Cited as a major influence for writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, it is impossible to discuss horror without mentioning Shirley Jackson. Especially this time of year. The New Yorker published an essay, “The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson” this week, and today we take a look at her incredible ability to write from the perspective of unreliable narrators. Enjoy, “Shirley Jackson’s Haunting Interiors” below.
October is our favorite month of the year. As the air cools, and the leaves begin to fall, we welcome the extra time spent indoors, warm cups of tea, and the increase in shadows. We focus every October on content that is dark, strange, and a little scary, and it’s a treat to think about writers who occupy this space in fiction. Every year I circle back to one of my favorites: the inimitable Shirley Jackson.
Jackson’s most famous short story is perhaps “The Lottery.” It debuted in The New Yorker in 1948 and remains one of the magazine’s most divisive pieces. After it published, hundreds of people cancelled their subscriptions. The magazine was flooded with hate mail. That is to say, the piece hit a nerve.
And indeed “The Lottery” is terrifying. Without giving the story away, over the course of a few pages Jackson takes readers to a world inhabited by characters with unexpected emotional responses, through twists and turns of pathology, and by the story’s dark conclusion—as strange as it may be—there is a terrible and haunting familiarity.
When I think about influential writers and why their work is effective, each of them has talents that seem magical. But Shirley Jackson is a special kind of sorcerer. She evokes the strange in small steps. If you examine her work line-by-line or word-by-word you find a simple writer. There isn’t anything strange or oversized about her language, nor is her sentence structure elaborate or unique. Instead readers discover, as they do in “The Lottery,” that suddenly they are standing in a dark wood. What had been a walk on a well-established trail is now a sinister and eerie forest. Almost always in a Shirley Jackson story you ask yourself: how did I get here?
Two of my favorite Shirley Jackson novels are The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in The Castle. In both, readers experience terror as the result of a cumulative roll—single, logical steps that lead, somehow, into deep and uninviting territory.
In The Haunting of Hill House, four guests are invited to spend a summer at Hill House in hopes of providing scientific evidence for paranormal activity. One of the main characters is Eleanor, who comes to the mansion eager to experience a bigger world. Over the course of the narrative, she slips slowly out of reality and embodies the paranormal psychology of the house.
Suddenly, without reason, laughter trembled inside Eleanor; she wanted to run to the head of the table and hug the doctor, she wanted to reel, chanting, across the stretches of the lawn, she wanted to sing and to shout and to fling her arms and move in great emphatic, possessing circles around the rooms of Hill House; I am here, I am here, she thought.
In Shirley Jackson’s essay “Garlic in Fiction,” she discusses the issue of leading Eleanor (and the reader) through this slow slip of worlds. Jackson writes:
…there had to be a transition for the reader, from the sensible environment of the city to the somewhat less believable atmosphere of the haunted house, and the preparation had to be made carefully, in Eleanor’s mind and in the reader’s, for the introduction of the horrors to come later, and Eleanor’s reactions. The reader had to be persuaded to identify sufficiently with Eleanor so that when later he encounters with her the various manifestations in the haunted house he will be willing to suspend disbelief and go along with Eleanor, because she has become thoroughly believable.
Jackson ends this graph with the note: “This was hard.”
Indeed. In my opinion, Jackson is talking about the difficulty of interiority—the idea of giving readers access to a character’s thoughts and feelings. At The Masters Review, we talk a lot about interiority because we see a great many stories that lack access to their characters’ thoughts. It is a difficult thing to do well, and it speaks to the challenge of understanding your work. But great writers, even those with formally distant characters (think Raymond Carver), execute a full understanding of their characters’ emotions. The result is satisfying. Fiction with good interiority is powerful and effective. They are the stories you remember. They are the narratives that feel the most real.
What makes Jackson’s attention to interiority so special—and cements her as one of the best executors of this technique—is her success in making the unreal believable. And what a challenge! To develop the kind of interiority that allows the strange, the paranormal, and the horrible, to feel like a logical extension of your character. Shirley Jackson’s haunting interiors feel like nothing more than the next step along the trail. The result is magical.
Take a look at any of Jackson’s work and this skill is evident. In another of her celebrated novels, We Have Always Lived in The Castle, Jackson writes from the perspective of Merricat, a young girl and one of the few survivors of a mass cyanide poisoning that killed her family. It soon becomes evident that Merricat—engaging, smart, and highly self-aware—is the likely perpetrator of the poison.
I believe many writers would choose to write the novel from an outsider’s perspective. But there is deep satisfaction for the reader in experiencing the mysterious psychology of Merricat—and the mystery of the poisonings themselves—unravel from her perspective. It tackles the events of the story on a level that demands effective interiority. And rightfully so: it is nearly impossible to write on a believable level from the perspective of someone who is murderous, going insane, or possibly possessed by the paranormal in a way that is believable.
Joyce Carol Oates writes of We Have Always Lived in The Castle: “…that masterwork of unreliable narration in which we are intimate witnesses to a naively repressed young woman.” When Joyce Carol Oates mentions readers being “intimate witnesses,” she is talking about Merricat’s haunting interior, how effectively Jackson applies it, and the kind of access we have to the narrator’s psychology. Over the course of the narrative readers see through Merricat’s eyes how she understands the act of poisoning her family, and how darkly removed she is from seeing it as an act of wickedness.
Shirley Jackson excels at the dark and the strange, but I find her unique (aside from a few examples like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous, “The Yellow Wallpaper” ) in her ability to write fiction that inhabits the perspective of an unreliable character with such skill. She has taken one of the most difficult aspects of writing a memorable and effective narrative and doubled down by applying it to unreliable psychology. She is a true master of interiority.
How does a writer come to such skill? I cannot comment on the inner workings of Shirley Jackson’s mind, but I do have a playful theory born from her essay “Good Old House.” In the essay, Jackson explains in a frank and straightforward manner, her experience living in a house haunted by ghosts:
Still another troubling thing was the way small articles disappeared. I realized that in a large house with small children, things are always disappearing anyway, but this was different; it was as though there were pockets of time in the house into which things dropped for a little while and then came back…. Once, a little round rug disappeared for almost a week from the study, as though it had been absorbed into the floor, and reappeared after a while looking the same as ever… Once, buttons appeared, newly sewn onto my son’s jacket, and another time my daughter’s stuffed lamb had a blue ribbon removed and pink one substituted. A day or so later the blue ribbon was back, washed and ironed.
Small things still disappear, of course, and for a while Joanne spoke occasionally of a faraway voice that sang to her at night. Once I went into the kitchen and found a still-warm pumpkin pie on the table, covered with a clean cloth; we had it for dinner and praised it in voices that we hoped would carry throughout the old house.
Perhaps Jackson writes the unreal so well because she has a foot in both worlds. One with ghosts, ghouls, and haunted houses, and one in the world most of us live in: a place that senses the presence of the paranormal, but only experiences flickers of it. Either way, her stories remain icons of the American horror genre and are beloved because of her commitment to understanding characters, even when those that inhabit the unreal.
by Kim Winternheimer