The haunting of Shirley Jackson

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ADAPTING Shirley Jackson’s dark fiction is a tough task, and few have done it convincingly. “Lizzie” (1957), a version of “The Bird’s Nest”, a novel about a woman with psychiatric difficulties, was a first faltering step; Jackson herself condemned the film as “Abbott and Costello meet a multiple personality”. “The Haunting” (1999), Jan de Bont’s retelling of “The Haunting of Hill House”, was even worse, seeing Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Liam Neeson pestered by poorly rendered CGI ghosts. In 2010, reviewing a stage adaptation of her last novel, the New York Times wrote that, “There’s nothing wrong in the new musical ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’…and that’s exactly the problem.”

Hollywood and television executives have nevertheless eyed Jackson’s writing with renewed interest following a collection published in the Library of America series, as well as the release of “A Rather Haunted Life”, Ruth Franklin’s authoritative biography, in 2016. A new motion-picture version of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, a story about two ostracised sisters, premiered at the Los Angeles film festival in September (Laurence Jackson Hyman, dissatisfied with previous adaptations of his mother’s writing, worked on the project as an executive producer). A ten-part “modern reimagining” of “The Haunting of Hill House” (pictured) was released on Netflix this month. A feature-length film drawing on “The Lottery”, Jackson’s infamous short story, was announced in July. Next year Elisabeth Moss will star as the writer herself in “Shirley”, a psychodrama based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel.

This glut is not just a result of the vicissitudes of literary posterity. Jackson blends horror and mystery and applies it to themes that not only feel relevant today, but vital and urgent. “The Lottery”, which centres upon an annual small-town ritual of murderous brutality, lays bare the cruel deeds committed in the name of community. Published three years after the end of the second world war, the author knew that good, ordinary people could execute acts of mundane evil en masse. The questions of complicity, mob psychology and scapegoating that the story raises are still being asked today, in America and elsewhere.

Drawing on her own experiences, Jackson often explored the strictures of gender roles. Her women are torn between their own needs and desires and society’s prescriptive demands. They are trapped by houses, hide themselves away in them, or both. They are often agoraphobic—Jackson suffered from the condition late in her life—in response to a hostile world. Ms Franklin writes that Jackson’s work constitutes “a secret history of American women of her era”, and it is a history that still rhymes with contemporary reality.

Such themes can be teased out on screen, but the style and mood of Jackson’s work is harder to achieve. She heartily despised her nickname of “Virginia Werewoolf”, but the moniker is somewhat apt given that her novels are concerned with the troubled subjectivity of their female protagonists, maintaining an ambiguity about what is actually happening. Delusions become real; reality proves illusory. Her unique blend of humour and horror has proved challenging to capture without resorting to camp.

Indeed, that is where the new version of “The Haunting of Hill House” falls short: it is determinedly humourless. It contrasts dourly with Jackson’s tragicomic novel, which pours ridicule on the bumptious scientist/ghostbuster who leads the expedition to the spooky house. It replaces Jackson’s female focus with a soapy family drama, leaning heavily on flashbacks and resulting in something like “This Is Us” meets “Lost”. It softens Jackson’s idea of horror, which sees the frail innocent destroyed by a pitiless universe. For the show, trauma is a teachable moment. “Most times, a ghost is a wish,” murmurs Steven, a writer who puts on glasses whenever he is being a writer (Jackson would have abjured such wispy hokum). Although it keenly advertises its debt to the source material and its creator—peppering references to her work throughout, quoting tweaked chunks of her prose and even calling one of the main characters Shirley—it is but a pallid imitation of the work of the same name.

Those looking to bring Jackson’s unsettling visions to life should refer back to Robert Wise’s film, “The Haunting” (1963). It is both wryly comic and deeply disturbing. Like the book, the film mingles the psychological and supernatural; the haunting comes from external forces but is also fuelled by the protagonist (an idea picked up by Stephen King, a fan of Jackson’s work, in “The Shining). Jackson was impressed by the adaptation, telling a reporter: “I was terrified. I couldn’t believe I had written this.” Her work continues to be reimagined and revisited because, like Hill House, it distresses the reader and yet beckons them in.

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