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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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Books

So, one of the most unsettling writers of the 20th Century…..

……would have celebrated her centennial birthday last week, on December 14, had she not passed away in 1965. Cited as an important influence by Stephen King, Joanne Harris, Neil Gaiman and many others, Shirley Jackson wrote story upon story that left her readers unsettled and haunted with the ambiguity within her words.

I’ve been reading her work from an early age, most notably The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which ranks as my personal favorite of her fiction, topping We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), The Lottery (1948), and Hangsaman (1951). Her non-fiction, Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages recounts life at home, her children and the various ‘adventures’ they encounter. Her deliciously dark wit and humor are in full display in those tomes, and I highly recommend reading them.

Reading her fiction is a fascinating experience – for me, I start to notice a physiological reaction to her prose. In reading Hangsaman, I felt a low level anxiety in following Natalie’s thoughts and interactions as she left home for college. There was also that sense of foreboding, the shadow of unknown dynamics at play, and feeling suffocated by Natalie’s fellow students. There is the sense that she is at the bottom of the totem pole in the social hierarchy.

Every time I read The Haunting of Hill House, I root for Eleanor to overcome her insecurities, to let go of her guilt and to embrace her newfound freedom, both from her family and from Hill House itself. I feel her anxieties and hurts and indignations as if they were my own. But the story never changes, no matter how many times I read it and wish otherwise – Eleanor’s fate is already written and acted out, before one even picks up the book.

Shirley Jackson knew how to invite one in to her stories, knew exactly how to hook and keep you in it until the last word. She allowed the story to envelope you, insinuate itself into your imagination, haunting you long after you had shut the book and put it down. Her prose is quiet and engaging, simple, yet complex.

She is, for me, one of the writers I wish most to emulate, using my own voice and skills to strike that same haunting and sparse tone.

On the year of her one hundredth birthday, I join the ranks of writers who find inspiration in her work. I continually marvel at her ability to bring the darkness of every day life into the light and the suffocating spiral of ambiguity and uncertainty infused in her characters.

 

Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).

Recommended:
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

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So, I was reading my favorite Shirley Jackson novel…..

…….the terrifying, subversive ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, while waiting for a friend at my local wine bar. I was finishing up my dinner and was completely engrossed with Jackson’s prose.

“Hello!” came a voice at my elbow and I jumped with a yell, that immediately turned to giggles from both of us. I love scary stories, but don’t often get spooked by them.

This startled reaction was a first for me, as any and all who know me know that I am a lover of horror and supernatural fiction and non-fiction. It also reminded me of how Robert Wise had a similar action while reading the book.

In the audio commentary of the The Haunting (1963), Wise recounts how he was reading the book in his office. He had just gotten to a particularly tense scene when writer Nelson Gidding (who was working in the office next door) burst into the room. Robert Wise “jumped about three feet off the chair” (1) and realized that if the book could inspire such a reaction, then it should make a fine picture.

True horror doesn’t come from gross out imagery that is shoved into our faces – granted, it makes for a squeamish, shocking effect, but it’s also desensitizing. Horror comes from fear of the unknown, that which hides in the shadows and cannot be fully seen. What we can’t see is far more frightening than what is seen.

Shirley Jackson knew this – in reading The Haunting of Hill House, one is never entirely sure if the house is actually haunted or if it is Eleanor who is the haunting. This ambiguity is what lingers in our minds, why we can’t let go of it and why it haunts us. It’s also why some stories, like Jackson’s novel, take on a life of their own and become part of our language.

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(1) quote from the audio commentary by Robert Wise

Recommended Reading:

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
A Head Full of Ghosts – Peter Tremblay
‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
Hell House – Richard Matheson
Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

So, I have this book habit……

……where I walk into a bookstore, intent on buying one (one, I say!) particular title from one particular author.

What happens is, I will walk out with five books, by at least three different authors.

It never fails.

I don’t suppose for a minute I’m the only one who does this, and not just as a writerly type, either. I am a known bookworm, among my circle.

(No one has ever seen me without a book in my backpack. Or two. Sometimes three. Currently, I have five books in the back seat of my car. Yes, two of them are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They are not my only copies. Don’t ask.)

I will spend a lot of time considering the title, feel the weight of the book in one hand, the texture of the pages or the binding, then look at the content. If I’m not interested, I will put it back, but some days, I weaken, the book is bought and ends up on my shelf, along with many other titles, waiting patiently for their turn at bat.

I may never read it. I have more books piled on my bookcase and nightstand to be read than I have read. It will take more than two lifetimes to simply catch up. I am aware, as I stand in the aisle of any given bookstore, that I need to simply put the book down and walk away.

I also know that I need to weed out the books I already have. I’ve done that, on numerous occasions. I have forty boxes of books in my garage. Some were read, some are still waiting with baited breath to have my attention.

And still, I will buy books.

I regret nothing.

So, one of the things I like to do…….

……when writing in a particular genre is to read as much of what’s been written before I decide to try my hand at it. It helps me to get a sense of style and word choice within a specific setting (one’s characters are not going to be speaking 21st Century slang in 31st Century society. Or 11th Century BCE society, either). It’s also helpful in seeing how other authors develop mood, setting and location, as well as character.

This goes for every genre, from the Western to the Mystery to Historical to Erotica, a genre that relies heavily on evoking a wide variety of sensations and emotions that lead to a specific….well, climax.

There is the argument floating around that reading works by others in the genre you want to write in is harmful in that it may ‘influence’ your own work. This is true, but not in the way you’d think. Reading the newspaper influences you. Reading poetry, or historical non-fiction, or biographies or archaeology or whatever you pick up to read is going to influence what you write. The more you read, the more  you learn about language, about style, about story and character and development.

Not reading the genre you want to write in only hurts your own work. Why? Well, in addition to not seeing what’s out there, you’d also fail to learn what works for you and what doesn’t. You’d never know how, with your own unique perspective, you could approach the Epic Quest Fantasy. Or the Space Opera. Or find a new twist on the Western or Mystery.

If you read enough (and I highly recommend reading everything you can get your hands on), you can see how similar the genres actually are. What makes them different is the emphasis – a mystery with a dash of romance could be the inverse of a romance with a dash of mystery. A historical novel set in real place could be, with just a few changes and a splash of magic, an epic fantasy. A Western is just an adventure on horseback, whereas Science Fiction is an adventure on a spaceship.

So read. Read the Ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, pulp fiction, genres you love and the ones you don’t like, authors you despise as well as the ones you admire. Read history and biographies and true crime, to learn how real people behaved and real events played out.

When you read, always seek to be entertained, but be conscious of how language, story and characters are handled.

What book and/or author was your greatest influence? Was it more than one? A specific genre?

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