Mid-Century Macabre: Shirley Jackson and Josephine Tey

I have a brilliant friend whose bailiwicks include mid-twentieth century fiction and depictions of madness. Shirley Jackson, unsurprisingly, is a favorite. The only things I’d read of hers before were “The Lottery,” (#iconic) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which I read as a teenager and barely remembered. But inspired by my friend, I wanted to read some Jackson this year. Fortunately, I’ve plunged through the murky, eerie mindscapes of two.

The first was We Have Always Live in the Castle (1962), about two sisters living alone in their large family home with a wheelchair-ridden elderly uncle. They are estranged from their community due to the violent poisoning that offed the rest of their family years before, a crime for which the elder sister—Constance—was tried and acquitted.

The narrator, Merricat, tries to buffer Constance from the vitriol of the world in various ways, from doing the degrading job of shopping in a town that hates them to placing various protecting talismans around their property. When an estranged cousin with dubious intentions comes to visit, Merricat fears that the stable peace she’s created will be destroyed.

We Have Always Live in the Castle fits perfectly into the “Shirley Jackson” box, focused as it is on women and girls not being entirely safe and protagonists whose psychological instability make them not quite reliable.

Image result for the haunting of hill house novel

I also did re-read The Haunting of Hill House and it is fantastic! (And much better than any of the subpar adaptations, including the recent Netflix series, which includes some decent performances and at least uses the novel as an inspiration if not an outline for the story.)

  • Mild Spoilers Ahead

Like We Have Always Lived in the Castle, “Hill House” provides us with a protagonist who does not seem altogether stable in Eleanor Vance. The narration is not first-person but it primarily sticks close to Eleanor’s brain. However, my assumption going in was that it was unclear whether or not the house is actually haunted or if Eleanor is mad, but that’s not the case. The house is haunted but part of its evil lies in targeting Eleanor as the weakest psyche in the group visiting to study its haunted qualities. Or at least that’s my reading. We are told from the get-go that “whatever walked there, walked alone” and that remains true. Similar to The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel—and oh how Stephen King drew inspiration from Hill House!—the house itself is evil but that does not mean it’s seeking long term occupants.

I want to acknowledge the incredible subtly of Jackson’s writing too. For example, “Around them the house steadied and located them, above the hills slept watchfully, small eddies of air and sound and movement stirred and waited and whispered, and the center of consciousness was somehow the small space where they stood, four separate people, and looked trustingly at one another.” Here Jackson starts out with this disconcerting personification as the house “steadied and located them,” but then follows that clause up with more standard personifications—hills sleeping, air and sound stirring and whispering. The initial, weird actions of the house color the subsequent personifying actions that might seem quite benign in another context. And all is focused on these four unsuspecting people. It’s so deliciously ooky!

Bonus:

I might be turning into a person who reads mysteries? (I blame Kate Atkinson; she’s a literary fiction gateway drug.) The Daughter of Time (1951) by Josephine Tey also hails from the mid-century and creates a Venn-diagram between mystery stories and Shakespeare enthusiasts. In the novel a bedridden Scotland Yard detective finds himself dubious that Richard III could have actually committed the nefarious crimes he is accused of, not least of all ordering the murder of his young nephews. He sets out to acquit the oft-slandered king (who did not, in truth, have a hunchback—look it up!). It is a nerdy delight and recommended highly!

Portrait of Richard III
Does this look like the face of a monster?