The eternal fascination with haunted houses by Shirley Jackson | Culture

His life was short but intense. She lasted just 48 years. She was struck down in 1965 by a heart attack: too much tobacco, a necessarily sedentary existence, the occasional problem with alcohol. But during those years she was not only the housewife who, at times, wrote, as we insist on remembering – that was not what she did: she, her stories, were the only income that came into the house, a house with four children. —, but the only horror writer who, over time, would grow to eclipse her contemporaries, and anyone who approached the genre, because her work would grow until it became a beacon for the rest, a kind of light that guides and never thinks of going out. Since her inclusion in the canonical Library of America in 2010, something horror writers tend not to aspire to, Shirley Jackson, the author of the disruptor The lotteryfrom the epatante The Haunting of Hill Houseand the very powerful and twisted voice of Merricat Blackwood (the most famous unreliable narrator in history, who recounts We have always lived in the castle), has not stopped growing without anyone daring to even try to follow in its footsteps. Because?

Richard Matheson, author to a certain extent a contemporary of Jackson – although at the same time an inevitable disciple: her first novel is from 1953, and by then she had been publishing for a decade, and had stood out in 1948, with the hatred that her legendary story unleashed. The lotterywhich generated hundreds of letters from angry readers, the haters from a time without social networks, but with stamps and envelopes—, could have followed in their footsteps, and have found editors in the present determined to turn it not only into a classic of the genre, but into a classic without more. And the same could have happened with Daphne du Maurier, the author of Rebeca, which in Spain is trying to recover Alba. But nothing similar to what is happening with Shirley Jackson in the rest of the world, and also in Spain, has happened with them. There is not a year in which letters are not collected – in 2021, her son Laurence Jackson Hyman edited an anthological volume in many ways -, new biographies are published – such as that of Ruth Franklin – or novels are republished, as has just happened.

“What sets Shirley Jackson apart from the rest is that she created something new. She took the genre much further. She took things that are attributed to a tradition, that which comes from Edgar Allan Poe, and dark Americana, and molded them in her own way. It is truly prodigious what she did. Literature of the highest level.” The speaker is Valeria Bergalli, head of Minúscula, the publishing house that publishes it in Spain. She’s been doing it since 2012. So when they edited We have always lived in the castle, she recalls, “it was difficult for the non-genre reader to become interested, those who already knew her arrived first, because they were waiting for her.” But the fact that her name began to be heard everywhere, that films were made about her—like Shirley—, series were set in universes that she created —Mike Flanagan with his update of The Haunting of Hill House—and he often reminded himself—it is something he himself has never stopped doing—that Stephen King had learned everything from her, he did the rest.

The American writer Shirley Jackson, in an image from the 1940s.
The American writer Shirley Jackson, in an image from the 1940s.Magnum Photos / ContactoPhoto (Erich Hartmann)

Furthermore, as Bergalli says, “the youngest current writers in the English language have not only highlighted their enormous value, but also that of Gothic literature as a very powerful weapon to narrate the daily lives of women.” One of those authors, Catriona Ward, who just published mirror bay (Runes), has a novel titled exactly the same as the one just republished by Jackson’s Minúscula: The sundial. “I did it thinking about that work, of course,” confesses the North American writer. “She understood like no one else how everyday life, especially for women, can be as terrifying or more terrifying than anything supernatural. It is because of that, and because of her crisp prose, and because of her dark narrative alchemy, that I return to her again and again when I need a nudge,” she explains. It is also evident to Ward why her work grows over time, unlike that of her contemporaries. “She reinvented the Gothic, she created a Gothic for the 20th century. That is what makes her unique,” ​​she says.

That, and the way he crossed all boundaries, socially too. “She touched very important nerves in North American culture. She managed to dismantle the idea of ​​community. He made it clear how destructive it can be for those who do not fit in, for those who are different,” explains Bergalli. Something evident in We have always lived in the castle and in the story The lottery —in which the battered scapegoat of a community is, evidently, the least loved, the different, and its end is macabre and sectarian—, but also in The sundial, a novel in which a family—of women, with a single servant, and a man chosen for his attractiveness, and the old and sick heir—locks themselves in a mansion waiting for the end of the world, separating themselves from the rest. Breaking, in a savage way, with what they belonged to or pretended to belong to. The desire to see the town, and the world, explode into the air is, in the novel, deafening. “For years, Shirley Jackson was prevented from playing in the big leagues—despite having been nominated for the National Book Award—but she belonged in them,” the editor insists.

Its reader is consolidated in Spain, and not only by gender. “Each new book generates tremendous expectation. And at all ages, both men and women,” says Bergalli, who announces another novelty for this same year — which he cannot yet talk about — and the two other novels that are missing for later: The Bird’s Nest and Road Through the Wall. He celebrates that he is finally abandoning the status of a character who collected esoteric books, ruffled the fur of his pets and was happy at home. You only have to read it to realize how all that affected him—the house is the main character of almost everything he wrote, the house and a woman losing her mind—and how it sowed doubt about what exists and what no. “If in any sense she challenges current readers, it is precisely in that sense. It does not create closed realities. Everything is ambivalent. You can’t trust its narrators, but you can’t trust the world either,” says Bergalli. And yes, the woman who loses her mind in her stories does so because of the instability of a reality inhabited only by herself.

Shirley Jackson, in an image from 1986.
Shirley Jackson, in an image from 1986.Magnum Photos / ContactoPhoto (Erich Hartmann)

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