Excerpt from Essay "The Weird Sisters"
Los Angeles Review of Books Print Journal, 2014.
Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), if she had been around for the internet, would either be Margaret-Atwood-like, a just-elusive-enough mandarin of Twitter and the web, totally in charge of and amused by her own presence there, or a technoskeptic scornful of the avenue the web can open between a writer and the bewildered, the cranky, the outraged, or the just plain nutty. After her most famous story, “The Lottery,” was published in The New Yorker on June 28, 1948, she received hundreds of varyingly hostile letters, in person and via the magazine. In her essay “Biography of a Story,” she remarked that if the letters the magazine received “could be considered to give any accurate cross-section of the reading public […] I would stop writing now. Judging from these letters, people who read stories are gullible, rude, frequently illiterate, and horribly afraid of being laughed at.” Perhaps the nicest response — nicer even than her mother’s — was “It certainly is modern.” I guess you can’t blame those readers, since nothing could have prepared them for Jackson’s calm tale: the people of a Norman-Rockwell-esque New England town gather on the square and draw papers from a mysterious box, then — almost at the end — they lift stones and close in on their victim, Tessie Hutchinson, who can only cry “It isn’t fair” before “they were upon her.” And the story ends, refusing any consoling explanation.
Shirley Jackson started out attempting to be what the 1930s world of her young California womanhood would have deemed a normal girl — including trying to please a bustly, nosy, bourgeois mother whose response to her work was uncomprehendingly bemused at best — and then just gave up. Good for her. And better for us. In six novels, two darkly funny parenting memoirs, and scores of short stories, she sketched a distinctive world, tilted sideways and etched in bright, sharp clarity. Her characters never need to insist on their own strangeness, or show it off in the kind of over-the-top prose that betrays writerly anxiety. They thoroughly inhabit their worlds, looking out at us with unruffled calm, until we begin to wonder if it’s we — not they — who are abnormal. Not coincidentally, the most striking of these are women, coolly rebuking midcentury Doris Day norms: surreal college freshman Natalie Waite of Hangsaman (1951), schizophrenic Elizabeth of The Bird’s Nest (1954), suddenly prophetic spinster Aunt Fanny of The Sundial (1958), sort-of-psychic Eleanor of The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and terrifyingly familicidal teenager Mary Katherine Blackwood of We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Jackson’s life (at least the four children, Bennington-professor husband, cigarettes, and cooking), looked from the outside like many another woman’s life at midcentury, but her work rips back the veil of normalcy from such lives. She reveals a void — reeling, gasp-inducing, cold — but one that can feel like a logical response to the dimly cloaked horrors of normal life. The place she takes us feels distinctly, uncomfortably recognizable, and uncomfortably close.
In Jackson’s hands a third-person-limited point of view can be extremely intimate, as in The Haunting of Hill House, and a first-person point of view, as in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, can steadily increase the distance between reader and speaker, even as it promises self-revelation. Eleanor, the protagonist of Hill House, is lonely and rootless, eroded from years of caring for an invalid mother, and therefore prey to being overtaken by others, living or dead. Merricat, narrator of Castle,reveals herself to us, all right, but it’s doubtful whether she means us to learn all that we do amid the steadily growing, domestically enclosed horror Jackson builds.
In Hill House, Eleanorhas been invited to participate in a scientific experiment to determine whether Hill House is actually haunted, because as a child she caused a shower of stones to rain on her house out of a clear blue sky (like the stones that kill Tessie Hutchinson in “The Lottery,” except this girl stones not only her mother and her sister but herself.) Eleanor is at first shocked by the house’s angular grimness — “It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope” — then terrified by midnight door-knockings and mysterious writing on the walls: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. Yet gradually her feelings shift, until she’s running around the house at night, calling happily for her dead mother: “’You’re here somewhere,’ she said, and down the hall the little echo went, slipping in a whisper on the tiny currents of air. ‘Somewhere,’ it said. ‘Somewhere.’” With a chill, the reader recognizes the stuff of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (or of 1950s womanhood); first you chafe at being confined to your house, then it starts to grow on until that world becomes downright comforting —the wrongness of that strange comfort obvious to everyone but you.
Like Eleanor, 18-year-old narrator of Castle,Merricat, and her family are also housebound, but proudly so. She announces herself to us in the first paragraph:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. 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, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
A textbook effective beginning: of course you sense these things are linked, and this strangely defiant declarative voice with its affinities for the misshapen, freakish, and deadly cannot bode well. But it puts you on Merricat’s side, at least a little, even as the increasing oddness of her behavior makes you wonder if the villagers’ taunts may be justified. One day the entire Blackwood family sat down to a poisoned dinner, and all of them died — except now-invalid Julian, Constance, and Merricat, who had been sent to bed without supper. Ever since, the three of them have lived in apparently happy isolation in the family home, fenced off and shut away. But with young Cousin Charles’s arrival — is he fortune-hunting, or really courting Constance? — catastrophe comes too. And Merricat’s brilliantly oblique narration makes it impossible, even by the novel’s end, to judge how much of a catastrophe it really is. Castle’s technical proficiency enshrines and protects its quietly horrifying and relentlessly self-questioning weirdness. The novel takes itself apart, and it takes apart the reader, too.
Where are the real terrors? Within the town: “In this village the men stayed young and did the gossiping and the women aged with grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home.” Within the house and its small-town-gentry artifacts: “Blackwoods had always lived in our house, and kept their things in order; as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world.” Within the woman herself: Merricat’s older sister Constance, whom a rare family friend begs to “come back into the world,” cloisters herself in the house she keeps clean and fragrant with the scent of perfectly cooked meals. “Your sister works like a slave,” Charles tells Merricat, yet Constance has enslaved herself, as the reader can see even if Charles and Merricat can’t. She keeps cleaning and cooking and homemaking even when there is literally no home left.
In this novel, a woman gets trapped by domestic circumstance, but also by the self-regard that lofts her above the people around her. Jackson’s tense relationship with small-town Vermont, where she felt stranded by her husband Stanley’s teaching job, animates Merricat’s scorn for the small minds around her but also doubles anxiously back on itself. What if the “freak” conspires in her own expulsion, thinking she’s reinforcing her own power but actually cutting herself off, fatally, from reality? In this, her last novel, you can see Jackson holding up aspects of herself to examine, one by one: what protects, what avenges, what isolates, what harms others or the self?
Hill House and Castle are built around the same double-edged question: when, especially for a woman, does fantasy protect, and when does it kill? “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality,” Jackson reminds us in the first sentence of Hill House, “even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” On her journey to Hill House, fleeing a dependent life with her obnoxious sister’s family, Eleanor watches a little girl refuse to drink milk from the restaurant’s glass; she wants her favorite cup, printed with stars on the bottom, which has been left at home. “Don’t do it, Eleanor [silently] told the little girl: insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass.” Merricat buries dolls and silver dollars, and nails account books to the trees as “safeguards” for her family home: “All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it, thickly inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth and my colored stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now, held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us.” Here a reader can feel Jackson savoring the unsentimental creative power of a child’s whole-body intuition of the unseen, murmuring to herself, and to her readers (particularly other women writers): don’t let them take your magic, little girl. You’ll need it.
Yet fantasy is also the downfall of Merricat and her family, and of Eleanor, who embroiders lies about her small, sad life and becomes possessed by forces that her own belief in them makes real. It begins with her anxious crush on Luke, which dissolves under its obsessive projections: “Does he think that I will be content with small mysticism, or will he exert himself to seem unique? Is he going to be gallant? That would be humiliating, because then he would show that he knows that gallantry enchants me; will he be mysterious? Mad?” It ends with her fantasy of belonging to the only home she feels has ever “want[ed]” her, Hill House itself: “The house was waiting now, she thought, and it was waiting for her; no one else could satisfy it.” Like du Maurier in Rebecca, and as in the famous film of Hill House, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), Jackson foregrounds the fact that our own imaginings create that which we fear; delighted daydreaming and terrorizing self-sabotage come from the same internal place. We are always at risk of becoming divided selves, and we deepen those divisions ourselves if we aren’t careful. The sentences repeated on the first and last pages leave a lingering chill:
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its 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.
We build our own haunted houses, and the ghosts inside them too.