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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Shirley Jackson The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

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‘I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there…I delight in what I fear.’ — Shirley Jackson

‘North Bennington is a tiny village less than a mile from the otherwise isolated Bennington campus in Vermont. Shirley Jackson was married to Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic who taught at the college. And she spent her life in the town, raising four children, presiding over a chaotic household that was host to Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud and Howard Nemerov, and at times going quietly crazy — and writing, always, with the rigor of one who has found her born task. Six novels, two bestselling volumes of deceptively sunny family memoirs and countless stories before her death at 48, in 1965.

‘Jackson was in many senses already two people when she arrived in Vermont. One was a turgid, fearful ugly-duckling, permanently cowed by the severity of her upbringing by a suburban mother obsessed with appearances. This half of Jackson was a character she brought brilliantly to life in her stories and novels from the beginning: the shy girl, whose identity slips all too easily from its foundations. The other half of Jackson was the expulsive iconoclast, brought out of her shell by marriage to Hyman — himself a garrulous egoist very much in the tradition of Jewish ’50’s New York intellectuals — and by the visceral shock of mothering a quartet of noisy, demanding babies. This second Shirley Jackson dedicated herself to rejecting her mother’s sense of propriety, drank and smoked and fed to buttery excess — directly to blame for her and her husband’s early deaths — dabbled in magic and voodoo, and interfered loudly when she thought the provincial Vermont schools were doing an injustice to her talented children. This was the Shirley Jackson that the town feared, resented and, depending on whose version you believe, occasionally persecuted.

‘The hostility of the villagers further shaped her psyche, and her art; the process eventually redoubled so the latter fed the former. After the enormous success of “The Lottery,” a legend arose in town, almost certainly false, that Jackson had been pelted with stones by schoolchildren one day, then gone home and written the story. The real crisis came near the end of her life, resulting in a period of agoraphobia and psychosis; she wrote her way through it in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. In that novel, Jackson brilliantly isolates the two aspects in her psyche into two odd, damaged sisters: one hypersensitive and afraid, unable to leave the house, the other a sort of squalid demon prankster who may or may not have murdered the rest of her family for her fragile sister’s sake.

‘Shirley Jackson wrote about the mundane evils hidden in everyday life and about the warring and subsuming of selves in a family, a community and sometimes even in a single mind. She wrote about prejudice, neurosis and identity. An unfortunate impression persists (one Jackson encouraged, for complicated reasons) that her work is full of ghosts and witches. In truth, few of her greatest stories and just one of her novels, The Haunting of Hill House, contain a suggestion of genuinely supernatural events. Jackson’s forté was psychology and society, people in other words — people disturbed, dispossessed, misunderstanding or thwarting one another compulsively, people colluding absently in monstrous acts. She had a jeweler’s eye for the microscopic degrees by which a personality creeps into madness or a relationship turns from dependence to exploitation. Judy Oppenheimer’s fine 1988 biography of Jackson is called Private Demons, but it could have been called Little Murders.— Jonathan Lethem, Salon

 

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Further

Shirley Jackson: The Full Wiki
A modest Shirley Jackson resource page
‘Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: An Introduction’
‘Shirley Jackson: House and Guardians’
‘SHIRLEY JACKSON: Delight in What I Fear’
‘The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson’
‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson: The Paperback Covers’
Shirley Jackson @ Goodreads
Buy Shirley Jackson’s books

 

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The Sketches

‘Shirley Jackson’s great-great-grandfather, Samuel Bugbee, designed beautiful Nob Hill mansions, and her grandfather was a prominent San Francisco architect as well. Jackson was sufficiently imbued with an architect’s brain to draw rough schematics for the houses in her fiction, unbuildable but detailed enough to guide her thinking about which rooms Eleanor would run through to reach the tower in The Haunting of Hill House’s penultimate scene. These drawings, found in Jackson’s papers at The Library of Congress, inspire a particular form of creative thinking and planning. Rather than creating a structure for a world of words, Jackson envisions structures that she will then use words to describe.’ — Susan Scarf Merrell, Writers’ Houses

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Remembrance

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‘Forgotten now as a writer, Stanley Edgar Hyman — a brash, blunt, myopic polymath, blimpish in form and bearded, we thought, at birth — was once a boy-wonder: a New Yorker staffer at 24 and a literary critic whose forte was the exploration of figurative language. Stanley Hyman was also the most popular teacher in a school which prided itself (shades of Miss Jean Brodie) on being in the prime of life: a dramatic experiment in female education in full bloom. Even the 300 acre country campus –- hay fields and spiky marsh grasses, cow and carriage barns, apple orchards, and a brooding greystone mansion — radiated the sense of privilege that came with being the right place at the right time …

‘Stanley’s wife -– and that’s how we thought of her -– was the writer Shirley Jackson. The first thing you heard about Shirley Jackson was that she was a witch. Shirley tacitly encouraged this rumor, although the evidence supporting it would have been admissible only in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Shirley had written a book about witchcraft; she was known to “read” Tarot cards; she inserted into her exquisitely written fictions quotations from her large collection of grimoires and magic books; and she gave to some of her many cats -– eleven cats! they must be her familiars! — the names of the dukes and demons of Hell.

‘Shirley was a wide pale woman with a face like a baleful moon. Her fine skin glowed with a pallor that looked unhealthy even in a climate cold enough for “winter white” to be a seasonal description of a woman’s complexion. Her hair was sandy, lank, and raked back in a bun from which wisps and hanks always escaped. Her eyes were alive (as Stanley’s were not) and protected by large unfashionable glasses, but they were like windows whose shades had been pulled down. Light shone behind them, but not for us. Shirley gave the impression of never wanting to mix with her husband’s students. She had her reasons.

‘Shirley was even bulkier than Stanley, and so, naturally, the Hyman family car was the smallest possible Volkswagen bug. Shirley was the chauffeur -– Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it -– and on-campus sightings of the two of them struggling to enter and exit their tiny vehicle were highly prized. One night, I watched Shirley and Stanley try to walk through a wide-open auditorium doorway side by side. They wedged together in the doorjamb for an awful moment; then Stanley, decisive as ever, burst free.’ — Joan Schenkar, Wall Street Journal

 

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SJ at the Movies


The 1963 movie based on ‘THoHH’


The 1999 movie based on ‘THoHH’


Excerpt from a film based on ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’


Excerpt from a 1969 film based on Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’

 

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Interview

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I still remember the day we were assigned to do a research paper on a piece of literature we had read in my English 198 class. The story I chose to write my paper on was “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, it was one of my favorites. Luckily for me Mrs. Jackson lived in my neighborhood and my parents were friends with her and her husband. So I knew it would not be difficult to set up an interview with her for my research paper. One day after getting home from school, I met my mother in the living room so I told her that I was doing a research paper on Mrs. Jackson and asked if she could set up an interview for me. The following day I was thrilled to hear that my mom had successfully arranged for me to have my interview.

On the day of the interview I walked to Mrs. Jackson’s home, it was only about five minutes away from my home. I remember feeling a bit nervous as I pressed the door bell, within a couple of seconds Mrs. Jackson opened the door and welcomed me with a beautiful smile. As we walked towards the parlor she asked how my parents were doing, I told her they were doing fine. After that she asked me if I was thirsty, I kindly said I was not. She paused for a few seconds than told me to begin.

Interviewer: Mrs. Jackson, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I have a couple of questions to ask.

Mrs. Jackson: You’re welcome, so what would you like to know?
Interviewer: To start off, where were you born? And did you grow up there?

Mrs. Jackson: I was born in San Francisco. No, I actually grew up in California.

Interviewer: were you interested in writing as a child? Or was it something you developed later in life?

Mrs. Jackson: I became interested in writing at an early age. I actually won my first poetry prize when I was twelve. Later on in high school I kept a diary to record my writing progress.

Interviewer: That’s very interesting. Have you ever used a place you have lived in as a setting for any of your works?

Mrs. Jackson: Yes, in my first novel the setting was based on Burlingame, a suburb I lived in, in San Francisco.

After my first set of questions Mrs. Jackson asked if we could take a break, she than walked into the kitchen. While I was by myself in the parlor, I noticed some family pictures on the wall and next to them were some of the awards she had won for her works. When she returned from the kitchen, she brought some sandwiches and drinks. I took a sip of orange juice then continued with the interview.

Interviewer: In “The Lottery” what point were you trying to make by having the villagers stone one of their members.

Mrs. Jackson: I wanted to dramatize graphically the pointless violence in people’s lives, to reveal the general inhumanity of man.

Interviewer: I see. As I read the story in school, I realized that the lottery was a means of finding a sacrifice for the season’s harvest. Is that the only thing the lottery is supposed to represent?

Mrs. Jackson: That’s the main thing it represents. However, it also illustrates how societies tend to hold onto traditions, even meaningless ones, revealing our need for ritual and belonging.

Interviewer: Finally Mrs. Jackson, what message are you trying to get across to the public with this story?

Mrs. Jackson: I want people to learn that, “custom and law, when sanctioned by a selfish, unthinking populace, can bring an otherwise democratic and seemingly just society to the brink of paganism”.

Interviewer: That’s very interesting. Well Mrs. Jackson, I think I have enough information. Thank you for allowing me to interview you.

When we finished the interview Mrs. Jackson walked me to the door, I thanked her again for her time, than I started to head back home. When I got home and began to write my paper, I was just amazed at how fortunate I was, to have the author of one of the stories I read in school as a neighbor. The next week of school I got my graded paper and I was not surprised by my grade. I smiled as I read all the positive remarks my teacher had written down about my paper.

 

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Book

0a1jackson Shirley Jackson The Haunting of Hill House

Penguin

‘Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has unnerved readers since its original publication in 1959. A tale of subtle, psychological terror, it has earned its place as one of the significant haunted house stories of the ages.

Eleanor Vance has always been a loner–shy, vulnerable, and bitterly resentful of the 11 years she lost while nursing her dying mother. “She had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words.” Eleanor has always sensed that one day something big would happen, and one day it does. She receives an unusual invitation from Dr. John Montague, a man fascinated by “supernatural manifestations.” He organizes a ghost watch, inviting people who have been touched by otherworldly events. A paranormal incident from Eleanor’s childhood qualifies her to be a part of Montague’s bizarre study–along with headstrong Theodora, his assistant, and Luke, a well-to-do aristocrat. They meet at Hill House — a notorious estate in New England.

‘Hill House is a foreboding structure of towers, buttresses, Gothic spires, gargoyles, strange angles, and rooms within rooms — a place “without kindness, never meant to be lived in ….” Although Eleanor’s initial reaction is to flee, the house has a mesmerizing effect, and she begins to feel a strange kind of bliss that entices her to stay. Eleanor is a magnet for the supernatural — she hears deathly wails, feels terrible chills, and sees ghostly apparitions. Once again she feels isolated and alone — neither Theo nor Luke attract so much eerie company. But the physical horror of Hill House is always subtle; more disturbing is the emotional torment Eleanor endures. Intense, literary, and harrowing, The Haunting of Hill House belongs in the same dark league as Henry James’s classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.’ — Naomi Gesinger

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Excerpts

No live 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 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.

Dr. John Montague was a doctor of philosophy; he had taken his degree in anthropology, feeling obscurely that in this field he might come closest to his true vocation, the analysis of supernatural manifestations. He was scrupulous about the use of his title because, his investigations being so utterly unscientific, he hoped to borrow an air of respectability, even scholarly authority, from his education. It had cost him a good deal, in money and pride, since he was not a begging man, to rent Hill House for three months, but he expected absolutely to be compensated for his pains by the sensation following upon the publication of his definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances in a house commonly known as “haunted.” He had been looking for an honestly haunted house all his life. When he heard of Hill House he had been at first doubtful, then hopeful, then indefatigable; he was not the man to let go of Hill House once he had found it.

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Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five year old niece, and she had no friends.

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It started again, as though it had been listening, waiting to hear their voices and what they said, to identify them, to know how well prepared they were against it, waiting to hear if they were afraid. So suddenly that Eleanor leaped back against the bed and Theodora gasped and cried out, the iron crash came against their door, and both of them lifted their eyes in horror, because the hammering was against the upper edge of the door, higher than either of the them could reach, higher than Luke or the doctor could reach, and the sickening, degrading cold came in waves from whatever was outside the door.

Eleanor stood perfectly still and looked at the door. She did not quite know what to do, although she believed that she was thinking coherently and was not unusually frightened, not more frightened, certainly, than she had believed in her worst dreams she could be. The cold troubled her even more than the sounds; even Theodora’s warm robe was useless against the icy little curls of fingers on her back. The intelligent thing to do, perhaps, was to walk over and open the door; that, perhaps, would belong with the doctor’s views of pure scientific inquiry. Eleanor knew that, even if her feet would take her as far as the door, her hand would not lift to the doorknob; impartially, remotely, she told herself that no one’s hand would touch that knob; it’s not the work hands were made for, she told herself. She had been rocking a little, each crash against the door pushing her a little backward, and now she was still because the noise was fading. “I’m going to complain to the janitor about the radiators,” Theodora said from behind her. “Is it stopping?”

“No,” Eleanor said, sick. “No.”

It had found them. Since Eleanor would not open the door, it was going to make its way in. Eleanor said aloud, “Now I know why people scream, because I think I’m going to,” and Theodora said, “I will if you will.”and laughed so that Eleanor turned quickly back to the bed and they held each other, listening in silence. Little pattings came from around the doorframe, small seeking sounds, feeling the edges of the door, trying to sneak a way in. The doorknob was fondled, and Eleanor, whispering, said, “Is it locked?” and Theodora nodded and then, wide-eyed, turned to stare at the connecting bathroom door. “Mine’s locked too,” Eleanor said against her ear, and Theodora closed her eyes in relief. The little sticky sounds moved on around the doorframe and then, as though a fury caught whatever was outside, the crashing came again, and Eleanor and Theodora saw the wood of the door tremble and shake, and the door move against its hinges.

“You can’t get in,” Eleanor said wildly, and again there was silence, as though the house listened with attention to her words, understanding, cynically agreeing, content to wait. A thin little giggle came, in a breath of air through the room, a little mad rising laugh, the smallest whisper of a laugh, and Eleanor heard it all up and down her back, a little gloating laugh moving past them around the house, and then she heard the doctor and Luke calling from the stairs and, mercifully, it was over.

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p.s. Hey. Shirley Jackson and her great novel deserve another chance in the blog spotlight, or that was my thinking. How are you? One more resurrection post tomorrow. This place will see you then.

1 Comment

  1. Here’s my overview of the New York Film Festival: http://gaycitynews.nyc/nyff-better-women/

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