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05 December 2012


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Years ago, when I still felt optimistic that I could find a book that would scare me, I scoured the "best of" lists and found The Haunting of Hill House mentioned repeatedly. I had such high hopes for it.

Maybe if I'd read the book without the expectation of getting the shivers, I would have enjoyed it more. Now all I can remember from it was a sense of boredom and disappointment.

My reaction to We Have Always Lived in the Castle was much better. Jackson writes with a crisp economy of prose. (Contemporary literary fiction writers write with a crisp economy of prose, and then they go and ruin the whole thing by trying to be artsy and provocative.) I can't put my finger on why the writing style of the early- and mid-twentieth century writers was so much better than what you find in literary fiction today -- but whatever the reason, Jackson's got it.

Jackson tells a good story. God knows there are twentieth-century classics that do not have a good story. (I am looking at you, Virginia Woolf. I am looking at you, James Joyce.) I even like some of those books without good stories. (Jean Rhys: great stylist; not always a good storyteller.) But an engaging story does not automatically disqualify a book from becoming a classic (though heaven forbid it start attracting lots of readers).

Essay #2: Sometimes, it's nice to get your horror from a supernatural bad guy. I like monsters or, for variety, demonic possessions. I also like ghost stories, but I want actual ghosts doing ghosty things, not subtle oh-maybe-it's-a-ghost-maybe-it's-not psychological crap. Henry James and I do not get along, if that tells you anything.

I'm cool with psychological crap when it's just people. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about a young woman with some a nice solid case of mental illness. It is not a suspense novel. The only murders took place six years ago.

The horror comes form the pervasive sense of threat to Merricat's carefully constructed routines and safe places. And that threat is caused by a town full of hateful people.

Sometimes horror is about monsters, and sometimes horror is about people being horrible to one other. I didn't care for Jackson's book about ghosts, but I loved her book about awful human beings.

I've always meant to read Jean Rhys (particularly after reading Diana Athill's NF; Athill was her editor).
I still say the scariest book I've ever read was Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop. I don't find monsters and ghoulies scary at all. But people? Really senselessly mean people? Scare me a lot. I maintain one of my favorite scary bits of THOHH was the weird relationship between Eleanor and Theodora: bosom buddies to mortal enemies in about fifty pages.
What IS a book that you've found scary? Does Stephen King scare you?

Jean Rhys is stylistically similar to Penelope Fitzgerald, one of the few fiction authors whom you and I both like. I don't know if there's anyone contemporary we both enjoy, but I suspect there's more overlap if you go back in time.

I see your point about The Bookshop being scary. I enjoy dystopias (governments being mean!) and books about personal cruelties (betrayals and scorned women!) but this particular type of horror is about the cruelties of people who are only faintly acquainted. This sort of horror is particularly uncomfortable for people who work in public service jobs.

I was plenty scared by Stephen King when I was 11. Therein lies my problem. When you can read, process, and accept the horror of Stephen King at a time when puberty is still mostly theoretical, you're spoiling yourself for the capacity to feel horror from literature later in life.

I still very much appreciate a good horror novel. I read plenty of horror. It's probably my second-favorite genre, after fantasy. But I don't get that gut response. I'm never scared to turn out the light after I set a book down.

I think THOHH is enduring because you can read it multiple times and get different impressions from it. I think some readers might not like the ambivalence of THOHH, but I really liked it. Did Eleanor cause the disturbances, was it her unconscious energy (a) directing the attention of the others to her (the writing on the wall): or (b) revenging itself against Theo (she was the only one whose possessions were attached); or (c) bringing Theo closer to her (there was definitely a suggestion that Theo was lesbian)? Or was it that Eleanor was the “weakest” member of the group and therefore more susceptible to the evil machinations of the house? Why did Mrs. Montague and Arthur sleep soundly (Arthur only heard an infernal tapping of a branch on a window) when all four of the others were being terrorized by house? Eleanor also showed herself to be a bit of a liar…did she purposely kill her mother or was it more a case of benign neglect and an already sick, old lady?

For an excellent review of THOHH here is a link: http://litlove.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/the-haunting-of-hill-house/.

I think that WHALITC and the Lottery are so enduring because they reveal the worst of human nature and many are fascinated by that. It always makes me think of looking at sharks or snakes behind glass. As long as the glass holds, you can shiver but be safe at the same time.

I can definitely get spooked when reading a scary story and THOHH did spook me a bit.

I think Shirley Jackson is classified as horror because we have to pigeonhole books, right? Otherwise how would we know what to read next?  Scary = Horror, Space = Sci-Fi, Dragons = Fantasy…. Jackson isn’t the first or the last author to straddle general fiction and genre (Margret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut immediately come to mind).

Sorry, I mean "attacked" not "attached"!

Hmmm...perhaps I will keep CRjr off the Stephen King when he is a teen--thereby saving him for horror later on?

I think you're right about the "re-readability" of THOHH making it a classic. I read it so fast this time that I really look forward to reading it again.
I didn't mind the ambivalence at all--none of the questions you mention (and they are all good ones, worthy of discussion each and every one) really even occurred to me. Weirdly, I just liked Eleanor and early on had the sense I wanted her to "win" the story--although what I meant by that I couldn't tell you. I thought it was interesting the empathy for her that Jackson managed to get out of me so quickly.
I think these books are also classics because Jackson is "the whole package"--all the things that appeal about books--characterization, story, setting, mood, to name just a few, she seems strong on all of them. Even if you don't fully know what her characters are up to or what's really happening in the story. That's talent.

I tried to read The Sundial, but gave up. I don't know what was up when she wrote it, but it's terrible. I'm glad that period in her writing career was transitory!

Castle gives me sandpaper chills and at the same time, I warm to the siren song of agoraphobia and OCD.

The Haunting of Hill House is perfect. "Hill House, not sane" HOW did she come up with a brilliant line like that?

Hangsaman is the one I must read again.

Short stories: I really loved her college story "Janice". A little awkward, but wow! She's the one who kicked off all the weirdoes in SJ's fiction.

An Ordinary Day with Peanuts: I want to teach this one in class sometime. Good on Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine for picking this one up after so many other magazines rejected it.

Oh, crap. I'm sorry, I didn't answer the questions, I just rambled. Sorry. I have a cold.

"I warm to the siren song of agoraphobia and OCD"-- yes, bybee, exactly.

You never need to worry about answering the questions here at CR. Ramblers, unite, well, until we ramble off again.

And thank you for the perspective on her other works--pity, I was eyeing "The Sundial" as my next choice, but perhaps I should delve into the rest of her short stories instead. Speaking of, I want to use "I warm to the siren song of agoraphobia and OCD" as a title on a short story someday, unless Lesbrarian beats me to it.

And, of course: feel better. Colds blow. No pun intended.

I liked the ramble Bybee! I have been reading some of the short stories as I make my way through the biography and I just read An Ordinary Day with Peanuts last night which I liked. It was like a Twilight Zone Episode.

Yes to Bybee and her RAMBLINGS-on! I bet I missed the Peanuts story when I failed to read the entire collection when it was due back at the library. Darn. I did like her two versions of the Honeymoon (or something)

I have not read THOHH but I will. As soon as I can stop associating it with Catherine Zeta Jones. I've seen pieces of the movie a lot but never sat thru it beginning to end.

Also, I recently read IT by Stephen King and sure, it is all about crazy child-eating clowns but the "real life" mean abusive husband character is the one that scared the shit out of me.

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