Monday, June 13, 2016

Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories

I have happily discovered how to streamline my local classical music station from my computer.  Yes I realize that makes me the last person on the planet to figure this out,  but since our Classic Radio station is in Shreveport and I can't seem to get it on any radio in my house without white noise this is indeed a happy occasion.

So far I haven't been able to find the listings to tell me what I'm listening to but it is some sort of violin concerto from the classic period and either the first or third movement is playing because it is energetic and robust.  

I am going to try to write this with guinea pigs running around the table.  It's raining outside and I can't put them out yet and they've been inside all night so I'm letting them play a little so they won't be bored. Let's see how strong my powers of concentration are midst the "week week weeking".

Shirley Jackson belongs to a group of American writers dedicated to a writing style known as "Gothic".   I looked that word up in order to better understand why this genre is known by that term and this is what I found on a google search:

adjective: Gothic; adjective: Gothick; adjective: gothic
  1. 1.
    of or relating to the Goths or their extinct East Germanic language, which provides the earliest manuscript evidence of any Germanic language (4th–6th centuries AD).
  2. 2.
    of or in the style of architecture prevalent in western Europe in the 12th–16th centuries, characterized by pointed arches, rib vaults, and flying buttresses, together with large windows and elaborate tracery.
  3. 3.
    belonging to or redolent of the Dark Ages; portentously gloomy or horrifying.

    "19th-century Gothic horror"
  4. 4.
    (of lettering) of or derived from the angular style of handwriting with broad vertical downstrokes used in western Europe from the 13th century, including Fraktur and black-letter typefaces.
  5. 5.
    of or relating to goths or their rock music.
noun: Gothic
  1. 1.
    the language of the Goths.
  2. 2.
    the Gothic style of architecture.

    I believe for Jackson's literature we are looking at the third use as an adjective:  "portentously gloomy or horrifying."

    Jackson seems to take a sadistic delight in keeping the reader on edge hoping against hope that nothing bad will happen to the innocent protagonist (s).  Sometimes she's just teasing and the story ends rather innocuously.  Other times  we're not so lucky.  Jackson enjoyed her little power trips.

     Some of those stories are interesting for taking us back to a  time period that doesn't exist anymore.  Where women did not work outside the home, but largely focused their energies on raising their children and, according to Jackson, keeping precise and socially acceptable appearances.  Jackson shows a lack of mercy in her characters.  Anything outside the accepted norm is not tolerated and sometimes punished in cruel ways.  (No, I'm not even talking about the Lottery.  Yet.)
    Most of her stories are taken from the perception of a woman.  We read her thoughts as she tries to work her way through life.  They are poignant because they reveal inner struggles and a pervading loneliness that women suffer in various walks of life-the single woman seeking love, friendship- or the married woman trying to fit in with her neighbors, acquire friends...or sometimes the opposite:  the woman who is determined to protect her family from anything or anyone that deviates from her insulated world.

    How much of this is an accurate portrayal of American culture in the forties and fifties and how much of it is a caricature drawn in charcoal by Jackson is up for discussion.  I personally believe that any form of expression, including writing, is the overflow of the heart and mind of the communicator.  I had a similar argument with some people about the photography of Diane Arbus. 

    Jackson's most powerful works in this book are the two novels:  The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

    I am going to be careful describing these stories because if you haven't read them, you don't want to be told the ending because they are startling.  The ending for Hill House I found myself coming back to again and again.  Just the last sentence.  I wish I could tell you, but it would be stealing to deprive you of that last, unexpected shock.

    Four people come to stay at Hill House, an abandoned dwelling outside a small dead-end town in New England.  One, Dr. Montague wants to conduct scientific research on the strange "energy" the house seems to possess so he carefully selects a couple of women who seem to possess some sort of sensitivity to metaphysical phenomena.  The fourth person is Luke whose family owns the house.  Luke is something of a ne'er do well and he was sent to keep  him out of trouble as well as keep a watch on the others.

    The two women, Eleanor and Theodora are very different people.  Theodora, vivacious, bubbly, attractive, came on a whim after a falling out with her room mate but Eleanor is seeking meaning and purpose to her life.  Single, lonely, living with her sister because she had nowhere else to go after years of caring for her mother who eventually died, Eleanor is trying to break out of an empty, boring shell.  

    She steals the family car and races out to Hill House against the will of her sister.  She hopes to be able to spend the summer there before getting caught.

    At first it seems as though Theodora and Eleanor are going to become good friends, so much so that Eleanor decides that after Hill House she will go to live with Theodora.  When Eleanor shares this sentiment with Theodora, Theodora begins to distance herself.

    It's a sad commentary on someone who has never fit in with society and because of their circumstances,which created a certain isolation, they don't know how to fit in and worse, society won't let that person in.

    Meanwhile, the house is watching and seeking to absorb Eleanor.

    The story is suspenseful with no relief or respite (unless you put the book down and go think about something else).  The ending leaves you chilled.

    The other novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle  is chilling in a different way.  Two sisters, Mary Katherine (called Merricat) and Constance live in a large house on the outskirts of town. Initially we see Merricat in town buying groceries.  She is treated with open hostility, she walks back to her house surrounded by jeering children who are encouraged by their parents.  

    At first this seems to be the same commentary that Jackson makes in her other stories.  Someone a little different is rejected by the greater whole, but as the story progresses we realize that, in fact, the townspeople have good reason to hate Merricat and her sister.

    The sisters used to live with their parents and other relatives in the house but they were all poisened.  The only ones who survived was an Uncle who felt ill and didn't eat the meal. Merricat had been sent to her room and also didn't eat the meal. Constance doesn't eat sugar and it was the sugar that was poisoned. I say all that because the murderer isn't necessarily who you think it is.  
    Constance was tried for murder but acquitted.  The town feels this injustice keenly and vents their rage against the two sisters when they can.

    As a result, Constance won't leave the house and Merricat only goes into town every couple of weeks for supplies.

    Throughout the story the sisters regard each other with great affection and engage in light banter about mundane things concerning housekeeping, cooking, baking, gardening; they have created an artificial world where everything is always perfect and they only need each other.

    But there is an underlining current that is sinister, revealed through the ramblings of the Uncle who is ill and mentally unstable, as the reader slowly learns the horrible thing that happened in the house which makes the two girls' playacting all the more disturbing.

    Things finally come to a head (I won't spoil the ending) and the outer reality comes crashing down, but the girls remain undefeated.  They continue to live as though nothing has happened, determined to play their charade to the end.

    The Lottery I won't comment on since everyone knows it and it is the one story that propelled Jackson's writing into every American anthology and required school reading for high school.

    What I will say is that my edition, the Library of America, includes Jackon's reasons for writing The Lottery ("it was just a story I thought up when pushing my daughter in her stroller to and from the store") and the backlash she received by outraged readers.  She includes some of the letters and some of them are really funny and sarcastic.

    My edition also includes a brief biography and chronology of Jackson's life, but I hope to read a good biography because I want to learn more about this lady who, with her writing, pierces the window of the human soul and shows us sadness, as well as strangeness- but not without a puckish humor.


Brian Joseph said...

I have not read Shirley Jackson but I would like to.

Hill House is kind of a famous story. There were several film versions, I remember one called The Haunting was very good.

I agree with you about art and literature being an expression of reality based on the creator's mind. With that, art varies in how realistic it is.

I love your guinea pigs.

Unknown said...

Every time I read your blog, I find a new book I want to read. I enjoy suspenseful stories, so The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle both sound exciting.
I am not sure if I have ever read the Lottery either. If I have, I cannot remember it.

Thanks for the great blog post!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! I haven't seen any of the movies. I think I will, though, now that I've read the book. I wonder how they adapted the book, which is mostly narrative, to the screen which is mostly visual.

I'm sure my guinea pigs would also love you. Especially if you were holding a carrot. :)

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Chris! The Lottery is the most famous because it is so shocking and created such an outrage with the readers of the New Yorker where it was first published.

As they say, no publicity is bad publicity so the book was propelled into fame this way.

The Lottery is about town folk that have a yearly lottery and the winner doesn't win money, let's put it that way. A gruesome little story.

Unknown said...

Sounds interesting