In celebration of the birthday of the Boy Who Lived, Caitlin Coxon reviews the final BookTalk event of the 2016/17 year, ‘Harry Potter – Twenty Years Later’.
A report from Caitlin Coxon upon our April event on the 2015 BBC series, Dickensian, featuring Ruth McElroy and Holly Furneaux in discussion.
Betty watches the row of cars waiting to follow the hearse. Or the grand car, as Mr Eden calls it. Betty is pleased that Mother gets a grand car and lots of eyes on her. She’ll like that. The grass is wet around the grave pit. A big brown box is lowered into the earth. Gallagher still isn’t in the crowd; she checked. He will come though.
A man wearing a white robe says a prayer. Mrs Eden cries. Mother hates Mrs Eden. She will hate Mrs Eden crying too. I’ve no time for that green-eyed woman, that’s what Mother says, even though Mrs Eden has brown eyes. Mother’s eyes are a beautiful ice blue.
Betty wanders off to find the nearest tree; it is an oak. She presses her head against its trunk and lets it take some of her weight. The heaviness has returned but she has hardly eaten so shouldn’t she be losing heaviness? Maybe she should have a nap on this branch. Would this be a good place to sleep, Mother? She tries to hoist herself up but her arms are weak as butter. Mr Eden appears then. He smiles gently.
‘Time to go home,’ he says.
‘Where’s home?’ Mr Eden rubs his chin. Grey stubble pricks through the pores.
‘You need to shave,’ she says to be helpful.
‘Hotel Eden,’ he says. ‘It’ll always be your home.’
‘Thank you.’ Because that’s what you’re supposed to say to people who are trying to be kind – and he sounds kind, but she doesn’t really feel thankful.
She feels nothing apart from heaviness.
Taken from The Unforgotten, Chapter 17.
It was never like this on holidays with Jerry. They never ate in hotels, as he always wrote a list of recommended restaurants. He wrote daytime itineraries too and lined up interesting attractions for them to visit. He knew she needed structure, even though it didn’t come easily to her.
Sometimes they fell behind schedule because she took so long doing things; not that she spent hours applying lipstick or mascara, just an inordinate amount of time drifting between rooms, picking up a skirt here, a bottle of moisturiser there and setting them down elsewhere as if her brain had frozen.
Jerry never complained. He just seemed afraid to ask why she was that way.
Their honeymoon to the Isle of Man; Jerry always said, that was a good holiday – one of their best. Mary picks over the exact days of it in her mind. Actually, it wasn’t good. She recalls an argument about her clerical job and how he had suggested that she slow down to get ready.
‘Get ready for what?’ she had shrieked.
It was the first time she had raised her voice around him and she had felt her neck veins jut out like spines on rhubarb. He had looked at her baffled, yet she knew exactly what he was going to say next, just as she knew what her answer would be. That conversation had been scripted in her head years earlier, between her and whichever man took her on.
‘To have a baby of course,’ he had said.
Taken from The Unforgotten, Chapter 8.
Parked motorcars line the street and a man wearing a spotted bow tie lolls outside the hotel sipping a glass of something amber. His left arm blocks out half of the hotel sign. Eden, it reads now.
‘Fully booked, love,’ he mutters without looking up.
‘I live here,’ says Betty curtly and squeezes past him.
Inside, the big room is misty with tobacco warmth. Men stand shoulder to shoulder, still wearing their overcoats, and Mother wriggles between them doling out cups of tea and
cinnamon biscuits and toothy smiles.
‘Want your grushans topped up with a drop of stout?’ she calls to a man in an armchair, with an empty teacup balanced on his knee. He ignores her.
‘The killer has to be a local,’ another of the reporters is saying to no one in particular.
‘Apparently her blood was still warm when they found her,’ chips in a younger one with a cigarette wedged in the gap between his front teeth. ‘And the Inspector just told me that the first poor lass was stabbed in the stomach forty times… Or was it fourteen?’
‘Mind your lip, Tony,’ says the eldest with an Irish accent. ‘There’s ladies about.’
‘I’m just saying it like it is.’
‘Well don’t,’ snaps the bow-tie man, stepping into the room. They all quieten. His face is stern but he slips Mother a wink. Betty pretends not to notice.
Taken from The Unforgotten, Chapter 1.
Director Robert Wise based The Haunting on The Haunting of Hill House after being frightened by the book. The abbreviated title was a suggestion by Jackson herself. Released in 1963, the film has since become a cult classic, and is often found near the top of ‘Scariest Film’ lists.
Current Cardiff PhD student and BookTalk disciple, Rob Lloyd, reviews our November event with Cathy Rentzenbrink in conversation with Jenny Kitzinger.
The Haunting of Hill House was a financial and critical triumph. A month before the publication date of October 16, 1959 – appropriately close to Halloween – Viking ran an unusual announcement in The New York Times, generating advance sales of about eight thousand copies and considerable buzz. Though there was the usual wonderment at Jackson’s dual writing personas, reviewers responded far more enthusiastically than they had to any of her previous novels. Some treated it as little more than a particularly well-written horror tale.
In The New York Times, Orville Prescott – often one of Jackson’s more skeptical critics – called it ‘the most spine-chilling ghost story I have read since I was a child,’ although he was unsure whether she intended it to be ‘taken seriously’ or had simply designed it ‘to give delicious tremors to readers who delight in one of the oldest varieties of folk tale.’
Some thought the book was too obviously Freudian: Time opened its piece with the snide line ‘When busy Housewife Shirley Jackson finds time for a new novel, she instinctively begins to id-lib.’ Jackson professed to think this was hilarious, claiming she had ‘never read more than ten pages of Freud,’ though she later invoked him regarding Castle.
But most critics recognized that Hill House was, as the Providence Journal’s reviewer put it, ‘a strong and scary parable of the haunted mind’ in the vein of Hawthorne, Poe, or James.— Excerpt from Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
(New York: Liveright, 2016), p. 424.
Each of the houses that anchor Jackson’s final three completed novels – The Sundial, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle – has its own distinct personality and indeed functions as a kind of character in the book. Her interest in houses and their atmosphere extends back to the beginning of her career: to her early fiction, which so often describes the efforts of women to create and furnish a home, and to the first family chronicles she wrote for women’s magazines. Her preoccupation with the roles that women play at home and the forces that conspire to keep them there was entirely of a piece with her cultural moment, the decade of the 1950s, when the simmering brew of women’s dissatisfaction finally came close to boiling over, triggering the second wave of the feminist movement.
In Hill House, which appeared in 1959, Jackson gathered powerfully all the objects of her long-time obsession: an unhappy, unmarried woman with a secret trauma; the simultaneous longing for a mother’s love and fear of its control; the uncertain legacies handed down by previous generations; and finally the supernatural as a representation of the deepest psychic fears and desires. The result, a masterpiece of literary horror on a par with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is arguably her best novel, and certainly her most influential.— Excerpt from Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
(New York: Liveright, 2016), p. 409.
Critics have tended to underestimate Jackson’s work: both because of its central interest in women’s lives and because some of it is written in genres regarded as either ‘faintly disreputable’ (in the words of one scholar) or simply uncategorizable. The Haunting of Hill House is often dismissed as an especially well-written ghost story, We Have Always Lived in the Castle as a whodunit. The headline of Jackson’s New York Times obituary identified her as ‘Author of Horror Classic’ – that is, ‘The Lottery.’
But such lazy pigeonholing does an injustice to the masterly ways in which Jackson used the classic tropes of suspense to plumb the depths of the human condition. No writer since Henry James has been so successful in exploring the psychological reach of terror, locating in what we fear the key to unlock the darkest corners of the psyche.
‘I have always loved … to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work,’ Jackson once wrote in a line that could be her manifesto.
In our fears and in our crimes, she believed, we discover our truest selves.— Excerpt from Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
(New York: Liveright, 2016), pp. 6–7.