ther­more, in a de­vel­op­ment that would prob­a­bly have filled the no­to­ri­ously cam­era-shy au­thor with hor­ror, Elis­a­beth Moss is set to play Jack­son in a film based on Su­san Scarf Mer­rell’s 2014 thriller Shirley.

The Jack­son­ais­sance is long over­due and well de­served, not least be­cause she cre­ated what is still the most hor­ri­fy­ing haunted house ever com­mit­ted to the page – a ma­nip­u­la­tive, sen­tient and de­cep­tively moth­erly mon­ster that ruth­lessly ex­ploits the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of those fool­ish enough to step over its thresh­old. As Jack­son puts it: “It was a house with­out kind­ness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for peo­ple or for love or for hope. Ex­or­cism can­not al­ter the coun­te­nance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was un­til it was de­stroyed.” Vic­tims may come and go, but this house al­ways wins.


Above: Ju­lian Hil­liard inNet­flix’s The Haunt­ing of Hill House. Left: Claire Bloom and Julie Har­ris in The Haunt­ing, Robert Wise’s 1963 adap­ta­tion of Hill House. Right: Shirley Jack­son.

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