Macabre, witty, lit-fic horror
Shirley Jackson is fast disabusing me of my dismissal of the horror genre as just a schlocky gratuitous fright-fest.
I am coming to realise, that any genre will be populated by good, bad and indifferent writers, and it is not the genre itself, but the quality of the writing which matters (well, that is certainly true for me)
Just as I have learned not to dismiss Sci-Fi because of writers like Doris Lessing, Ursula le Guin, Christopher Priest and John Wyndham : superb writers, whose subject matter falls (in some books) into the SF category, so I must learn not to be so prejudiced at things-that-go-bump-in-the-night writing, particularly when Henry James, M.R. James and Shirley Jackson produce works in this category.
Take the staple of the haunted house, miles from anywhere, and sew it into the house party, where a group of strangers come together with some purpose. In this case the disparate group are investigating the phenomenon of haunted dwellings, and are a curious group of sensitives – the scientific anthropologist investigator, married to a sensitive (more of whom later), the rather feckless, purposeless young man who will inherit the house, and two young women – a flamboyant, theatrical telepath, and a singularly disturbed, lonely, damaged young woman with a sad life, a squabbling family and no prospects. Mix well with a sinister couple of on-site servants. Throw in a deranged house as background. Later add the investigator’s supposed sensitive wife and her companion in things of planchette and ouija board provenance.
Stir carefully, light the blue touch paper and stand back.
What is so marvellous about Jackson is her ability to let things get very dark and frightening – and to have a cool, restrained, sophisticated writing style. She is particularly adept at uncovering the psychology of the dysfunctional, and yet this is done with a fine empathy.
The central character, Eleanor, through whose eyes and psyche we really experience the story, has some similarities to the disturbed central character of Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. We certainly have someone who is ‘not quite right’ but Jackson presents Eleanor as both damaged and fragile, yet also unmonstrous, unweird, quite whole, and, yes…………rather more aware of texts and subtexts and emotional nuance than most others.
There are terrifying and disturbing things within these pages, not all of which get explained and teased out – indeed Jackson does that clever thing which works if the writer is skilled enough (she is) – which is not to spell out what has so frightened the protagonists, and force the reader to imagine their own horrors. Just what DID Eleanor and Theodora see at that picnic………….
There are spooky moments a plenty. I can indeed imagine how frightening this might have been in the original black and white film, directed by Robert Wise, with that wondrous actor of the damaged. Julie Harris, as Eleanor, with the bangings, the ghostly footsteps and more………..
What elevates Jackson’s writing is her economy, her precision in choice of word and phrase – and, her incredible WIT. She isn’t writing spoof horror-com, it’s real horror, and careful psychology all right, but she just has an incisive Dorothy Parkeresque ability to slice at the jugular whilst being marvellously dry and droll.
She’s also, again on this showing, quite brilliant at the opening of a book, able to instantly spin a sticky web, luring the unsuspecting fly reader in so escape is impossible.
So, early on, letting us know a little and a lot, upon the instant, with our central character:
Eleanor Vance was thirty two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five year-old niece, and she had no friends
Yet curiously, in a couple of sentences you will find yourself warming to our unlikely protagonist, willing her to flower.
Jackson’s heart and interest is with the outcast, not with the four-square and settled of the world. She likes the weird, the quirk, the eccentric and those who are not heart whole. And so, she ensures, will we