The Transformations of Shirley Jackson
In the run up to the 2016 World Fantasy Convention, an interesting conversation took place online. 2016 marked one hundred years since the birth of Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House, and other stories and novels. The convention seemed an appropriate venue at which to celebrate her life and work. Despite this, when the preliminary schedule for the convention was released, it included only one panel on Jackson. In contrast, some eight or nine panels addressed the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and his circle. Confronted about this disparity, Darrell Schweitzer, who had put together the schedule, explained the difference by arguing that, fine a writer as Jackson undoubtedly was, Lovecraft had exerted a transformative effect upon the horror field. By offering a dramatically different approach to the genre, Lovecraft’s was one of those bodies of work that permanently alters what follows it. As such, it would always be worth returning to—and at length—because its impact had been and continued to be so wide-ranging.
(Which begs the question of whether a writer’s impact on their field should be what decides how much critical attention we pay them. Spenser, Scott, and Byron all shaped their cultures and their contemporaries, yet we devote more study to those contemporaries because we judge their accomplishments to have been greater. Closer to home, as it were, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto pretty much spawned the Gothic novel, but we prefer to focus on its literary offspring—in no small part because it’s a terrible novel.)
I didn’t disagree with Darrell’s assessment of Lovecraft’s impact. How could I? It was the late Robert Bloch who estimated that his former correspondent and mentor had influenced more writers than anyone this side of Hemingway. In part, this was because, as Ramsey Campbell has said, with Lovecraft, so much of his technique is visible on the surface. At the same time, I thought that Darrell had underestimated Shirley Jackson’s impact on the horror field, and severely, at that.
(This is not to attack Darrell Schweitzer, by the way, with whom I’ve had a collegial relationship for going on fifteen years. Since it was his opinion that led to this essay, however, I can’t think of a way into the topic that does not acknowledge his original argument.)
Part of my reason for thinking that Shirley Jackson’s influence has been significant is anecdotal. It comes from my role on the Board of Directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards. Since the awards’ creation a decade ago, they’ve been given out annually at Readercon. Each year, the Board has contacted the convention’s guests of honor to ask if they’d like to participate in the award ceremony, perhaps offer a few words at its beginning. Without exception, they have said yes, and enthusiastically, at that. In some cases—say, Caitlín Kiernan and Peter Straub—this hasn’t been a surprise. In others—you can check the complete list of guests of honor at the Readercon website—it has. Of equal significance has been the substance of those assorted remarks, which have spoken of the varied ways in which Jackson’s fiction has been important to these writers. It’s a sentiment which has been expressed in brief by the award’s winners and nominees. When she won the award for “Near Zennor,” Elizabeth Hand said, “I think all of us, here, are Shirley Jackson’s children.” It was a memorable line, a measure of Jackson’s influence as both extensive and deep.
(I know, I know: what else is someone going to say about an author whose name graces the award they’ve just been given? I’m sure this has been the case in a couple of instances, but what conversations I’ve had with the guests of honor and the winners and nominees have convinced me, by and large, of the authenticity of their responses. Still, to make the case for Jackson’s importance to subsequent writers, you need to be able to offer proof of a more technical nature, don’t you? Cases where the relationship between her fiction and that of another writer can be examined and analyzed.)
Granted, Shirley Jackson did not make her creations available to fellow and subsequent writers in the same way as Lovecraft. Nor did she inspire the same type of fervent imitation. If this makes her influence less obvious, it does not render it invisible. As an example, consider Richard Matheson’s 1971 novel, Hell House. The name of the eponymous dwelling is one letter removed from Jackson’s Hill House, and if that seems a slender enough similarity from which to argue a connection, then take a look at the plot of Matheson’s novel, in which a group of researchers assembles to investigate a notorious haunted house. They include an academic, a medium, and a middle-aged con man, all of whom are recognizable as recastings of similar characters in Jackson’s novel. (Indeed, the con-man figure also incorporates aspects of her protagonist, Eleanor Vance, into himself.) Both narratives give us histories of their haunted dwellings, which were constructed by powerful, sinister fathers. Strange and frightening occurrences plague the investigators. Cryptic messages are written on the walls of the houses. Not all the characters survive their respective expeditions.
(Of course, Richard Matheson’s novel is more than a simple rewriting of Shirley Jackson’s. In fact, from this perspective, one of the most interesting things about Hell House is the dialogue it enters into with The Haunting of Hill House. It’s a conversation that has much of the character of an argument. Jackson’s novel treats spiritualism with almost complete skepticism, while Matheson’s wants to take it seriously, continue its project of approaching the supernatural as comprehensible through scientific means. Jackson plays coy with sex and sexuality; Matheson is explicit. Many of the phenomena that afflict Jackson’s characters are auditory or tactile; Matheson’s characters are plagued by visual events. Increasingly, the plot of Jackson’s novel veers toward her protagonist’s interior, setting up for catastrophe; whereas the plot of Matheson’s swings in the direction of the exterior, setting up a climactic confrontation for his protagonist.)
One novel does not a profound and lasting influence prove. However, there are others. Stephen King, for instance, has returned to Jackson’s work throughout his long career. In Carrie, there is a description of the young Carrie White having experienced a rain of stones very much like the one that precipitated upon the young Eleanor Vance. (And the novel’s portrait of the relationship between Carrie White and her mother probably owes something to the maternal conflict hinted at in The Haunting of Hill House.) King also invokes The Haunting of Hill House in the early chapters of Salem’s Lot in order to establish the mood of his novel. As he acknowledges in Danse Macabre, The Shining engages Jackson’s The Sundial in its plot of a family confined to a large, old building while a storm rages outside. King’s script for Rose Red, in which a group of researchers gathers to investigate an infamous haunted house, began as a deliberate response to The Haunting of Hill House. Among recent works by other writers, Sarah Langan’s Audrey’s Door incorporates a rewriting of the opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House into a late chapter to signal its conversation with the novel, particularly at the nexus of mental illness, maternal anxiety, and uncanny dwelling places. Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts mirrors the sibling relationship at the heart of We Have Always Lived in the Castle to add resonance to his story of a family under pressure from forces from without and within.
(All these descriptions are cursory. Each of them could—and should—be developed. Together, though, they help to lay the foundation for my argument for Jackson’s influence.)
Some writers are influential while they are alive—this was the case with Lovecraft. Some writers exert their influence posthumously—this seems to me to be the case with Shirley Jackson. Already, her effect on the horror field has been substantial, and it continues to grow with the passage of time. Some transformations are obvious, glaring. Others are more subtle, unnoticed until they have enveloped you.
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