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 , Hangman , The Bird’s Nest , The Sundial , The Haunting of Hill House , and We Have Always Lived in the Castle ), three short story collections (The Lottery and Other Stories , Come Along With Me , and Just an Ordinary Day ), 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 soufflé 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.