Guest Blog by Neil Lawrence: Shirley Jackson and I

A guest blog fromTime and Tide contributor, Neil Lawrence.

I’m a ghost story fan. Ever since The Omen soundtrack drifted into my bedroom aged nine, I’ve loved the shivers being scared out of me. By the time I was thirty I’d compiled a ‘must watch’ list. On it was a black and white 1963 British film called The Haunting directed by Robert Wise (yes, the same guy who did The Sound of Music). Despite its age, and despite all the tropes one would expect, ten minutes into the story my breath was short.  As it continued the claustrophobia of the film was unbearable.

The ending puzzled and moved me. The main character kills herself in order to join malevolent ghosts who ‘live’ in the house (if  they are in fact real and not a projection of her own psyche). She chooses death to avoid going back to an empty life with an ambivalent family. One chilling scene showed a twisted relationship with her mother and it stayed with me long after  the 114 minutes had ended.

Ten years on I bought the book, entitled The Haunting of Hill House in a sale. I had no idea who that author, Shirley Jackson, was. It was not typical trashy fare. The prose was beautifully written; in turns affecting, angry, cutting, satirical and deeply, deeply unsettling. Jackson’s observations on frail human behaviour were uncannily accurate. Even more so than the film, the storyline was an outraged polemic of how restricted roles in society affected women’s mental health. I took an enormous amount out of it.

A few years later I was taking baby steps (and clichés) into my own life as a writer. After being accepted into a prestigious local group I was feeling overwhelmed. When I was offered advice on ways, I could improve my work, I was too defensive to listen. They suggested I write short stories. But having never had the experience of an inspiring anthology or collection, I was set against it.

Then a mate of mine gave me his copy of the The Lottery to read. He had come across ‘a very interesting article in the Guardian’ (why do people always say that? Sorry… different blog…) and thought here was a short story I should read. So, I read it. Mostly to stop him mithering me.

It changed my world.

Despite being first published by the New Yorker in 1948, The Lottery is a savage, unsettling tale. Its satire is unflinching. The tone is dry, so subtly mocking that I instantly wanted to emulate it. And again it was Shirley Jackson who had written it.

I sought out the book that The Lottery came from. Turned out it was unimaginatively entitled The Lottery and Other Stories. It was page after page of powerful and macabre messages, but also savagely funny.  In particular one story called ‘The Tooth’ encapsulated everything I wanted to write.

In it, the protagonist is packed off by her husband to see the dentist. To help cope with the pain, she resorts to pain killers mixed with booze. As a result, her awareness is skewed. The journey she takes is drenched with fear and bizzare visions. Time and place dislocate. After she senses a malevolent presence whilst in the dentist chair, she begins to dissociate.

Jackson drags the reader from the surface of the storyline into the turbulent and distressing  depths of the protagonist’s life.

The story hit me at a visceral level. After finishing it, I immediately began to write short stories. And have never stopped since.

Two other Shirley Jackson novels in particular have deepened my understanding of how to write.  One, her final published book, We Have Always Lived in The Castle, is a story about the moral landscape of small-town America. A family become the target of hatred in their local community when poisoning leaves only three of the household alive. The tone of the novel is light, comic even. It could easily have become like The Addams Family. But in Jackson’s hands the bleak humour is a deconstruction of ‘family values’ and an attack on the judgemental nature of humanity. Her command of tone and language are absolute.

The other, an earlier novel, Hangsaman, is about a young woman who experiences a traumatic event in the woods and then struggles with  starting her new life at college. Self-absorbed parents are neglectful to the point of being abusive. Jackson uses blurred images and incomplete narrative to describe the shattering of this poor woman’s personality and the results are harrowing but utterly believable.

Shirley Jackson died too soon at 46. In Ruth Franklin’s biography ‘A Rather Haunted Life’ she describes a writer struggling with feelings of outsidership and having to make a series of cruel compromises. She portrays Jackson as driven despite crippling self-doubt and a number of challenges presented by those around her. Many of the incidents in her life resonate deeply with my own.

Shirley Jackson’s writing has become a constant source of motivation for my own work and ambition. I keep her short stories and novels at my deskside, refer to them constantly. She is my touchstone, my inspiration, a writer whose themes are both modern and pertinent. She’s not a pleasant read, but I love her all the more for that.

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