August 31, 2010

AN IDEAL AUTHOR FOR OUR CURRENT SPASM OF ANGST:

Her Darkest Places: a review of SHIRLEY JACKSON: Novels and Stories, Edited by Joyce Carol Oates (TERRENCE RAFFERTY, 8/29/10, NY Times Book Review)

A lot of writers, both in and out of the horror genre, know how to create a sense of dread. What makes Jackson’s sensibility so distinctive is that her brand of dread tends to be self-aware and even, at times, self-amused. There’s often a tinge of embarrassment to her characters’ fear, simply because it’s so tenuous, so apparently sourceless: they can’t tell if what’s troubling them is something or nothing. In Hill House, which Jackson characterizes as “not sane,” all it takes to make Eleanor and her fellow ghost hunters feel profoundly uncomfortable is the house’s “unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible tolerable length.” But the heroine, at least initially, tries to shake off the bad vibes, to chalk her queasiness up to an overactive imagination: “Really, she told herself, really, Eleanor.”

Most of Jackson’s fiction affects the reader the way Hill House affects Eleanor — you’re spooked, then you feel a little silly, and then, like it or not, you’re spooked again. This peculiarly Jacksonian disquiet operates in almost every one of her stories, not just the tiny handful that could be called horror. A fair amount of her work is comic; in her lifetime, she was perhaps as well known for her humorous sketches about her unruly household as she was for having written “The Lottery.” (Three of those funny domestic vignettes are in the Library of America collection.) And even these, written for such unlikely publications as Good Housekeeping, don’t seem wholly out of character. There’s an eerie detachment to them: for Jackson, everything, even her own apparently happy family life, turns strange in the telling.

Oates’s selection is canny. “The Haunting of Hill House” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” are the best of Jackson’s six novels (though it’s a shame that space couldn’t have been found for “The Bird’s Nest,” a dryly unsettling 1954 novel about multiple-personality disorder), and the 21 uncollected and unpublished stories here are drawn largely from the posthumous 1968 volume “Come Along With Me,” wisely put together by Jackson’s husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. (The other 25 stories are the contents of the 1949 collection “The Lottery.”) Jackson wrote wonderfully at every stage of her career, but it’s the later work, from her difficult last years, that sticks most tenaciously in the imagination, stories about desperate homebound fantasies and overfamiliar fears.


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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 31, 2010 5:33 AM
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