LUCY LETHBRIDGE admires the opening paragraphs (and the novels) of the American writer Shirley Jackson
In the United States, her novels are up there on the required reading list, cult classics of modern American gothic; but I have to admit that I’d never heard of Shirley Jackson until about a year ago. Then I read somewhere or other, probably on the internet while looking for something else, that the opening paragraph of Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill
House was ‘hailed by critics’ as the finest opening paragraph in all literature, ever. Which, even allowing for the echo chamber of online opinion, is quite a claim. Here it is in its entirety:
No living organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
As opening paragraphs go, it really is a cracker. Punctuationists will rave about Jackson’s sublime mastery of the comma and the semi-colon, but the general reader will simply want, desperately, to read on. The
Haunting of Hill House is a compelling tale of insanity and fear wrapped up in the conventional wrappings of a ghost story. An oddly assorted group are gathered together to investigate a haunted house. But who is the haunted? Is it the evils of the house’s past or is it lonely Eleanor whose account seems strangely to dictate the action?
Having devoured Hill House in a single afternoon, I went on to another Jackson classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It also has a superb opener – second sentence: ‘I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length …’ Like Hill House, the castle (the large house belonging to the Blackwood family) is meticulously recreated, with due care given to descriptions of carpets, teacups and eiderdowns. I’ve never encountered a writer who can convey so acutely both the comfort and the menace of domestic objects. Her buildings are burdened with character: where Hill House is ‘vile’, a hideous assemblage of deceptive angles and off-kilter corridors, the Blackwood home is a tidy fortress against the cruder world, evil kept in and kept out, rum cakes always just emerging warm from Constance Blackwood’s stove, poison in the sugar bowl.
I went on to Jackson’s famous short story The Lottery, which was published in the New Yorker in 1948. About a housewife chosen as the victim for the annual rituals of her small town, the story provoked a furore: no other piece of work in the magazine has before or since attracted so many furious letters. And, written in the same deceptively ordinary voice of pedantic, neurotic, particularity, it is a chilling account of hatred sanctioned by tradition. Jackson has a genius for dialogue that reveals when it conceals. Other short stories are pretty brilliant too: sometimes characters reappear in them, like the strange James Harris who is the shadowy absentee fiancé in The Daemon Lover, about a woman, past her prime, on her wedding day. I can’t recall ever reading so strikingly terrifying an account simply of waiting.
Who was Shirley Jackson? What kind of life fed this extraordinary imagination? It was ostensibly a quiet life, lived for the most part in the kind of turretty, verandah-ed clapboard mansions that she would invest with such palpably sinister energies in her fictions. Her mother was a social climber and young Shirley, clever and not beautiful, could never please her. She married a well-known critic and settled in North Bennington, Vermont, where he taught at a liberal arts college and philandered with his students, and she raised four children, did the cooking (food features deliciously in her novels), looked after the house and kept the family financially by her writing. She produced at a prodigious rate, books, articles (many of them about her domestic life) and stories – often conveying with a touch so light as to be barely perceptible the secret agony of female incarceration. She chainsmoked, drank heavily and got extremely fat – and one or all these factors could have been the cause of her death, suddenly in her sleep, in 1965, at the age of 48. But what a legacy she left behind.
‘Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone’