Friday, July 24, 2020


Josephine Decker, dir.: Shirley (2020)

Bronwyn and I have an annex of our DVD collection which we devote to movies about writers. It contains most (though not all) of the titles included in my 2016 post on the subject. It can be matched up with two other categories: Movies about Creative Writing Teachers and Movies about English Teachers.

Andy Goddard, dir.: Set Fire to the Stars (2014)

Truth to tell, these labels have a tendency to bleed into one another - certainly in the case of Set Fire to the Stars, a film about Dylan Thomas's disastrous 1950 tour of America. It's told through the eyes of John Malcolm Brinnan, the poet and teacher who facilitated his visit, and whose subsequent book Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal (1956) was one of the essential documents of mid-century poetic confessionalism.

The reason that I mention it here is because it contains a memorable cameo by Scottish actress Shirley Henderson as a rather stylised version of American horror novelist Shirley Jackson.

You have to admit that they didn't do a bad job of converting the rake-thin Henderson to the somewhat blowsy Jackson:

All that pales into significance now with Elisabeth Moss's electrifying performance - or should I say embodiment? - of Shirley Jackson in the just-released semi-biographical fantasia Shirley.

Stephen King: Danse Macabre (1981)

Mind you, the resemblance between actress and subject is the least of the merits of this extraordinary and terrifying film. I guess I've been a Shirley Jackson fan ever since I first read Stephen King's short history of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, which contains a vivid account of her most famous novel The Haunting of Hill House, sometime back in the mid-1980s.

Susan Scarf Merrell: Shirley (2014)

The film is based on a novel, rather than either of the two biographies I compared in my blogpost Two Versions of Shirley Jackson a few years ago, so I should perhaps stress that it's not to be trusted as an accurate reflection of events.

Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman (1951)

I've also read the novel Hangsaman, which is one of the main pegs the plot of Shirley hangs on (pun intended). As I watched it, though, it did occur to me that there might be quite a bit in it which didn't make immediate sense to a non-American viewing audience.

Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

American High School students (or so I've been led to believe) are generally forced at some point in their educational careers to read and discuss Jackson's notorious story "The Lottery," if not one or other of her two most famous novels, The Haunting of Hill House - recently travestied in a dreadful netflix TV series - and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, also filmed recently.

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2019)

In fact, though, Jackson wrote six novels, together with the opening chapters of a seventh, published after her death by her husband (and literary executor) Stanley Hyman. They are, in order:

  1. The Road through the Wall. 1948. Foreword by Ruth Franklin. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 2013.
  2. Hangsaman. 1951. Foreword by Francine Prose. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 2013.
  3. The Bird's Nest. 1954. In The Magic of Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest / Life among the Savages / Raising Demons &c. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
  4. The Sundial. 1958. Foreword by Victor LaValle. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 2014.
  5. The Haunting of Hill House. 1959. New York: Penguin, 1984.
  6. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 1962. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
  7. Come Along with Me. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. 1966. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories
Shirley Jackson. Novels and Stories: The Lottery / The Haunting of Hill House / We Have Always Lived in the Castle / Other Stories and Sketches. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. The Library of America, 204. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2010.

I've often felt that the Library of America missed a trick by not reprinting all of them in their otherwise fine edition of Jackson's Novels and Stories. Was it snobbery, perhaps? Did they feel that a 'genre' author of this type should feel complimented by being included in the series at all? Carson McCullers - to my mind a writer of approximately equal accomplishment - got two volumes, one devoted to novels, the other to stories.

All six of these novels are brilliant is the point I'd like to emphasise here. They are not mere precursors, or prentice works, dashed off before the supreme accomplishment of Hill House and Castle. One reason I feel particularly grateful for this new Shirley Jackson movie is that it attempts to disentangle the dark roots of her second novel, without belittling it in any way.

There would certainly have been enough material for an entire volume of collected stories, too. She only published one book of short stories in her lifetime, hot on the heels of the immense success of "The Lottery."

Shirley Jackson: The Lottery and Other Stories (1949)
The Lottery: Adventures of the Daemon Lover. 1949. London: Robinson Publishing, 1988.
This is reprinted in the Library of America Novels and Stories. Unfortunately, that leaves an overlapping series of posthumously published collections, none of which entirely supersedes any of the others. Shirley Jackson completists are therefore forced to include all of the following in their collections:

  1. The Magic of Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest / Life among the Savages / Raising Demons &c. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. 1954, 1953, 1956. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
  2. Come Along with Me. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. 1966. New York: Penguin, 1995.
  3. Just an Ordinary Day: Part of a Novel, Sixteen Stories, and Three Lectures. Ed. Laurence Jackson Hyman & Sarah Hyman Stewart. 1997. Bantam Books. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1998.
  4. "Other Stories and Sketches." In Novels and Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. The Library of America, 204. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2010.
  5. Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings. Introduction by Ruth Franklin. Ed. Laurence Jackson Hyman & Sarah Hyman DeWitt. New York: Random House, 2015.
  6. Jackson, Shirley. Dark Tales. Foreword by Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2017.

Shirley Jackson: Dark Tales (2017)

To say the least, this has left her legacy in a somewhat untidy state, not least because the editorial policies of some of these volumes have been a bit on the inclusive side. Jackson wrote for money, and published a good deal in magazines that she might not have liked to have seen perpetuated in book-form.

It's hard for an obsessive such as myself to argue that I shouldn't have access to all of this material - after all, the same could be said of that wayward spendthrift F. Scott Fitzgerald - but it would be nice to see it reduced to some kind of order, given her immense accomplishments in this form.

Coming back to Shirley, though, it's rare for me to watch a movie that ticks all of the boxes with such relentless precision. True, it's a little arty in places, with drifting out-of-focus vignettes glimpsed through windows.

It's also completely inaccurate, given the decision to edit out the brood of children that infested Jackson and Hyman's house, and which must have made it a kind of Bedlam to spend any time in - for further evidence, see her books Life among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1956), which cover precisely the period this story is set in. Those titles do rather speak for themselves.

It's hard to imagine a more flattering portrait of a writer, though. Shirley Jackson comes across as neurotic, manipulative, unpredictable, drunken, lazy, greedy, and obsessive - all at the same time. Above all, though, she's genuinely terrifying! Surely there's not a scribe alive who wouldn't like to be described in those terms?

I suppose that there was an extra treat for me, though, in the film's portrayal of Academia. A while ago I started writing a blogpost on the subject of writing a PhD. Central to the piece was the cartoon below, by Matt Groening, composed before he achieved worldwide fame with The Simpsons:

Matt Groening: Life in Hell (1987)

As Professor Stanley Hyman, Shirley Jackson's husband, tortured and mocked his new assistant, an aspiring young Academic whose wife is being simultaneously tormented by the mercurial Shirley, who needs her to act as a kind of double for the hapless "lost girl" protagonist of her new novel, I felt a vivid sense of déjà vu about the whole thing.

Those "little favours" asked for by the Professor which can never be turned down for fear that he won't put in a kind word for you when the chips are down (of course he won't); those repeated requests for him to "read your dissertation," or let you give a guest lecture, or show any signs of human charity at all ...

So, while it certainly doesn't need me to promote it, I do suggest that you treat yourself to an excursion to see Shirley if you have any interest in writing at all. She may have come down in folklore as a kind of mad witch, scribbling Gothic fantasies on the kitchen table, but in fact Shirley Jackson was a literary virtuoso with a Jamesian level of control.

The Haunting of Hill House can certainly be paralleled with "The Turn of the Screw," but it's worth remembering generally that an obsession with ghosts and haunted spaces was almost a given for all the great novelists of the nineteenth century. It's only in the modern era that such topics have been associated with pulp or popular fiction.

Shirley Jackson's work certainly constitutes formidable proof that psychological horror can coexist with the supernatural to create great writing. She's one of my literary heroes. It's nice to see her books back in print (thanks to Penguin Classics), and her genius finally beginning to be vindicated at last.

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

[Postscript (12/12/20)]:

Well, clearly great minds think alike. My comments above how "I've often felt that the Library of America missed a trick by not reprinting all of [other novels] in their otherwise fine edition of Jackson's Novels and Stories" only anticipated by a few months the appearance of the following:

Shirley Jackson: Four Novels of the 1940s & 50s (2020)

Shirley Jackson. Four Novels of the 1940s & 50s: The Road Through the Wall / Hangsaman / The Bird’s Nest / The Sundial. 1948, 1951, 1954, 1958. Ed. Ruth Franklin. The Library of America, 336. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2020.

Once before this happened to me, when I remarked to a fellow Melville enthusiast that I was looking forward to the day when the Library of America decided to complete their complete 3-volume edition of his fiction with a volume of collected poems, including Clarel and the other three books, as well as his posthumous and unpublished work in that genre.

Sure enough, a few years later, out it came:

Herman Melville: Complete Poems (2020)

Herman Melville. Complete Poems: Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War / Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land / John Marr and Other Sailors with Some Sea-Pieces / Timoleon Etc. / Posthumous & Unpublished: Weeds and Wildlings Chiefly, with a Rose or Two / Parthenope / Uncollected Poetry and Prose-and-Verse. 1866, 1876, 1888 & 1891. Library of America Herman Melville Edition, 4. Ed. Hershel Parker. Note on the Texts by Robert A. Sandberg. The Library of America, 320. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2019.

Nice to feel vindicated in that way, particularly when the books themselves are so useful and beautiful.

1 comment:

Richard said...

I decided to see the movie, realizing that I haven't seen a movie for years. I enjoyed the experience again. But overall I was not that keen on the movie. I knew it probably wasn't a 'portrait' of the author -- I didn't know about her husband or even if I was looking at a fictional person -- but whoever she was, great as she may have been, the personalities of both her and her husband repelled me.

There was a good theme in the young woman, in a sense, becoming the protagonist of Jackson's novel. I felt for the young couple, just married and struggling. But I didn't expect 'a happy ending'. But I feel that the movie (with some clever moves) was insufficiently subtle.

It was good in many scenes. But so is Christina Stead's 'Cotter's England'. It is a great book. But it is a great, terrible, bitter book. It is narrated mostly by an seemingly endless mad malicious monologue by one of the main protagonists. Others of her family are also horrible. The main protagonist keeps on at a young woman knowing she will drive her to suicide. The brother of that protagonist is strangely 'apart' (although he nearly gets through to one of those attacked by his sister in a beautiful part of the book). The end result is a horror story without the macabre per se, no ghosts or mysteries.

But the protagonist is terrible, a monster. There are such: so it is true to what it is doing. Still, it knocked me for a six. But I still want to read more books by Stead.

The book though, taken in totality, is a tour de force.

Again, in 'Shirley' we have a manipulative monster, or a pair of them. There are such.

The actors are all pretty good.

I think this would have worked for me if the young couple had been stronger. The young woman is: but both are that, too young.

People who are interested in the writer and in that genre and in interesting movies -- it is clever, it does have amazing moments -- they should watch it. I think I would need to see it a couple of times.

I would say it is worth looking at as it will pique interest in the writer (it is not a true to life biopic at all as it seems Jackson had children0. But it has to be realised it is an almost stereoptypical picture of a mad (and bitter or conniving) "genius". It starts well, brilliantly. I also just read 'The Lottery' online. The reaction of the young woman to that story is, by the film makers, a coup.

This is not to say this has put me off Jackson's books, and I agree many writers mix horror and detective fiction etc with the 'heavy stuff' -- and Henry James is a good example.