Michael Epstein | BookMarks: Celebrating Shirley Jackson's legacy

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If you read Shirley Jackson's 1959 classic, "The Haunting of Hill House" (Penguin, 2004 with an introduction by Laura Miller), it is unlikely that you will accept that next invitation to spend a weekend in a country home with a certain reputation.

The 80-year-old, eerie Hill House, evocatively described by Jackson as "not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within," is the central character in this Gothic tale, a genre that I have always avoided, but which I will now have to re-evaluate.

Wikipedia defines Gothic fictions as "a genre or mode of literature and film that combines fiction and horror, death, and at times romance. ... The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures." Jackson's novel certainly fits the bill.

We are introduced to the four main characters in the very first pages: Dr. Montague, who hopes to achieve legitimacy in his scientific approach to the paranormal by systematically exploring Hill House; Eleanor Vance, who "was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House" and dislikes her sister Theodora; her sister, whose world was one of "delight and soft colors;" and Luke, described as a liar and a thief, but invited to be present because he was the nephew of Hill House's owner.

The four of them spend a week at Hill House along with the eerie housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley, who cooks the meals and cleans but who returns to the village every day at 2 p.m. rather than remaining after dark. What they encounter is a series of the classic strange and inexplicable elements of the Gothic novel — cold drafts at doorways when no windows are open, slamming doors, weird laughing and whispering in the middle of the night, terrible odors, writing on walls, and visions of beauty and horror.

Are these real, whatever "real" means? The nature of reality and how our minds perceive it are the central questions of this book and all of Gothic fiction. Can you measure the change in temperature? Can you chemically characterize the elements of the terrible odors? Can you capture on film the writing on the wall? And even if you cannot, does it make those phenomena any less real? Is reality an objective fact that all of us can agree upon, or does it exist in the complex neuronal systems of the individual brain?

The four inhabitants of Hill House are less concerned with neural pathways than with surviving their experience. Providing any further details of their adventures would definitely spoil the experience of reading this fine book. For it is the unanswerable questions about the reality or unreality of the paranormal perceptions that are the at the core of "The Haunting of Hill House." Were the cold gusts and nauseating odors there for all to experience, or did they only exist in the tormented and unhinged mind of one individual?

This central question of "What is real?" is also a rather fitting frame of reference for Jackson herself. Was she the quiet mother of four living in North Bennington in the 1940s and 50's, writing Erma Bombeck-like books about raising children, cooking, and keeping house ("Life Among The Savages")? Or was she the author of dark, sinister, paranormal best-selling short stories and novels?

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It turns out that she was both, and a fine juggling job she did at it. Most of her neighbors thought she was just another housewife, raising a large and boisterous family while her husband, literary clinic Stanley Edgar Hyman, taught at Bennington College, wrote, and traveled. But she wrote and wrote and wrote, and beginning with the publication of her most famous story, "The Lottery" in The New Yorker on June 26, 1948, she became a literary household name. Her work appeared on The New York Times best seller list. And she was nominated for the 1960 National Book Award, for "The Haunting of Hill House," along with such luminaries as William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth (who won for "Goodbye Columbus").

After her death in 1965, Jackson's writing aside from her widely anthologized classic "The Lottery" was largely forgotten for nearly 50 years. But beginning at the turn of the century, her work has been rediscovered and is now widely read. The Library of America published a volume of her stories and two novels in 2010, and Penguin Books has reissued all of her work in paperback. A fine biography by Ruth Franklin, "Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life" was published in 2016. "The Haunting of Hill House" was adapted for a Netflix miniseries last year. And a movie based on "We Have Always Lived In The Castle" was recently released.

But perhaps the most interesting manifestation of Jackson's rediscovery is Shirley Jackson Day, held on or near June 27, the setting for her most famous short story. Celebrated since 2006, the event in Jackson's home town of 30 years, North Bennington, is sponsored by the John McCullough Library and the Bennington Bookshop and features artwork, music, and readings inspired by Jackson's writings.

Participants in this year's program will include two of Jackson's children and two members of the panel that determines the recipient of the Shirley Jackson Award. That award, given annually since 2007 "for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic," will be presented at Readercon28, the conference on imaginative literature later this summer in Quincy, Mass.

This year's Shirley Jackson Day celebration will take place on Saturday at The Left Bank in North Bennington. The John G. McCullough Free Library, in partnership with The Bennington Bookshop, will host its annual celebration of the career of Jackson with readings of her work. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m., and guests are invited to view a gallery exhibit of work inspired by Jackson's work and music courtesy of Jackson's son, Barry Hyman. The celebration itself will begin at 7 p.m.

Read the "Haunting of Hill House," attend Lottery Day, lock your doors and sleep tight.

Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Cambridge, Mass., and Brownsville. He can be reached through his web site www.EpsteinReads.com or on Facebook @EpsteinReads where you will find more than 1,000 book covers and reviews to answer the question: What shall I read next?


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