Not Sure About “Shirley”

My reaction to Shirley–the quasi-biographical film focusing on one of our greatest writers of American Gothic, Shirley Jackson–is decidedly mixed. There is a lot that I really liked about director Josephine Decker’s 2020 effort. The performances are superb; Elisabeth Moss unsurprisingly shines as the title scribe, and brings Jackson to onscreen life in all her moody reclusiveness, eccentricity, and complexity (Shirley proudly declares herself a witch, yet also appears wounded by her shunning by the Bennington, Vermont, community). Michael Stuhlbarg (Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire) gives a terrific performance as Stanley Edgar Hyman, Shirley’s overbearing, lecherous professor of a husband. I also enjoyed the dramatization of Shirley’s struggle to write her next book (after becoming a cause célèbre for her controversial–and now-classic–story, “The Lottery”). The film’s behind-the-scenes glimpses of the development of the novel Hangsaman make for some compelling sequences.

At the same time, there were aspects of the movie that I found problematical. While I had no issue with the interpolation of a fictional couple (the graduate assistant Fred and his pregnant wife Rose) into the Jackson-Hyman household, I was bothered by the fact that the film presents Shirley as childless. In reality, the author’s uneasy role as mother/homemaker was a key aspect of her life and writing (leading to such books as Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons), so the absence of children here seemed like a convenient deviation from biographical truth. My bigger issue, though, is that I was never quite sure how the film wanted the viewer to respond to Shirley, whether to feel sympathy for her or to recoil from her rough edges (for Shirley, there’s a very line between a smile and a sneer). This ambiguity no doubt is part of the point, illustrating what a multifaceted and not-easily-understood figure Jackson was, but I nonetheless found it tough to find my emotional footing throughout.

At times, Shirley doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be–a possible murder mystery (Hangsaman is based on the disappearance of a young girl from the same college at which Stanley taught); a lesbian romance (the strange bond developed between Shirley and Rose); an indictment of the sexism of the times and the small-mindedness of small-town communities. The plot tends to meander, with no clear through-line, and Decker grows over-reliant on artful, enigmatic imagery. It’s not that I was expecting to watch a suspenseful thriller, or even a standard biopic, but I do wish the film had proved a little less obtuse and muted (I suspect that Susan Scarf Merrell’s source novel provides a more accessible narrative).

For fans of the author Jackson or the actress Moss, Shirley (now streaming on Hulu and also available to rent or purchase on Amazon) is definitely worth checking out, but the film ultimately serves as a quintessential example of the sum adding up to less than the parts.

 

Not the Lottery: Six More Great American Gothic Short Stories by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson’s controversial and unsettling story “The Lottery” is one of the finest examples of short fiction in American Literature, and arguably the greatest American Gothic story of all time. The much-anthologized 1948 tale, though, does not represent Jackson’s sole foray into such territory. Her macabre oeuvre contains dozens of winning selections, but the reader who picks these six pieces will be richly rewarded:

 

1. “The Story We Used to Tell” (collected in Dark Tales)

Jackson’s captivating take on a Gothic standard–the haunted portrait. This one has all the creepy atmosphere and sheer weirdness of The Haunting of Hill House (the story’s opening and closing paragraphs even echo the framing device in the novel), packed into eight pages.

 

2. “Home” (collected in Dark Tales)

This story shares with Jackson’s better-known narrative “The Summer People” the theme of country villagers who are strangely standoffish towards outsiders from the city. But “Home” is also a bona fide ghost story, as chilling as the cold rain drenching the shunned road the protagonist foolishly insists on taking.

 

3. “The Tooth” (collected in The Lottery and Other Stories)

Jackson starts with a mundane event–a trip to the dentist to deal with a bad toothache–and then steadily steers the narrative towards the surreal and supernatural. The devilish figure of James Harris, who pops up throughout the story collection, forms a perfect Gothic hero-villain here.

 

4. “The Bus” (collected in Dark Tales)

When a surly old lady gets dropped off at the wrong bus stop, her journey home turns into a (recurring) nightmare. Not since Robert Olmstead’s trip into Lovecraft Country (in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”) has a bus ride delivered such unnerving results.

 

5. “The Dummy” (collected in The Lottery and Other Stories)

Jackson delves into the uncanny, as a ventriloquist’s eponymous prop forms “a grotesque wooden copy of the man.” The dark highlight of this story, though, is the disturbingly dysfunctional relationship dramatized in the climax: following the show, the drunken ventriloquist verbally abuses his female companion while pretending it’s his dummy sidekick who is mouthing the insults. Jackson’s gift for offbeat humor is also presented when an exasperated witness decides to intervene.

 

6. “The Possibility of Evil” (collected in Dark Tales)

If the American Gothic exposes the dark side of life in Anytown, U.S.A., then Jackson supplies a quintessential example of the subgenre here. A duplicitous septuagenarian has a habit of mailing nasty, gossipy, anonymous letters to her neighbors. From Miss Strangeworth’s warped moral viewpoint, such missives are necessary corrective measures, because “Even in a charming little town like this one, there was still so much evil in people.” An unsympathetic Jackson makes sure this busybody receives an ironic comeuppance in the terrific ending to the tale.

 

Picks and Stones

Let he or she who is without a “winning” slip cast the worst stone: it’s Lottery day in the Macabre Republic!

June 27th is the date of the eponymous annual ritual in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (first published 71 years ago today). The story (which I featured in a Mob Scene post last year) is an American Gothic shocker: “a chilling tale of conformity gone mad,” as newscaster Kent Brockman succinctly describes Jackson’s narrative during one notable episode of The Simpsons (season 3’s “Dog of Death”). Jackson stages a neo-pagan scapegoating ceremony, an unnerving public drawing that sanctions murder in the seeming interest of crop fertility (“lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”). Her story is an indisputable classic, as timely today as when it first appeared seven decades ago, and should be read every year on this date as a primer on the dark underside of the so-called greater good.

And if you are looking to dig a little deeper into the story and its background, check out these links and video below:

Mob Scene: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (book and film)

Shirley Jackson was no stranger to angry villagers. As Jonathan Lethem has noted, “the motif of small-town New England persecution” runs through Jackson’s fiction, filtered from personal experience: “It was [Jackson’s] fate, as an eccentric newcomer in a staid insular village [North Bennington, Vermont], to absorb the reflexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism felt by the townspeople toward the college” [where Jackson’s Jewish husband worked as a professor]. Life in North Bennington would lead Jackson to draw up the classic story “The Lottery” (which I covered in a Mob Scene post last year). The author’s most extensive depiction of angry villagers, though, occurs in her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (whose long-overdue film adaptation arrived in theaters and on demand last week).

In the novel, Jackson’s Blackwoods (the narrating Merricat; Constance; Uncle Julian) live isolated in their fenced-off family home, ostracized by the community. They are the object of scorn, the subject of a dark nursery rhyme that is often tauntingly chanted at them. Some of the hostility stems from class resentment, of a wealthy family perceived to set itself above and beyond the common folk. No small part, though, is played by fear, for dark scandal haunts the Blackwood name: six years earlier, most of the family was killed off, and Constance accused (but found innocent in court, at least) of poisoning them at dinnertime by lacing the sugar bowl with arsenic. Six years later, the Blackwood home is a largely shunned place, and the survivors inside treated like witches by the lore-building locals.

The burning resentment and dread of the Blackwoods flares out of control when Merricat sets fire to the home (in the attempt to cleanse the place of her intrusive, duplicitous cousin Charles, a true American Gothic hero-villain). Along with the fireman battling the conflagration, the villagers arrive at the scene, but act less like concerned onlookers than joyous witnesses of an auto-da-fe. “Let it burn!” the uncaring refrain resounds outside the blazing walls. In a shocking twist, the flames are brought under control, but the crowd goes berserk after the fire chief turns around and throws a rock through one of the tall windows of the home. The act inaugurates an orgy of destruction: looting, vandalizing villagers promptly wash over the home like a “wave.” One of the more respectable townspeople denounces the rioters as “crazy drunken fools,” but intemperance isn’t an adequate explanation for such a transgressive outburst. Long-held inimical feelings have flooded to the surface, resulting in a deluge of unneighborly behavior.

As dramatized in the film, this mob scene is even more stunning. The Blackwood home is torn apart by a pack of wild men and women, its furnishings strewn across the lawn like viscera. The mob’s persecution of the Blackwoods is made even more poignant by Merricat’s voiceover: “The sound of their hate is another kind of fire moving through the bones of our house. I know now that all of my [protective] spells are broken. What was buried here in this village, their want for our ruin, has come to the surface at last.”  There’s one salient difference between the book and film versions of the scene. In Jackson’s novel, the villagers are wary of actually touching Constance or Merricat, but in the film the pair of sisters are roughly manhandled. A lynching seems very well in the making, until the crowd is cowed by the announcement that Uncle Julian is dead inside the house.

Further outrage against the Blackwoods is thus avoided, but plenty of damage has occurred. The alleged high-and-mighty have been brought low, their denigrated den of eccentricity devastated. The shock troop of American Gothic, the angry mob, has reduced the Blackwood home to a Gothic ruin: “Our house,” Merricat narrates in the novel, “was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Ironically, this violent transformation really hasn’t changed much, only obviated the circumstances of the Blackwoods’ existence all along (as also signaled by Jackson’s book title). The House of Blackwood has fallen into decrepitude, and the weird sisters now shuttered up inside are shuttered at all the more. “We fixed things up nice for you girls, just like you always wanted it,” the mocking villagers proclaim during the sacking of the manse, but Merricat and Constance were fixed in their situation of ugly Othering long before their unfortunate fort was stormed.

 

 

Further Drawings: The Literary Legacy of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

In my latest Mob Scene post earlier this week I covered Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery,” which first cast a dark cloud over a summer gathering seventy years ago. In the seven decades since its publication, “The Lottery” has been anthologized countless times, and has formed the perennial source of high school lit class discussion. The story’s legacy, though, extends to a continuing influence on other works of fiction (Jackson herself would return to a scene of rock-tossing angry villagers at the close of her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle). Here’s another Pick-5 of “Lottery”-influenced texts:

 

1.Storm of the Century. This Stephen-King-scripted miniseries is much indebted to Mark Twain (it might just as easily have been titled The Demon That Corrupted Little Tall), but ultimately King gives a nod to Shirley Jackson. There’s a climactic scene in which representative families from the community submit to a drawing of “weirding stones,” a dire game of chance that earns the unlucky winner a fate worse than death.

 

2.“Guts.” In terms of content, Chuck Palahniuk’s notorious story certainly falls far afield of Jackson’s. But the author himself has testified that he was inspired by “The Lottery” to try his hand at a transgressive narrative that would unsettle his audience. Anyone who’s ever read “Guts” (or heard it performed by Palahniuk) would be hard-pressed to deny the author’s success at that task.

 

3.Dark Harvest. Norman Partridge’s hallowed Halloween novel presents a small town given to performing a sinister annual ritual (which helps assure bountiful crops). Also analogous to Jackson’s narrative, the winning of the contest waged on the night of October 31st proves quite the losing proposition.

 

4.The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’s hit trilogy of young-adult novels features another annual lottery drawing that has some dark consequences for the family member selected. At least here, though, the person is given a chance to survive, in a grim edition of reality-TV spectacle.

 

5.Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation. In this final case, the drawing proves literal, as Jackson’s own grandson inks a graphic-novel version of the story. More than just a colorful pictorial translation, though, Hyman’s book also forms a bit of a prequel–it starts out by providing a glimpse of the events on June 26th, the night before the fateful ritual.

Mob Scene: “The Lottery”

American Literature’s most famous mob scene has turned 70.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was first published (to no shortage of public outcry) in The New Yorker back in 1948. In the story, the inhabitants of a seemingly-idyllic village (based on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson resided at the time) gather every June 27th for the titular ritual. The lottery (technically a double drawing, selecting first a local family and then a specific member of that household) is well-woven into the civic fabric; the administering official, Mr. Summers, similarly presides over “the square dances, the teen-age club, the Halloween program.” But while all this sounds wholesome enough, there is a nervous tension running through the crowd, and the subsequent freak-out by Tess Hutchinson after she draws the slip of paper marked with a black spot (shades of Billy Bones in Treasure Island) has nothing to do with excitement over sudden enrichment. With a devious twist, Jackson reveals that this lottery delivers an unfortunate reward: this isn’t some Win-for-Life drawing, but rather Lose-Your-Life. The townspeople proceed to set upon the protesting Tess (whose first name and surname allude to fictional and historical female sufferers of persecution, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Anne Hutchinson) and begin the stunning act of stoning her to death.

This story of designated scapegoating–of communal cohesion through arbitrary Othering–paints a bloody underbelly onto modern society, calling the very notion of “civilization” into question. Jackson’s slice of American Gothic also exposes the fragility of the family bond: having drawn the black spot, the cowardly Tess promptly tries to serve up her own children as the recipients of the impending handout.

There are distinct religious overtones to “The Lottery,” as the public stoning of a branded deviant proves a most Old-Testament form of punishment. Disconcerting hints of paganism are also offered: these latter-day Druids of the New World appear to engage in murderous sacrifice (on a date close to the summer solstice) in the belief that it will ensure a bountiful harvest. As Old Man Warner memorably recites, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”

Jackson depicts the quintessential mob, here wielding stones instead of torches and pitchforks, but it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call the story’s characters angry villagers. They execute their grim business with a chilling cold-bloodedness. It is this blind allegiance to custom, the casual and callous nature of such resort to violence, that haunts the reader long after the initial shock of the ending wears off, and causes the dark themes of Jackson’s story to resonate to this day.