Stephen King considers “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson one of the greatest horror novels of all time. He even dedicated one of his own novels to her.
My friend Harry knew Shirley Jackson. He tells me, “I met Shirley and her husband, Stanley Hyman, who taught at Bennington College, in Vermont, in January of 1961, and made weekend visits three or four times a year for the next four years. They lived in a huge, rather rundown house in North Bennington, always welcome to visitors.”
Harry recalls them fondly. Now a college professor himself (Yale, St. Leo, et al.), Harry found Stanley both brilliant and funny. And he considers Jackson “far and away the best writer of horror in America.” Even better than Poe.
A bespectacled, chain-smoking, overweight woman in ill health, her writing came from “the dark places of the human soul.” She came to prominence in 1948 with the publication of her short story “The Lottery” in The New Yorker. Her books included “The Bird’s Nest,” “Life Among the Savages,” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”
There’s a new movie – “Shirley” – about the life of this “horrifically talented” writer. Tropic Cinema is offering the film as part of its Virtual Cinematheque series. Also, you can catch it on Amazon, Hulu, Fandingo, Vudu, and other streaming video services.
Directed by Josephine Decker, “Shirley” is based upon the same-named novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. The film is not so much a biopic as a gothic portrait of the writer. It takes great liberties with the facts. Missing are Shirley and Stanley’s four children. And she’s working on a book about a missing girl (“Hangsaman”) that was completed at least two years before the time in which the film is set.
Here we meet a fictional couple Fred and Rose (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) who come to live with Shirley and Stanley (Elizabeth Moss and Michael Stuhbarg). It is the interplay of this foursome that drives the film’s narrative. It’s sort of like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” without all the shouting and profanity.
Everybody seems to want something from someone else, each manipulating the other. Shirley’s philandering husband seems to have his eye on Rose. And he takes advantage of Fred as his teaching assistant. Meanwhile, Fred is trying to leverage Stanley to gain a faculty position. Pregnant Rose is wrestling with being the little wifey. And Shirley uses Rose as a housekeeper, research assistant, and erotic literary muse. All the while, Stanley pushes his wife closer to madness as she wrestles with her writer’s block, debilitating depression, growing agoraphobia, and physical maladies.
The story is sometimes surreal as Shirley envisions the missing girl, substituting Rose in her mind’s eye. “Shirley lived much of the time in the imaginative places she wrote about,” notes my friend Harry. “Her psychological balance was always tentative, and it got worse as she got older.”
While the film’s storyline is circular and claustrophobic, the performances are powerful. This is, of course, a tour de force assignment for Elizabeth Moss (she produced the film along with Martin Scorsese), but Odessa Young matches her scene for scene, twitch for twitch. A bearded, bear-like Michael Stuhbarg delivers a stand-out rendering of the quick-witted and acerbic Stanley. Logan Lerman has less of a challenge as Rose’s ultimately disappointing husband. However, together they capture the college intellectual scene, the flirtations with madness, along with the fault lines of Stanley and Shirley’s marriage.
Harry sums it up: “Stanley and Shirley as a couple were a kind of center of the intellectual community of Bennington faculty. But the Hymans were not welcome among the villagers in North Bennington, a small and fairly backward town in the 1940s and ‘50s. Stanley was Jewish, which brought on anti-Semitism, and Ralph Ellison, the great black writer, was a close friend and the godfather of their oldest son, and this brought on racism.”
These townspeople inspired Shirley’s characters in “The Lottery” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”
People halfway believed Shirley Jackson was a witch. “Once I had an appointment to be interviewed for a teaching job the following day at 3 p.m.,” my friend tells the story with a wry smile. “Several of us were sitting around in her living room. I said something to Shirley – I don’t remember what it was, but it must have been snotty – and she fixed me with a glare. “Harry Schroeder,” she said, “at 3:15 tomorrow, your head will fall off.”
Maybe or not she was a witch, but her writing was certainly bewitching. As Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, “Characterized by the caprice and fatalism of fairy tales, the fiction of Shirley Jackson exerts a mordant, hypnotic spell.”
This film tries hard to do that, too.
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