Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My Shirley Jackson Discovery

There are some writers who you read about, and whose work is recommended over and over again, yet when you look for their books they are either unavailable or hellishly expensive.  Robert Aickman is one author who comes to mind in this regard (though thankfully his work is slowly being reprinted) and the other is Shirley Jackson. I've been trying to get a copy of her novels for quite some time and was really pleased to see a couple of titles finally arrive at my library last month and, on checking out Fishpond, I was able to pick up a few at a reasonable price.

My first read was We Have Always Lived in the Castle and I thought this was a delightful tongue in cheek study of madness and control. The story centres on the Blackwood sisters who live in their family mansion on the outskirts of a small village.  It is well known that the entire Blackwood family were poisoned during a family dinner, with Constance Blackwood being arrested for their murder.  Constance was released though, without charge, and she returned home to take care of her younger sister Merricat and their infirm Uncle Julian.

Shirley Jackson
Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat) is a bit of a wild child, she believes herself to have magical powers and, although she is around eighteen, she spends her spare time running and hiding in the woods and playing with her cat.  Her internal dialogues show great disdain for those around her whilst elevating herself into some kind of Supreme Being (“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine”).  She also has a strong hold over Constance who treats and humours her like a young child (“Silly Merricat”). 

The two sisters have a regular routine of housework, shopping and cooking, and this routine is very important to Merricat.  So, when a cousin drops in unexpectedly to stay for a while and threatens to upset their daily rituals (and Merricat’s hold on her sister) she takes extreme measures to get rid of him.

Whilst reading this novel I was thinking of the phrase ‘fat girls and feeders’ - Merricat isn't fat but Constance is definitely a feeder, and food is a major theme for the novel.  In fact, the ending is almost fairy-tale like with the villagers paying homage to the girls with food.  I really enjoyed reading this one.

The Haunting of Hill House is what I guess you would call a traditional haunted house story, and I found Eleanor the central character quite interesting and someone I could identify with (she’s a chronic daydreamer and so am I).  Eleanor has been invited to take part in a study of the supposed supernatural happenings at Hill House and was chosen due to her experience with poltergeist activity when she was younger.

I remember that the original movie really frightened me, however when reading the novel you are a good half way into it before things really start to happen but Jackson shows quite an art in stealthily unsettling your nerves.  My favourite scene has Eleanor clutching her friend Theodora’s hand whilst she sleeps.  It is pitch dark in the bedroom that they are sharing and there are babbling noises and shrieks coming from the adjoining room.  As things reach a climax Theodora sits up suddenly to see what is going on at which point Eleanor leaps out of bed asking in terror whose hand had she just been holding because it obviously hadn’t been Theodora’s – reading this just prior to going to sleep was a real goose-bump moment for me!  I didn’t enjoy this one as much as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it is still definitely worth reading, especially for the opening paragraph which you will find yourself reading several times over (the same paragraph also closes the novel).

The Lottery and Other Stories is a different sort of read again.  This selection of short stories are unusual to say the least and I must confess that some of them I just didn't ‘get’. The main problem I had with the collection was that most of the stories just didn't mean anything, or they didn’t have any sort of ending.  Many of the character’s are known by their title and surname only (ie Mr White, Mrs Straw) and I found this made it a little hard to read with the characters seemingly faceless and impersonal.

However there were a few gems to be found and aside from the title story I really liked Like Mother Used to Make which is about a middle aged man called David who has got his apartment just how he likes it – it is homely, the colours work well together, and everything has its place.  He is investing in silver tableware piece by piece and he is very proud of what he has bought to date. His neighbour however is slovenly, her apartment is a mess and not homely at all and this really disgusts him.  The story takes a nice twist when he is entertaining this neighbour one evening, showing off his culinary skills and silverware, when they are joined unexpectedly by a friend of the neighbour and David becomes the third wheel and a stranger in his own apartment.

The funniest story in this collection is My Life with R H Macy, and I actually laughed out loud at the ending. It was brilliantly done.

You do notice that order and obsession are the primary themes in Jackson’s writing.  Some people have made the comment that these stories are an extension of her neuroses, and she does seem to be quite an enigmatic character who had a few problems, but she is definitely a writer whose work I would like to explore more.

For further reading on Shirley Jackson visit: http://shirleyjackson.org/


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