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Shirley Jackson and domestic terror

Sady Doyle
Jun 14, 2017 · 25 min read
Photo: Unsplash

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The American Golden Age was fueled by female madness.

The symptoms of this disease were bizarre — sometimes subtle, sometimes theatrical — but impossible to miss. Some women would tear out of their houses and wander the streets for hours. They could not abide being indoors. Others never left the house; they’d sleep for 10 hours a day and complain that they were exhausted when they woke up. Woman after woman reported to her doctor’s office with bloody blisters covering her arms. The first thought was invariably that something was wrong with their soap or their dishwashing detergent, but changing soaps didn’t do anything to stop the bleeding, and medication couldn’t cure it.

Things got violent. In suburban Chicago, a mother of eight decapitated her two youngest children and displayed them on her front lawn. Word reached the poet Adrienne Rich, who, upon discussing this with her female colleagues, found that “every woman in that room, every poet, could identify with her.” Another poet, one of the most promising of her age, laid out breakfast for her children and gassed herself to death with her own oven. Even the women who managed not to kill anyone were prone to flameouts and grand gestures: “You’d be surprised,” one doctor told a journalist, “at the number of these happy suburban wives who simply go berserk one night and run shrieking through the street without any clothes on.”

The journalist was Betty Friedan, a women’s magazine writer who had become convinced that she was paid to sell poison. Her articles were meticulously cleansed of any reference to the outside world — her readers, one male editor told her, “are not interested in the broad public issues of the day. They are not interested in national or international affairs. They aren’t interested in politics, unless it’s related to an immediate need in the home, like the price of coffee” — in order to sell women a perfectly contained, domestic lifestyle, a vision of the world that stretched only as far as the front lawn. The white, middle-class American housewife, according to these magazines, was a queen, reigning over her adorable children and state-of-the-art appliances. Less-privileged women strove to attain the lifestyle; those lucky enough to attain it embodied the feminine ideal.

Meanwhile, the actual housewives were chopping off their children’s heads and displaying them on the front lawn to make a point. Or their skin was falling off. Or they couldn’t get out of bed, or they were high or drunk every day, or they were caught stripping off their clothes and shrieking as they ran through their manicured suburban lawns at three in the morning. These were the most privileged women in the world, living the most aspirational lifestyle of their day, and it was driving them crazy.

“When,” Friedan wondered in The Feminine Mystique, her book on the phenomenon, “did women decide to give up the world and go back home?”

But it was more accurate to say that home chose them, not that these women had chosen to go home. It sucked them indoors and trapped them there. It drained the sanity from them, until they ran out screaming. A house, like a sentient thing, preyed on the woman who lived inside it. It would not let her go.

Shirley Jackson published three novels in the last seven years of her life, and they all have the same plot: A woman living inside a large and luxurious house finds herself unable to leave it. The final novel in this trilogy, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is her most critically acclaimed book and probably her best; the second-to-last, The Haunting of Hill House, is her most popular and scariest. The first, 1958’s The Sundial, has flown under the radar a bit — if only by comparison — but was reportedly Jackson’s personal favorite.

The Sundial is also a remarkably clean, comprehensive outline of the anxieties Jackson would channel into her later books.

In the first of her three great house descriptions, Jackson writes:

The Halloran land was distinguished from the rest of the world by a stone wall, which went completely around the estate, so that all inside the wall was Halloran, all outside was not. The first Mr. Halloran, father to Richard and Aunt Fanny — Frances Halloran she was then — was a man who, in the astonishment of finding himself suddenly extremely wealthy, could think of nothing better to do with his money than set up his own world.

This is how houses work for Jackson—they are self-contained worlds, almost living organisms. Their walls and fences are like skin, marking the point where a fiercely guarded subjectivity brushes up against an indifferent universe. All inside the wall is Family, all outside the wall is Not, and the recognition that this skin may be permeable — foreign objects and people might penetrate it; infection might take hold — is the source of much of the dread that bubbles through her work. At times, Jackson’s plots can resemble the functioning of an immune system, as the house works, seemingly of its own accord, to expel those who do not belong and entrap those who do.

The haunted house — or the “Bad Place,” as Stephen King dubbed it in Danse Macabre; his own Bad Place was not a house at all, but a hotel — long predates Shirley Jackson. Gothic fiction, from The Castle of Otranto to Crimson Peak, is stuffed with foreboding old estates and decrepit mansions, each and every one equipped with its own hideous secret. Castle Dracula; Wuthering Heights; the House of Usher; Manderley, as in last night I dreamt I went to _______________ again. The house’s secret can be supernatural (like poor dead Cathy, banging on the windows of Wuthering Heights) or simply shameful (like Rochester’s mad wife, the very human source of all the ghostly apparitions in Thornfield Hall). In either case, the house represents history. A house, in these books, is something passed down through generations; it’s where the story of a family has unfolded, and where that family’s sins have been committed. Wrongs done in the past still resonate there. They shape the present. They reach out, in the middle of the night, to grab you with cold hands.

It’s no coincidence that women have designed so many of literature’s terrible houses. For centuries, women have been relegated to the private sphere, told to concentrate on home, on family, on getting married and making children. This was meant to bar them from accomplishment in other areas of life, like (let’s say) the arts. In practice, it gave them a whole new set of artistic concerns. The Gothic novel — with its emphasis on family violence and domestic peril — has always been predominantly female, both in terms of its writers (Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley) and its readership. By 1803 at the latest, teen girls’ taste for Gothic horror was so well-known that Jane Austen could write an entire book satirizing it; one reason there were so many superstitions around Victorian girls’ reading habits was probably the fact that when you did let your daughter have the run of the library, she invariably went for the gory stuff. In some ways, Jackson’s domestic terror is merely continuing the Gothic lineage.

Yet Jackson’s house stories are distinct from her 19th-century predecessors, in the same way that the experience of a young wife entering her husband’s 200-year-old family estate in 1815 was not the experience of a suburban wife wasting away in a freshly built tract house in 1955. The suburban houses were newer, and smaller; they suffered, not from too much history, but from too little. They embodied a whole new set of fears.

In the Danse Macabre, King traces our fear of the “Bad Place” to the violation of privacy:

Your house is the place where you’re supposed to be able to unbutton your armor and put your shield away. Our homes are the places where we allow ourselves the ultimate vulnerability: they are the places where we take off our clothes and go to sleep with no guard on watch.

The terror of a haunted house, King says, is that “[w]hen we go home and shoot the bolt on the door, we like to think we’re locking trouble out. The good horror story about the Bad Place whispers that we are not locking the world out; we are locking ourselves in…with them.”

But King — not to put too fine a point on it — is a man, with a man’s expectation of domestic tranquility. Women have never been entirely safe in their own houses or with their own families. Moreover, women know this; it’s why we’ve spent the past 200 years buying novels about shameful family secrets and untrustworthy, possibly murderous husbands.

The problem is that being locked in (with them or without them) may be the best available option. The full-time housewife of Jackson’s day was told not just that she had to stay home, but also that she was lucky to be there. Adlai Stevenson, in a commencement address at Smith College, extolled the “humble role of housewife,” telling a roomful of college graduates that their pending unemployment was a blessing: “[W]hether we talk of Africa, Islam [sic] or Asia, women ‘never had it so good’ as you…I could wish you no better vocation.” Less economically privileged women — which is to say, most women — felt very real shame at not achieving the stay-at-home lifestyle.

Again, The Sundial is remarkably literal here. Not only have the Halloran women been squabbling over the house forever, and possibly murdering each other over it — Mrs. Orianna Halloran, a ruthless gold digger greatly resented by genteel spinster Aunt Fanny, is suspected of having pushed her own son down the stairs to keep her daughter-in-law Maryjane from inheriting the property — staying in the house soon becomes a matter of life and death. Wandering outside one morning, Fanny finds herself lost in a sinister, unrecognizable alternate version of the grounds, haunted by the voice of her dead father, who predicts the end of the world:

From the sky and from the ground and from the sea there is danger; tell them in the house. There will be black fire and red water and the earth turning and screaming…the children will be safe; the father comes to his children who will be saved. Do not let them leave the house; say to them; Do not fear, the father will guard the children. Go into your father’s house and say these things. Tell them there is danger.

Jackson doesn’t strain our credulity; Fanny’s first thought, and ours, is that she’s lost her mind. Still, by the end of the encounter, she firmly believes that only the people inside Halloran House will survive the impending apocalypse. And after about 30 seconds of not-very-intensive questioning, so do all the other Hallorans. From being a metaphorical “private world,” the house becomes the entire world. Questions that were once sources of family conflict — who is my father’s child, and who isn’t? Who belongs to this family, and who doesn’t? Who do I have an obligation to care for, and who can I turn away? — obtain cosmic importance, as the family struggles to decide who will be safely inside on the Day of Judgment. It does not take long for more Hallorans to die under mysterious circumstances.

In Jackson’s Gothic, the horror comes from two directions: No matter how horrible it is inside the house, what waits outside may be worse. The terrible house represents not history, but identity — and the central threat is not loss of security, but loss of ownership and control.

For the housewives Friedan interviewed, the home was, if not the sum total of their self-worth, a significant chunk. It comes up a lot, typically on their lists of reasons why they shouldn’t be unhappy: “I love the kids and Bob and my home,” one woman avers. “I’ve got my health, fine children, a lovely new home,” says another. The house is like the kids, or Bob — a character in its own right.

Then there’s the Texas housewife profiled by Ladies’ Home Journal in 1960 who has her lipstick on and her chores completed by 8:30 a.m. Friedan quotes the article at length, all the way down to the nasty, Jacksonish little twist at the end:

“I love my home,” she says…the pale gray paint in her L-shaped living and dining room is five years old, but still in perfect condition…The pale peach and yellow and aqua damask upholstery looks spotless after eight years’ wear…Her favorite possession is her four-poster spool bed with a pink taffeta canopy. “I feel just like Queen Elizabeth sleeping in that bed,” she says happily. (Her husband sleeps in another room, since he snores.)

Mrs. Texas counts herself among the blessed. Her only problem, by her own account, is being overly happy: “Sometimes, I feel I’m too passive, too content.” Still, her description of her own blessings is soul-crushing: “I’m thankful for my good health and faith in God and such material possessions as two cars, two TV’s and two fireplaces.” Two beds, too, but never mind that.

Friedan called this the “sexual sell”: the belief that (per an advertising executive she interviewed for the book) “properly manipulated…American housewives can be given the sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realization, even the sexual joy they lack — by the buying of things.” Jackson, in her motherhood memoir Raising Demons, called it the tendency of housewives to think in lists:

Say to my next-door neighbor that you admire her new kitchen linoleum, and she will tell you, “Do you like it, really? I wanted to get white instead of blue, but it gets dirty so quickly, and then of course John always did like blue best, but of course the canister set and the kitchen table are lighter blue, and it would have meant replacing them, but the curtains…” From here she may go off onto any number of several tangents…she may give you a list of things which do get dirty (“…a black linoleum, and do you know it showed every single track…”) or things which do not get dirty (“…and even though it was really a pale yellow it just wiped off…”) or she may become interested in kitchen fixtures (“…and she had the prettiest curtains, but they were sort of odd, I thought, in a kitchen; they were…”) or bathroom fixtures (“…and they had the same tiles in the bathroom, only these were pink, and the curtains there…”) or even John’s likes and dislikes (“…but of course he won’t eat anything with garlic in it, so I have to take all the recipes I get and put in…”).

Note that, once again, John is the least likely topic of conversation. It’s tempting to look down on these women, until one considers one’s own hours spent staving off depression or boredom by skimming the “Just One Thing” tag on Racked or the electronic aisles of Glossier, trying to figure out which five or seven or 12 products are needed to complete the ideal minimalist skincare routine. The quest for the perfectly Instagrammable meal or Brain Dust–infused green juice, the careful deliberation on the respective merits of KonMari vs. Scandinavian hygge, the luxuriantly vacant homes of Kinfolk and the disinfected pastel domesticity of Ivanka Trump prove that we’ve never escaped the sexual sell. Women are still encouraged to direct their mental energy primarily at their own bodies and lifestyles, perfecting themselves rather than improving the world.

But in Jackson’s day, women were not just associated with houses or stuck in houses; women practically were their houses. One 1935 James Thurber cartoon shows a tiny, pitiable businessman steeling himself to enter his home, which looks down on him with an enormous, scowling, female face.

“No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house,” Shirley Jackson wrote:

[A]nd yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice…This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.

Thus, we come to Hill House, the greatest and most fearsome of Jackson’s creations. In an age when women’s most passionate relationships were with property, Jackson wrote about property that related back.

We never do figure out who is haunting Hill House. The house has seen plenty of tragedies, all female: A wife who died in the driveway before entering her new home for the first time; two sisters who were Halloranishly estranged by an argument over the property; a “little companion,” a proxy in the sisters’ long war, who hanged herself in the library. (The first manifestation of the haunting is a detail worthy of Mrs. Texas: The companion swears that one of the sisters is breaking into the house at night, trying to find her beloved set of gold-rimmed dishes.) But there is no named ghost, or ghosts; no little companion is seen roaming the halls with a rope burn on her neck. What haunts Hill House is Hill House; the place has a mind and a malevolence all its own.

Hill House even has a gender: “It’s all so motherly,” says Luke, the young man set to inherit it. “Everything so soft. Everything so padded…a mother house. A housemother, a headmistress, a housemistress.” A housewife, Jackson conspicuously avoids saying.

Hill House also chooses a wife — or, at least, a lover. This is Eleanor, our heroine, a woman defined by “the eleven years she had spent caring for her invalid mother, which had left her with some proficiency as a nurse and an inability to face strong sunlight without blinking.” Eleanor is a woman whose human potential has been ruined by domesticity. She has never lived her own life or fulfilled her own desires. As demonstrated by her inchoate, never-quite-articulated crushes on her housemates Luke and Theodora, she may not even know she has desires. Eleanor’s most-developed fantasies concern things, not people: a painted “cup of stars” she hears someone mention in a restaurant or a “little apartment” where she gets to pick out all the furniture herself. Taking care of others and tending house are all she knows: “setting out little trays of soup and oatmeal, steeling herself to the filthy laundry, Eleanor had held fast to the belief that something would happen.”

Hill House claims Eleanor immediately, repeating the same message over and over in letters of chalk and (eventually) blood: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. (A message, by the way, that gets more disquieting the more you look at it — is it two sentences or one? Is Eleanor being asked for help, or is someone supposed to help her? “Maybe you wrote it to yourself,” Theodora tells Eleanor. Is she wrong?) Eleanor — who is haunted throughout the book by the refrain journeys end in lovers meeting — welcomes the attention. When Theodora accuses her of writing her own name on the walls, Eleanor’s first thought is not that Theodora is frightened but that she’s jealous.

But Theodora, a sexually ambiguous artist with a live-in partner and a rich life in Manhattan, is too self-possessed for Hill House. It can frighten her, but it can’t hurt her. The other guests are male; Hill House ignores them. Only Eleanor is consumed and possessed; the house with its own identity and the woman with no identity outside of housework are a perfect fit. They become inseparable: “Hill House,” we are warned, “has a reputation for insistent hospitality. It seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away.”

The Haunting of Hill House is one of the two or three scariest ghost stories ever written. Yet it is also a cruel parody of Friedan’s sexual sell and of the incipient madness among women whose only real love affairs were with the new blue kitchen linoleum and the aqua damask upholstery. It is the story of a woman whose interpersonal life is so loveless and empty that she forms a passionate relationship with a house. Hill House is awful. It’s a place that drives people berserk; a place to flee, screaming. Yet, for Eleanor, belonging to Hill House is better than not belonging anywhere. Marketing reports in the 1950s encouraged advertisers to provide “a psychological defense of the housewife against being a general ‘cleaner-upper’ and menial servant for her family” by stressing “the physical and spiritual rewards she derives from the almost religious feeling of basic security provided by her home.” Firms were encouraged to frame housework as an art form to give women the illusion of choice: “Thesis: I’m a housewife. Antithesis: I hate drudgery. Synthesis: I’m creative!” Eleanor, trapped in a home that has eaten away her identity and sanity, can convince herself that she is lucky, that no woman ever had it so good, that she is doing exactly what she wants. She can convince herself, that is, until she realizes what it means to stay in Hill House forever:

“They can’t turn me out or shut me out or laugh at me or hide from me” [Eleanor said.] “I won’t go, and Hill House belongs to me.”

With what she perceived as quick cleverness she pressed her foot down hard on the accelerator…I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel to send the car directly at the great tree at the curve of the driveway, I am really doing this, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself.

In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?

Shirley Jackson earns a write-up in The Feminine Mystique, and it is scathing. Friedan uses the essays that Jackson sold to women’s magazines — proto-mommy-blog humor pieces that eventually became Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons — to class her with the “housewife writers,” frauds who concealed their own professional success to sell the stay-at-home lifestyle as fun. Yet Jackson’s life was more limited and contained more genuine housewifely servitude than anyone, including Friedan, could guess.

Shirley Jackson, 1965. Photo: AP Photo

Jackson grew up rich. Her parodies of upper-class manners, like The Sundial, are drawn from life. She rebelled by marrying Stanley Hyman, a member of the Communist party. He broadened her horizons and exhorted her to embrace the progressive principle of free love — which, in practice, meant that Stanley got to fuck around on her constantly, and Jackson was bourgeois if she complained. (She tried to follow suit once, with Dylan Thomas; it didn’t take.) Hyman had distinctly midcentury gender politics: He believed sexual fulfillment was necessary for women’s liberation, but he also believed there was no such thing as rape. Since fighting off a man was a turn-on, “[women’s] excitement eventually made them receptive.” Jackson hinted that Hyman tested these beliefs on her at least once.

As he aged, Hyman dropped the Communism but kept the infidelity. He also noticed that his wife was writing bestsellers, whereas he was patching together an uneven career with teaching, obscure academic treatises, and book reviews. To preserve his masculinity, Hyman took over the family finances — which, since Shirley was the family finances, meant that he took over Shirley’s income, pressuring her to provide more and more content to magazines. She was still expected to do all her chores; Stanley’s manliness demanded that, too. It was just that one of her chores was financing her husband. Toward the end of her life, Jackson kept a diary. It had to be kept secret, because “i feel i am cheating Stanley by not writing stories for money.”

Jackson fantasized about living alone, yet she was physically incapable of it. She developed crippling agoraphobia as her marriage disintegrated. On some days, she couldn’t leave her own room. Even when she did manage to go outdoors — to the post office, which she dreaded, or to meet with editors — she needed Stanley to accompany her as a steadying presence. It was one housewife’s way of preventing the unthinkable: “[I]f she could not leave the house,” biographer Ruth Franklin notes, “she could not leave Stanley.” The more Jackson yearned for independence, the more dependent she became.

Of course, there are ways to get rid of your husband without leaving home. You just have to embrace unorthodox solutions. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, for example, revolves around Merricat Blackwood, her older sister Constance, and their senile Uncle Julian. “Everyone else in my family,” Merricat notes with alarming cheerfulness, “is dead.”

One night, after 12-year-old Merricat was sent to bed without dinner, someone snuck arsenic into the sugar bowl. Police never found the killer. Julian, who ate very little dessert, was hospitalized; Constance, who cooked it, was unscathed. Merricat, of course, was not allowed to eat that night. It’s not a tough mystery — we know something is seriously off with Merricat by page three, when she fantasizes about everyone in a grocery store “lying there crying with the pain and dying” — but solving it is not the point. Merricat is a cold-blooded killer, but she’s also the most likable character in the book.

The “castle” in the title is chosen advisedly: The Blackwood sisters undeniably see themselves as small-town aristocracy. The working-class townsfolk loathe them, nominally because they suspect the sisters of murder, but mostly because they’re rich enough to get away with it. When Jackson’s agoraphobia was at its worst, her most intense phobia concerned the post office; she believed the mailman despised her, and couldn’t face him. Merricat’s trips into the outside world are harrowing descriptions of what it feels like to be hated:

I could tell a local car by the quick ugly glance from the driver and I wondered, always, what would happen if I stepped down from the curb onto the road; would there be a quick, almost unintended swerve toward me? Just to scare me, perhaps, just to see me jump? And then the laughter, coming from all sides, behind the blinds in the post office, from the men in front of the grocery store, from the women peering out of the grocery doorway, all of them watching and gloating, to see Mary Katherine Blackwood scurrying out of the way of a car.

The Blackwood house, by contrast, is a moneyed, secure, female fortress. “We dealt with the small surface transient objects, the books and the flowers and the spoons, but underneath we always had a solid foundation of stable possessions…We dusted and swept under tables and chairs and beds and pictures, but we left them where they were; the tortoise-shell toilet set on our mother’s dressing table was never off place by so much as a fraction of an inch.” The sexual sell is in full effect; the house’s history can be measured in women’s purchases. “As soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world.”

Yet even the Blackwood house has to be cleared of unwelcome Blackwoods. Its skin is permeable, fragile. Its equilibrium is soon threatened by a foreign presence: “Cousin Charles,” a penniless and distant relative who arrives with his eye on Constance and a taste for the finer things.

Constance, like Eleanor, is a woman devoured alive by domesticity. She’s a warped vision of her era’s perfect woman—beautiful and blonde and interested in absolutely nothing but doing chores. Constance doesn’t leave the house except to tend her vegetable garden. Most of her time in the house is spent in the kitchen. She speaks and thinks almost entirely in terms of meals. (“‘We’ll have muffins,’ Constance said, almost singing because she was sorting and putting away the food, ‘Uncle Julian will have an egg, done soft and buttery…Merricat will have something lean and rich and salty.’”) The only book she reads is The Joy of Cooking. For Merricat to frame Constance via her cooking is incredibly cruel — people cringe whenever Constance offers them a meal, which is pretty much the only thing Constance ever does — yet Constance doesn’t mind. Constance is so terminally mild that she doesn’t mind anything, including Cousin Charles.

Charles, Jonathan Lethem wrote in his prologue to Castle, “represents the male principle.” This is the sort of thing male writers are always telling themselves. What Charles represents is male arrogance, male power, and male control — the very male power and control that made housewives necessary in the first place.

More specifically, Charles represents Stanley Hyman. His supposed “romance” with Constance is transparent; in fact, he spends most of his time rifling through the Blackwoods’ things and inquiring about the location of the safe where they keep their inheritance. When Merricat breaks a watch, Charles complains that he wanted it; when she dirties some old clothes, he whines that he could have worn them. In the book’s climactic confrontation, Charles discovers that Merricat has buried some silver dollars in the yard:

“There must be twenty or thirty dollars here; this is outrageous.”

“She likes to bury things.”

Charles was still shouting, shaking my box of silver dollars back and forth violently. I wondered if he would drop it; I would like to have seen Charles on the ground, scrabbling after my silver dollars.

“It’s not her money,” he was shouting, “she has no right to hide it.”

I wondered how he had happened to find the box where I had buried it; perhaps Charles and money found each other no matter how far apart they were, or perhaps Charles was engaged in systematically digging up every inch of our land. “This is terrible,” he was shouting, “terrible; she has no right.”

Recall Jackson’s diary, hidden lest Stanley discover a piece of his wife’s writing that he could not turn to his own profit.

Merricat is a feral, cruel child who has warped Constance into serving as her perpetually overindulgent mother, but this also makes Merricat the only member of the family strong enough to stand up to Charles. “Come about a month from now, I wonder who will be here?” he threatens her, at one point. “You…or me?” The safe bet, as Charles is not quite bright enough to realize, is always on the girl who once killed four people because they tried to put her on time out.

But women are their houses, and Merricat’s only defense against Charles is to turn Blackwood Manor itself against him. She gets the idea when she notices that a spark from his pipe has left a small burn on the couch:

Eliminating Charles from everything he had touched was almost impossible, but it seemed to me that if I altered our father’s room, and perhaps later the kitchen and the drawing room and the study, and even finally the garden, Charles would be lost, shut off from what he recognized, and would have to concede that this was not the house he had come to visit and so would go away.

Merricat breaks mirrors, she misplaces objects, she trashes rooms. Finally, she knocks the pipe into a trashcan. It’s unclear if she knows what will happen. She almost certainly doesn’t realize her mistake until too late. The resulting house fire does drive Charles out of the house (along with the family safe, which he manages to grab in the conflagration). But to put it out, they have to call on the fire department. And the fire department is staffed by townspeople, who — as Merricat has known all along, as she has been forced to realize every time she crosses the street — have always longed to see the Blackwood sisters burn.

Jackson’s circle of belonging gets smaller all the time. Reading her house novels in sequence is like tracing the inward spiral of a chambered nautilus. We are watching the same writer work out the same problem, following her through the same loop over and over, with every iteration more insular and closed off than the one before.

In The Sundial, survival depends on staying inside Halloran House. Yet the family welcomes houseguests: servants, old friends, distant cousins, even one man whom no one knows and who was invited solely because the female guests might want to mate with him. As that last detail suggests, the book itself is almost pure comedy; the apocalypse may be imaginary and is certainly played as farce.

By the time we reach Hill House, the threat is very real, and no one’s laughing. The book has glimmers of wit — Theo gets some good lines — but it’s gallows humor and is soon drowned in the tide of clammy, queasy darkness. Still, even there, the gathered “family” is heterogenous: trust-fund baby Luke, hipster Theodora, the paranormal investigator Dr. Montague, even a few additional guests who pop in and out. To be alone is possible but never desirable. The characters share bedrooms and walk in pairs or groups. It’s solitude Eleanor is trying to avoid when she heads into that tree.

But in the final turn of the spiral, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the story of the woman who can’t leave her house, is told not as comedy or horror, but as a fairy tale. The book is a short, sharp, strange parable; the cast is reduced from dozens of relatives and friends to two women, bonded by blood, shutting out the world. You can read the entire tragedy of The Feminine Mystique, or of 20th-century femininity, in its final tableau of the Blackwood sisters, reduced to living in the burnt-out shell of their kitchen:

While Constance watched the kitchen I found a heavy cardboard carton which I took apart carefully, and so had several large pieces of cardboard to cover the glass window in the kitchen door…I nailed cardboard across the kitchen door until the glass was completely covered and no one could see in. I nailed more cardboard across the two kitchen windows, and the kitchen was dark, but safe. “It would be safer to let the kitchen windows get dirty,” I told Constance, but she was shocked, and said, “I wouldn’t live in a house with dirty windows.”

In her final completed work, Jackson weighs the dangers of domesticity against the dangers of public life and decides that the outside world is worse. Leaving the house is not an option. Even sustaining a relationship with another person may be too much. The only thing you can do is try to burn the invaders out and accept that your own world will be diminished as a result. But even at the end of everything, nailed into a crumbling shack with the murderer who ruined her life, a lady has to keep her windows clean.

As Jackson slowly overcame her agoraphobia, she began working on a whole new kind of novel — one about a woman who murdered her husband and went on the run, a book filled with new sights and sunlit outdoor adventures. But she fell asleep one day and never woke up—a heart attack, at age 48, sudden and unexpected and instantly fatal. Stanley married one of his students a year later. So, in the end, it happened to Shirley Jackson the way she always warned us it would: The house grabbed her, and claimed her, just as she was planning her escape. Her home, like so many others, had an insistent hospitality. It disliked letting her get away.

Sady Doyle

Written by

Author of “Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why” (Melville House, 2016). Seen at Elle, In These Times, and all across the Internet.

The Fearsome is Female
The Fearsome is Female
The Fearsome is Female

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The Fearsome is Female

Horror has always been a way for women to speak the unspeakable — to talk about their lives, and the constraints of being female, more graphically and explicitly than they could in “polite” or respectable fiction. In this series, Sady Doyle dissects iconic women of the horror genre and their preoccupations, drawing connections between gender and the grotesque.

Horror has always been a way for women to speak the unspeakable — to talk about their lives, and the constraints of being female, more graphically and explicitly than they could in “polite” or respectable fiction. In this series, Sady Doyle dissects iconic women of the horror genre and their preoccupations, drawing connections between gender and the grotesque.

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