Shirley Jackson centenary: a quiet, hidden rage

Born 100 years ago, Shirley Jackson wrote stories filled with nameless dread that still speak to women’s anger

I first encountered Shirley Jackson through a single short story, “The Daemon Lover”, which I read when I was 12 without knowing any of her other work. Later, I rediscovered the story, along with the rest of Jackson’s writing, and became a fervent admirer of this brilliant and (at that time) much underrated American author.

In some ways, “The Daemon Lover”, from a 1949 collection is a typical Jackson story. An unnamed woman of 34 (though only 30 on her marriage certificate) wakes up on the day of her wedding to a man called James Harris. Impatiently the woman waits for her fiance to arrive, drinking cups of coffee and obsessing over trivia – her choice of dress, the flowers, the light meal she is planning after the ceremony. Hours pass, and at last it becomes clear that the fiance is a no-show. The woman, who does not know where he lives, leaves her flat in search of him, asking locals for a James Harris in hope of resolving the misunderstanding; after a Kafkaesque sequence of increasingly paranoid encounters, she ends up in front of an apartment door, behind which she can hear voices, but which, no matter how hard she knocks, no one ever answers.

Like so much of Jackson’s work, the horror (if that’s the word) of this tale is not based on explicit threat, but rooted in a sense of mounting and inescapable anxiety. Small details become horribly magnified; the prose has a queasy, lurching gait; the tension racks up until even the most mundane encounter – with a florist, a policeman on a street corner – becomes laden with dreadful significance. And underneath it all is the image of the woman – nameless in her own narrative, while even in his absence, the man has not only an identity (his name is taken from the same Scottish ghost story from which Jackson took her title), but all the agency the protagonist lacks.

This struggle for agency is a theme that permeates all of Jackson’s writing. The women in her stories are often constrained – by convention, by their families, by their own fears and subconscious desires. And beneath it all is a sense of powerful, hidden rage – a rage that belies the setting of so much of her fiction. Under the bland surface of these small, suburban communities, something dark is fermenting; something is about to erupt.

That sense of a woman’s helplessness in the face of a male-dominated society – the smooth surface and the bubbling rage – is what makes her writing so vital, so human, so prescient. Society may have changed since then, but not enough for that rage to have cooled, or for the horrors of everyday life to be any less immediate.

A production of Satre’s Huis Clos at the King’s Head, London (2005).
A production of Satre’s Huis Clos at the King’s Head, London (2005). Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

And yet, there is hope – well, hope of a kind. Jackson’s women may be victims, but they do fight back in their way. The struggle is often conducted beneath the social parapet – a housewife fantasises about killing her husband; a teenage girl poisons her parents; a woman steals the family car to go on an adventure.

But it is in The Haunting of Hill House – which is, I believe, not only the best haunted-house story ever written, but also a quiet subversion of the ingénue trope in horror fiction, with a nod to Sartre’s Huis Clos with its toxic menage a trois – that we hear the challenge most clearly.

In a strange little interlude that seems to bear no relevance to the main story (and yet which holds more significance than any other episode), the protagonist, Eleanor, having stopped at a diner, overhears a family trying to persuade their little girl to drink some milk. The child demands her “cup of stars”, a cup with stars painted inside, without which she refuses to drink. Eleanor’s words to the little girl might almost be those of Jackson herself, addressing the generations of women to come in a voice that is eerily direct:

Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else, you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled ... and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl.

• Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson is published by Penguin Classics.

Contributor

Joanne Harris

The GuardianTramp

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