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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Shirley Jackson: Learning from the Masters

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In an early scene of the movie Rose Red, its author, Stephen King, playing the role of a pizza deliveryman, announces his delivery of a “fully loaded” pie for “Jackson.” The line is King’s tribute to the author of The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, who also wrote the famous horror story “The Lottery.” (Rose Red is a takeoff--some might say a rip-off--of Jackson’s Haunting.)

What can the aspiring (or professional) horror writer learn from Jackson’s take on the fiction of fear? Quite a bit.

Like most writers, she writes what she knows. She begins many of her stories by recalling a situation or an incident that frightened her. In a letter she wrote, but never mailed, to the poet Howard Nemerov, she confesses, “I . . . consolidate a situation where I was afraid and. . . work from there.” Like King, Bentley Little, and other masters of the genre, Jackson finds the horrific, the eerie, and the dreadful in common, ordinary events and circumstances. She had, one might say, a highly developed sense of horror, just as the better comedians have a highly developed sense of humor.

Her discerning eye saw the dreadful and the appalling in people, places, and things that others tend to take for granted, accepting or rejecting without a second thought or, perhaps, any thought at all. In such activities as a communal lottery, a couple going about their daily business, the chores associated with marriage and motherhood, and college experiences, she found inspiration for six novels (The Road Through the Wall [1948], Hangman [1951], The Bird’s Nest [1954], The Sundial [1958], The Haunting of Hill House [1959], and We Have Always Lived in the Castle [1962]), three short story collections (The Lottery and Other Stories [1949], Come Along With Me [1968], and Just an Ordinary Day [1996]), and several other works for children and non-fiction publications.

Just as such contemporary horror writers such as Little, Dean Koontz, and H. P. Lovecraft locate the horrific in apathy, Jackson, like Little and King, finds it under the rock, so to speak, of everydayness. It is the malaise of the routine, the ordinary, the usual that destroys the mind and slays the soul. (For King, it is more a threat to one’s community, or hometown--an extension, as we have observed in other posts, of one’s own home.)

After marrying Stanley Edgar Hyman, she resided in Vermont, “in a quiet rural community with fine scenery and comfortably far away from city life”--an environment well in keeping with the ordinariness that infuses her fiction.

Interestingly, the houses in her stories are often more interesting (and sinister) than the stories’ characters. The opening to The Haunting of Hill House is justifiably famous:

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.
As a Wikipedia article points out, the same is true of the house that appears in The Sundial:

A less obvious but nonetheless imposing character in the novel is the Halloran house itself. Built by a man who came into great wealth late in his life, the house is lavish to the point of garishness, and the endless details of the grounds and interiors are carefully described by Jackson until they overwhelm both characters and reader alike. One of these details is the titular sundial, which stands like an asymmetrical eyesore in the middle of the mathematically perfect grounds and bears the legend “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?” (a quote from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in “The Knight's Tale”). Jackson herself was fond of joking of an “architectural gene” that cropped up in her family once every few generations, and the house presented in The Sundial might foreshadow the infamous Hill House in The Haunting of Hill House. In both Hill House and Sundial, there are many striking similarities between the two houses: both Hill House and Halloran House were built by husbands as gifts for wives who died shortly before or shortly after seeing the house for the first time, and both houses become the source of conflict between various family members who disputed the house's ownership. The “mathematically perfect” grounds and the jarring sundial might remind readers again of Hill House, where all the floors and walls are said to be slightly off-centre. Halloran House, while never openly “haunted” in the sense that Hill House claimed to be, is the site of at least two ghostly visitations.
The tendency to invoke the ominous character of everyday objects is a convention in the horror genre, and women writers frequently attribute such a quality to houses and to domestic objects. One thinks, for example, of Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ “The Yellow Wallpaper” and of the house in which the apparent death of her husband prompts a revelation in the protagonist concerning her personal plight in “The Story of an Hour.”

It is possible, given Jackson’s statement that she starts her stories with “a situation where I was afraid and. . . work[s] from there” that her agoraphobia was a source of her interest in depicting sinister houses. Typically, an person who suffers from agoraphobia finds comfort in familiar surroundings, especially their homes, and are loathe to leave these sanctuaries of safety and security. What if one’s sanctuary should turn upon one, betraying one--perhaps even, in a manner of speaking, stalking one? The result could be The Haunting of Hill House, The Sundial, or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. At least, Sigmund Freud might entertain such notions. If we were to go so far as to take a leaf from those who believe in the efficacy of dream analysis (whose number numbers not only psychoanalysts of the Freudian stripe but others as well), and consider the house a symbol of the body, many of Jackson’s works might even be considered, like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” examples of body horror.

It seems possible, too, that Jackson found the multi-tasking, or more specifically, the multiple roles of modern women to be a potential source of stories of the uncanny and the bizarre. In “Shirley Jackson: Delight in What I Fear,” Paula Guran points out that there is something almost schizophrenic about the many roles that contemporary women perform: “We're all expected to be multiple personalities these days. Nurturing mom, supportive wife, hard driving on the job and carpool driving off. Or maybe we can create a great soufflĂ© while whipping up a new novel. If we've opted for a family we have to somehow be several people at once.” She points out, furthermore (as Chillers and Thrillers also points out, taking a different approach, in an earlier post) that “Writers often feed their creativity through several coexisting personalities.” (The mother who can’t balance the demands of these conflicting roles has recently become a stereotype in contemporary horror fiction, recognizable in King’s Carrie, Robert McCammon’s Mine!, Robert Bloch’s Psycho, and, of course, she originally appeared in ancient myth as such characters as the furies, the gorgons, the lamia, and the sirens.

So, what have we learned from our consideration of Shirley Jackson as a master of contemporary horror fiction? Quite a bit:
  • Relive the fear, using it as the basis for creating a horror story.
  • Find the terror in everyday situations and incidents.
  • Don’t overlook the opportunities for horror that exist in one’s own phobias, if one is fortunate enough to acquire any such “irrational” fears.
  • For hints of the horrific, look to the conflicts generated by the familial, social, and other roles that one is compelled to play.
  • Seek the horrific in the things, as well as the persons and places, associated with the familial, social, and other roles that one is compelled to play: any may inspire a story that makes readers’ hair stand on end and pimples their flesh with goose bumps.
  • Understand the horror of betrayal by the people--or places or things--that one holds nearest and dearest to one’s heart (and remember that no one, no place, and nothing is really safe).
  • Know that even Mom (and her apple pie), emptied of the good or seasoned with madness and taken to extremes, can be truly terrifying.
  • Realize that horror, like evil itself, is not only natural, social, psychological, and theological in nature, but that it is, above all, personal and should be taken personally.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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