“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”
The opening words of The Haunting of Hill House, an eerie, uncanny and unsettling novel published by Shirley Jackson in 1959.
“…Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Houses hold a great symbolism in her work, perhaps because they’re where we raise our families and protect our loved ones, collect our precious things and hide from the outside world but also because in 1950’s post war America the home was somewhat of a trap or a prison for those women who sought a different kind of existence, outside of the domesticity and suffocating gender roles of societies expectations.
In just these few paragraphs, setting up a horrific tale of ghosts and terror, Jackson has expressed so much of her time, her maddening frustrations at reality, at loneliness and isolation. To read of her life, growing up, getting married, having children and struggling against those who sought to brandish her a “Housewife” is to feel maddeningly frustrated yourself.
Born and raised in San Francisco before moving to New York, Shirley was an awkward and anti-social child; helped none by her social climbing, conservative mother who often commented on Shirley’s appearance and weight. She found solace in a like-minded and equally ambitious partner Stanley Edgar Hyman, who she went on to marry. Hyman had a genius IQ of 180, he was an aspiring and later successful literary critic who would grow aggressively controlling, arrogant and patriarchal through the years, even insultingly bragging of his affairs to Shirley who he expected to listen with interest.
They would have four children together, the responsibility of which Hyman would pass off to Shirley, along with outlandish expectations of housekeeping alongside her writing. Shirley was the main breadwinner of the house and yet her husbands’ distaste was directed towards things like whether her book collection was alphabetised.
In many of her stories the house is somewhat in disarray, in We Have Always Lived in The Castle, it’s practically destroyed and almost all the family murdered. Could this be Shirley living vicariously through her characters? Longing for disruption, chaos, the freedom of losing one’s family.
When arriving at the hospital to give birth to her third child a clerk asked Shirley what her occupation was, she said writer, the clerk replied with “I’ll just put down housewife”. I can only imagine the rage that would come with the disempowerment of such a situation, the forced identity decided for her and yet Shirley never showed signs of rage anywhere outside of the page. Her characters often start out powerless, quiet, submissive; WHALITC’s Merricat barely speaks but her internal monologue is deafening, her collected power, burrowed away like a squirrel, bides its time and then explodes.
Shirley worked alongside highly praised male writers whose works such as The Catcher in The Rye were praised as literary genius, modern classics, while Shirley’s novels were the fancies of a housewife. She was mocked in the media for talking about witchcraft, even once dubbed “Virginia Werewoolf” and slowly sunk further into anxiety, depression, alcoholism, agoraphobia, dependency on prescription medication, obesity and eventually death at the young age of 48. Shortly after the publication of WHALITC she spent months inside the house, afraid to face the world and reality. Hyman, in a further attempt is control her, would ply her with fattening foods and she would succumb to heart failure at a time that her writing often suggested a plan to escape and leave her husband.
As tragic as her life may seem, had Shirley been treated like her male counterparts, if she had not suffered the paranoia and agoraphobia that is very much featured in her work, we simply would not have her work.
I discovered Shirley Jackson after Googling something along the lines of “Female horror writers”. I love horror and yet I felt at the time that I had limited myself to only male novelists like King or Lovecraft (whom I love very much) and needed to branch out. Shirley’s name was amongst a long list but the cover art for We Have Always Lived in The Castle drew me in. I would later be pleased to discover the cover art for many of her novels are quiet aesthetically pleasing and shining stars amongst any horror collection.
I had seen both movie adaptations of The Haunting of Hill House before reading the book but didn’t know they were adaptations at all, let alone who had written the novel. After reading that first book, I was hooked and have since consumed as much of her work as possible, alongside the movie/TV adaptations.
With the success of the Haunting of Hill House Netflix show and the upcoming movie adaptation of We Have Always Lived in The Castle it seems Shirley Jackson may become more of a household name. Her work, though unsettling, is also rife with dark humour and wit, making her readers gasp in shock then break out in a surprised giggle.
“No Human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.”
In the next month I will be writing an in-depth review on each of her works and encourage you to pick them up yourself if you haven’t already. Below is a list to get you started.
The Lottery: 1948
The Sundial: 1958
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (By Ruth Franklin)
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