Sunday, April 1, 2007

Bookgasm: The Shirley Jackson Edition

By Amanda Addison

Shirley Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman, referred to his wife as the “Virginia Were-wolf of Séance Fiction.” This is an apt description of Jackson’s work: literary and creepily weird.

The Road through the Wall (1948): This novel concerns the inhabitants of Pepper Street in the mid-1940s. On the surface, the community members appear polite, church going, and dignified – good people. In truth, this is the most rotten group of people filled to the brim with self-importance and reeking of hypocrisy. And the children are equally as vile. On Pepper Street, the children play games together until dusk, mothers engage in sewing circles, and fathers play golf on the weekend. Oh yes, add to that anti-Semitism, snobbery, alcoholism, adultery, cruelty to children, murder, gossip, and kiddie suicide. Oh Suburbia! According to the book jacket, The Road through the Wall was written by Jackson “partly to get back at her parents.” Jackson grew up in a similar California community of snobbish affluence. Although this novel garnered good reviews, Jackson’s career did not take off until her publication of the now famous short story “The Lottery” in the same year.

Hangsaman (1951): Similar to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Hangsaman is the story of Natalie Waite, an intelligent girl who likes to write and happens to hear voices in her head. The plot follows Natalie as she leaves her pseudo-intellectual father and weak mother to attend a progressive women’s college. While she is at college, Natalie meets an interesting array of characters including a charismatic English professor and his drunken wife and several vicious and weird students. Of course, all the most interesting character of the book is Natalie and her brilliant and strange thoughts.

The Haunting of Hill House (1959): An anthropology professor wants to investigate an alleged haunted house so he invites several unsuspecting people for insomnia in investigation at the forlorn mansion. This gothic work gets scarier by the minute as things go horribly world and the house wakes up. The house turns into a character – a live thing – as the book progresses. Forgo the crappy Liam Niesson movie, The Haunting, that is based on The Haunting of Hill House and just read the book!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962): My absolute favorite Shirley Jackson novel! Merricat and her sister Constance are two sisters who live in a dilapidated house with their addled uncle Julian. The two sisters are social outcasts because of the mystery and death surrounding their past. Years earlier nearly the entire family, excepting the sisters, were fatally poisoned at dinner. Uncle Julian survived but his brain was permanently damaged. But who is the murderer? The answer will shock and disturb but it makes for a ripping good read.

The Lottery, or, the Adventures of James Harris (1980 edition): I am so envious of authors who can write short stories. To me, short stories are the most difficult to write. A poem is concise and a novel has plenty of length and a short story is a pain in the arse because it has to be just right. The right amount of character. The right amount of suspense. The right amount of detail. Any more and it becomes too much, any less and it falls flat. It is a literary soufflé. Shirley Jackson is one of the BEST short story writers EVER. Period. Exclamation Point. She is very similar to Flannery O'Connor (the other goddess of the short story). Like O'Connor, her stories have the weird twist at the end, seemingly normal characters that get all "Twilight Zone" on the reader, and the tales usually deal with gender and race issues and it is all packed up into enthralling little tales. Usually, I pick through short story collections sampling here and there, but this one I read from cover to cover.

No comments: