Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Monday, October 28, 2013

Shirley Jackson's Haunted Houses

The Haunting (1962), directed by Robert Wise.

In one of many jolting moments in Jamaica Kincaid’s roman a clef See Now Then (2013) about the dissolution of her marriage,  she reveals that she is living in Shirley Jackson’s old house--that she is, in fact, being haunted by Shirley Jackson. I have no idea if  this is literally true (since they both lived in North Bennington, the village adjacent to Bennington College, it seems at least possible they ended up in the same house); regardless of its factual veracity, however, for those familiar with Shirley Jackson’s biography this is a very bad sign. Jackson, as Kincaid  well knows, spent her final years in that house as a madwoman in her own attic, self-confined to her house and then further to her bedroom, paralyzed by the pills, the alcohol, and the escalating sense of paranoia regarding the town she’d made her home for more than half her life. (Her husband’s fairly frequent affairs with Bennington co-eds probably didn’t help matters; another explicit point of identification for Kincaid.) The rumor that children from town used to follow her home from the post office or grocery store, taunting her and  throwing rocks gives you a sense of her life there, as does the fact that Jackson based “The Lottery,” her famous story of ritualized American violence, on her experience living in North Bennington.

Even if you think you don’t know Shirley Jackson’s work, you  still do. Her brand of psychological horror, encompassing  poltergeists, multiple personalities, dysfunctional twins and ambiguous conjurings, has proved widely influential in the years since her death. (It is, perhaps, a sign of the necessary schizophrenia of a mid-century female writer that alongside the tales of psychic disintegration that made her long-term literary reputation sit two chatty, anecdotal volumes about raising four children, very much in the Erma Bombeck mode.) For a writer primarily identified with one short story, she has a number of powerful, passionate advocates. Jonathan Lethem, in a 1997 article for Salon, calls her “a writer’s writer” as well as “one of this century’s most luminous and strange American writers.” (He also wrote an introduction to a collection of previously unpublished Jackson stories; one of several posthumous volumes of her work.) The New Yorker published a story by her called "Paranoia" this summer; there’s a new biography in the works. It’s Stephen King, however, who remains her most ubiquitous disciple.
The plot of The Haunting of Hill House will sound immediately familiar to anyone who’s done some time in popular culture of the fifty years: a group of disparate people gather in an old mansion under the aegis of a researcher into the paranormal. Chaos ensues. Did she invent this classic haunted house format, or simply polish it to perfection with her tricky yet accessible narrative? King put it this way, in Dans Macabre, “It and James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.”
     The Haunting of Hill House was Jackson’s first big breakthrough it commercial terms, and it attracted the director Robert Wise, who said he became so frightened sitting in a chair reading the novel that he knew it would be even more powerful on screen. Wise made The Haunting between his Academy Award-winning musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music. At first glance this relatively small-scale black-and-white ensemble piece seems like an odd departure in his filmography, until you remember his early background in horror films, directing  films like Curse of the Cat People, a genre he never really lost his fondness for--Audrey Rose was one of his final films, in 1977.
The Haunting is considered a classic, elegant ghost story, relying more on suggestion and atmosphere than actual ghouls, something Wise said he learned from his years early years at RKO working for horror producer Val Lewton.  (He was also Orson Welles’ editor on Citizen Kane. Talk about a film pedigree.) Wise assembles an outstanding cast in his haunted mansion: Claire Bloom as an elegant, needling lesbian psychic, Russ Tamblyn as the hep, hard-headed future heir of thehouse, and, most remarkably, Julie Harris.
Julie Harris in The Haunting

Julie Harris, who died a few months ago, was an illustrious actress, mostly of the theater (She is tied with Angela Lansbury for the record number of Tony Awards.). She had a tougher time in film, seemingly too thoughtful and angular for her time; Robert Wise was one of the few directors to use her to advantage. It’s weird to think  this role was less than a decade after her other big film role, opposite James Dean in East of Eden; where she played an inexperienced teen. In this film she veers between an ancient spinsterdom and utter childishness (She became most closely identified, later on, with her stage portrayal of Emily Dickinson.) She is perfect here as the film’s locus. She holds our attention and sympathy even as she evokes an extremely isolated, unstable, and volatile personality. The movie, like the book, is really about her hidden life and how it begins to be stimulated by the company of the other racy and sexually experienced guests, particularly the lesbian played by Claire Bloom.  It’s an open question, in the book, whether anything truly supernatural actually takes place, or just the stunted flowering of an extremely troubled personality. “Jackson’s ‘hauntedness’ is in her troubled protagonist, not in the actual house--there is the possibility that a toxic individual is a contagion to others, and to herself,” remarks Joyce Carol Oates, in a 2010 interview about Jackson.
Unfortunately, much of the novel’s ambiguity is absent in the film, which, while retaining traces of the original, also becomes a much more conventional horror story: walls shake, furniture moves, and cars get driven into trees by unseen forces. The best Shirley Jackson adaptation remains, believe it or not,
The Shining.

I’m not the first one to make this connection; early in his career, Stephen King was forever at pains to point out his imaginative debt to Shirley Jackson. His female adolescent powerhouses, like Carrie, clearly have their source in Jackson’s work. (He even dedicated the novel  Firestarter, about a girl whose temper starts conflagrations, to her.) I’m also far from the first to see The Shining  as a close reworking of elements drawn from The Haunting of Hill House. The internet as a whole is seemingly in agreement on this, if nothing else “The Shining, as Stephen King wrote it, is essentially a bigger, ‘splodier, more dudely version of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House,”  writes a blogger on Superworse. Another blogger points out that certain editions of The Shining contain an epigraph from The Haunting of Hill House. I could go on, but who among you is foolish enough to argue with the internet? It’s all there: the journey, the psychic-as-catalyst, the malevolent estate, only returned to the family romance, where it is very much at home.
The most remarkable aspect of King’s The Shining is how he incorporates aspects of Jackson’s own life into the structure she herself has provided. Since Judy Oppenheimer’s informative biography of Jackson didn’t come out until 1988, how could he have known about the isolation, substance abuse and writer’s block  of her final years? Did he simply intuit the facts, or use his writerly imagination? I believe the explanation is much more down to earth. Stephen King, a writer haunted by Shirley Jackson, settled in the same region. Both King and Jackson are writers who liked spending time with other writers; in spite of her increasingly fraught and withdrawn relationship with the town of North Bennington, Jackson and her husband counted several important writers on the Bennington faculty, like Ralph Ellison and Bernard Malamud, as their close friends, and Jackson frequently traveled to writing conventions in the area. King, intensely curious and living in the neighboring state of New Hampshire in the decade after her death must have been able to glean the relevant details about her dramatic unraveling, details he then incorporated into his own novel ( a novel, which, incidentally,  like The Haunting of Hill House marked a major breakthrough in terms of his own popularity).
But as remarkable an imaginative achievement as King’s novel is, it is Stanley Kubrick’s film version of
The Shining which stands as the more lasting artistic feat.



In spite of King’s strong imaginative link to Jackson,  Kubrick actually comes much closer than King in replicating Jackson’s narrative effects, especially the utter inscrutability of the action. How much of what is happening is real, and how much is psychosis? What the fuck is going on? The maze in which Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) loses his life, a fitting emblem of the film as a whole, is not found in King’s novel . There is, however,  a topiary maze that swallows up a character in another work from Jackson’s oeuvre--an earlier novella called The Sundial (courtesy of the blogosphere, once again).
As the recent documentary Room 237  makes clear, The Shining is a film which invites almost endless analysis. In Room 237, nine obsessive interpreters of Kubrick’s The Shining take you on a tour of some of the labyrinthine thinking inspired by the film. For example,  of the participants walks you through the film forwards and backwards, projected simultaneously one on top of the other.  (Apparently there are insights to be gleaned from this exercise.) Most are content with reading all of Western history, particularly the genocidal moments, as encapsulated in subliminal imagery within the film.
The enigmatic nature of the film is undoubtedly part of what makes it such a masterpiece. As May Pols wrote in her Time review of Room 237 , “people are still crazy about the beauty of a beautiful movie about people going crazy.” When you gaze deeply enough into this shining abyss, you should see the visage of Shirley Jackson staring back.

Shirley Jackson, shortly before her death at 48.
Photo by her son Laurence Hyman.

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