The Fiction Writer Shirley Jackson Stars in Her Own Novel
German seems to have a word for every screwed-up specific emotion. If I were to pick one to describe the strangely compelling, deeply unsettling fiction of Shirley Jackson, it would be unheimlich. Freud coined the term to describe the uncomfortable feeling of the familiar suddenly turned foreign. Technically, it means un-home-like, but a better English translation might be uncanny, as in the “uncanny valley,” which refers to the sudden sharp jump in creepiness that occurs when computer animation gets too close to looking human. Jackson, best known today for her short story “The Lottery,” in which a sweet, semi-rural town gathers for a harvest festival / ritual stoning, seems to live in the uncanny valley. All throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s, as Americans embraced normal like it was our job, Jackson insisted on showing us the cracks at the margins of our communities, our sanity, and our very reality.
Perhaps this accounts for the ebb and flow of her popularity. While often critically acclaimed and considered a “writer’s writer,” Jackson has faded from the public eye over time. She was too strange for the ’50s, and too apolitical and classically domestic (in her own way) for the radicals of the ’60s and ’70s. In the last few decades, the ho-hum short fiction of small epiphanies—MFA stories about cancer and divorce—have reigned supreme, and Jackson’s folkloric tales of the unexplained and unexplainable have been looked at with a jaundiced eye. If I were to compare her to anyone in contemporary American fiction, it would be Joyce Carol Oates, another prolific virtuoso of the strange.
There are signs, however, that the pendulum of public reception has begun to swing the other way for Jackson. In 2007, the Shirley Jackson Awards “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic” was created. In 2010, a musical version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre. In the last year, Penguin Classics has reissued seven of Jackson’s books in beautiful black-spine editions, while this April saw the publication of a previously unknown Jackson story in The New Yorker.
This week, Blue Rider Press releases Shirley, a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell that imagines its protagonist—a 19-year-old newlywed named Rose Nemser—living in Jackson’s chaotic Bennington, Vermont, home in the last year of Jackson’s life. Although it was just published, Shirley has already been optioned by HBO for a two-hour movie.
As the novel opens, Rose and her husband, Frank, are a young, striving couple, moving to Bennington so Frank can begin his teaching career under the tutelage of Stanley Edgar Hyman, Shirley Jackson’s husband. The couple ends up living in the Hyman-Jackson home, where Rose becomes obsessively involved with Jackson, her family, and her stories. For those new to Jackson’s work, Rose’s exploration of her writing provides a great reading list, adding a bit of extra-textual pleasure to Shirley.
Apropos to Jackson herself, Merrell’s novel walks a seemingly contradictory line. It is simultaneously a precisely accurate look at the sexual and intellectual failures that real love must allow for and survive, and a darkly fantastical meditation on magic, revenge, love, and reality. It is at turns dreamlike and hyper-realistic.
“I had this particular interest in domestic fiction, but I wasn’t interested in the fiction of domesticity,” Merrell says of the novel, which she began while at graduate school in Bennington (full disclosure: we were in the same year, though in different disciplines). “I am very much interested in this discomfort in the ways that people try to understand their own domestic lives.” This is the central question that Rose finds herself contemplating throughout Shirley: how to live happily in her own life, despite its problems. Or as Rose puts it while explaining what draws readers to Jackson’s work, how to “understand imperfection and know how to live with it and appreciate it.”
Merrell’s first novel, A Member of the Family, explored a foreign adoption gone disturbing and sad, so this fraught family territory isn’t new to her. But originally, she had started doing serious research toward publishing a Jackson biography. “When I actually went to the Library of Congress to look at her papers I wasn’t even exactly sure why,” she says, except that she was drawn to Jackson’s story. There she started reading the love letters between Jackson and Hyman, her brilliant, philandering, infuriating, and yet much-beloved husband.
Soon Merrell knew she wanted to explore the complicated dynamics of their relationship, which was a partnership-of-equals that stretched back to when they were just college kids, utterly infatuated with each other and their own stellar potential. But somewhere along the line, they’d gotten twisted up. They were often cruel and thoughtless to one another, regardless of their complete commitment to their family. Or as Rose puts it: “Despite the terrible things they did, the ways they hurt each other, they needed one another at the core.”
Shirley, at its core, is about exactly that kind of connection: the one that endures despite all else. From the outside, these relationships can look like duty or desperation or simply two people who have given up on finding real happiness in exchange for certitude. The brilliance of Jackson’s life and Merrell’s writing is that they convey the depth and beauty of this kind of connection, showing that it isn’t an endurance exercise, but rather the scarred-but-surviving tree that grows from a root of unrivaled strength: Love. Like Jackson herself, love endures. In the end, Shirley is a love story, albeit an unexpected and uncomfortable one—perhaps the only kind that could ever be told by or about Shirley Jackson.