“One hardly knows whether one is reading one’s own version of events or the author’s.” Miss Pryor was not against italicized words, as such — after all, we must expect to set a standard, as she learned from The Road Through the Wall — but they did rather go on. For example, was it really necessary to know where the emphasis fell when Mrs. Merriam said “Well, you don’t need to worry… I was never so shocked”?
“What you are experiencing,” said Ms. Queen crisply, “is resistance to a cultural tone that is just distant enough to strike the reader as slightly archaic. It’s the fallout of a Great War and a Great Depression influencing an author keenly interested in the ways our deliberate social structures crumble in the face of real struggle.”
“And real horror?” asked Miss Pryor hopefully.
“In the broadest possible sense. Which books have you read?”
“The Haunting of Hill House. We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” Miss Pryor ticked them off on her fingers as she recited. “The Road Through the Wall. Hangsaman. The Sundial. And collected short stories.”
“In which books did a supernatural, external threat figure?”
“Oh, I suppose… well, The Haunting of Hill House and perhaps The Sundial… but it’s very Turn of the Screw, isn’t it, in that you aren’t sure whether the narrator is quite reliable… why, one could hardly name a number!”
Ms. Queen nodded. “Exactly so. Shirley Jackson’s talent lies in growing disease as the strict social orders of her day imploded. Isolated homes figure prominently, often headed by women who would have faced considerable difficulty in gaining social acceptance as heads of household. The poor little girls of The Road Through the Wall, the young remainders of a murdered family in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the dictatorial widow of The Sundial, or poor caretaker Eleanor who, in caring for her shut-in mother, became a shut-in herself.”
“And the lesbians,” offered Miss Pryor, who thought herself rather clever to have noticed.
“Well, yes, including lesbians as sympathetic characters before mainstream literature or society was quite prepared to acknowledge them was perhaps rather marvelous, though you must admit that by identifying those characters with boys’ names– Theo, Tony– the dated narrative remains somewhat problematic.”“What I hate are the vintage covers,” announced Miss Pryor in a sudden passion. “Why did I pay so much for a charming edition from 1951 only to have the final chapter spoiled for me on the back cover or the introductory summary page? Twice?!”
“Caveat emptor. All decades approach their horror literature differently.”
“I don’t stay after dark,” said Mrs. Dudley, who was beginning to clear away tea.
“It’s as if Jackson had earned such a reputation for terror that the publishers scrambled desperately to distract one from the bulk of the story, which is generally about someone whose inner life, insecurities, and occasionally awkward attempts to find a place in life are so like one’s own that the real horror is how well Shirley Jackson knew the human condition.”
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” said Mrs. Dudley.
Ms. Queen smiled politely. “It’s not for nothing that she has an award named after her .”
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night,” said Mrs. Dudley. “In the dark.”
“She writes of– and challenges– upper class American society by using it as the lens through which to examine folie a deux, mental illness, sexual molestation, apocalyptic endism, cult psychology, the vicious one-upmanship of the really wealthy–”
“Yes, indeed,” said Ms. Queen hastily. “I think you’ve got the gist now.”
Within Hill House, not sane, floors were firm, doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.