Episode 52 A Visit by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Hardie Jackson was bon in 1916 in San Francisco, California and died in Vermont in 1965 aged only 48. 

Though born in California, she attended Syracuse University in New York where she became involved in literary affairs. She published her first novel in 1948 when she was 32, but it was her short story The Lottery that brought her to public attention. Published in The New Yorker it divided opinion between those who thought it bold and daring and those who found it macabre and disturbing. In essence, like a lot of Jackson’s work, it starts out in a realist, every day setting of a folksy rural community where everyone behaves just like we know they would, and then it turns out they have a mysterious lottery where the winner (or loser!) gets sacrificed for some undisclosed reason — maybe just because it’s tradition. She puts in such everyday details of community life that it’s a real switch and bait as we think we’re getting a home-town story and then it turns weird.

Jackson’s work has more than a touch of the surreal and I was reminded of the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges as I was reading her collection Dark Tales recently. 

Her novel The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1958 and is considered the best haunted house story ever written. I enjoyed it very much. She also wrote We Have Always Lived In The Castle towards the end of her life and I must admit I haven’t yet read it!

Jackson didn’t take care of her health and ate and drank too much. This led to heart disease which killed her in 1965.

Jackson didn’t get on with her mother who seems not to have wanted her much and this seems to be echoed in themes of mothers and estranged daughters in lots of her stories. 

Jackson was a wildly interesting character. She played the guitar, sang folk songs and could also play the zither. I wonder if she seems so interesting because we know more about her, being more recent, and I wonder if any of the old Victorian and older 18th Century Gothic writers were equally as quirky. Certainly Byron, Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft seem a wild crowd, and we know about them because they were famous and rich. 

Jackson told people she was a practising witch and joked (?) that she put hexes on publishers and critics who offended her. This may not have been just a joke as these were the years of the first growth of Wicca and occultism was definitely a thing following Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons and others. 

Jackson suffered from extreme anxiety and saw a psychiatrist who prescribed barbiturates and amphetamines, and then other meds to counteract the effects of these. This cocktail probably didn’t help much.

A new movie of her life Shirley has come out this year 2020 but I can’t see it because all the cinemas are shut due to lock down…

There is a nice review a biography of Jackson called A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin in the New Yorker, and you can find it here

A Visit

A Visit was first published under the title A Lovely House in 1950, and then reissued after Jackson’s death in 1968 as A Visit The horror literature critic S T Joshi describes it as a ‘quiet weird tale at its pinnacle’ and refers to ‘manner in which a house can subsume its occupants.’

At first listen, or maybe even second, I thought, what the heck is this story about?

Like last week’s story, Mr Jones, this is a gothic tale. We have a large and rambling house which is full of mystery, we have an imprisoned woman in the tower (old Margaret), we have unreliable witnesses, I told trust Mr and Mrs Montague, or Carla one inch.

When Margaret is being shown around the mansion, Carla ignores all her questions about the Tower. In fact, it is Paul who answers her question about who lives in the tower. He’s very clear that the great aunt Margaret does not live there. She seems to be magic, she can cast spells of hiding and may practise alchemy and of course she has a black cat. Old Margaret in the tower cannot abide tapestries which seem somehow to capture and crystallise the house. Instead she stays in the tower with her books and calls them her tapestries. Books then may be more living, developing things than the tapestries, which like the house do their best to resist the flow of time. 

The tapestries. Mrs Montague does nothing but tapestries of the house, putting in figures. I thought that her putting Margaret into the tapestry on the lawn at the end was a way of capturing her to the house forever. Margaret seems to be a reiteration of the old lady Margaret who lives open to the weather with her black cat in the tower. It seems that this tower Margaret is the Margaret who died of love who is in the floor pattern. My guess is that old Margaret was in love with Paul. Young Margaret is the only one who seems to be able to see Paul as Carla makes comments to suggest that when Margaret is wandering off with Paul, she can’t see Paul. We are never explicitly told that Paul is Carla’s brother, but we are led to believe.

Margaret makes same the mistake that Paul is Carla’s brother, when in fact the Captain (small and dark and bitter) is the brother and Paul is the ghost of the man who loved the old Margaret and died. It seems to me that young Margaret is fated to be swallowed by the house, fall in love with Carla’s brother when he returns, and then die of love.

Paul seems to be a ghost. Only old Margaret and young Margaret can see him, and so I suppose, that indicates their fates are bound together in som eway

The house itself is voracious. The old Mr and Mrs Montague have to keep it in good order, though they struggle to repair it, being only able to add to it.

The river that almost circles the great house seems significant. Paul wants to show Margaret it, and Margaret hopes to see it from the tower but only sees the tree tops and seems disappointed for that.

Paul says that he cares for the house, and that without it he could not exist.

Alice in Wonderland and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.

I just narrated these as single files, put some sound effects and music in and they are on sale for 30p (about 50 cents) each from Music Glue, if you fancy them.

Alice in Wonderland

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

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Music

Beginning music ‘Some Come Back’ is by the marvellous  Heartwood Institute

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