‘You’ll have your milk from your cup of stars tonight when we get home. But just for now, just to be a very good little girl, will you take a little milk from this glass?’(1)
*Note: this article is not intended to explore the author’s life or critique their works in detail. It is simply a reflective, personal response to their writing and how I might use this to improve my own, and yours!
Shirley Jackson (b. 1916) is perhaps best known for her 1959 gothic horror The Haunting of Hill House and her seminal short story The Lottery (1948), a piece of writing so controversial The New Yorker was inundated with letters from disapproving readers and in one country was considered so abhorrent it was banned.
Jackson is one of my favourite writers and after reading a short story collection recently was made aware once more of the elements of her writing that have helped me in developing my own skills.
1. Using Punctuation and Sentence Length to Establish Mood.
Jackson had an incredible ability to create worlds that make the reader feel as though they’re in a waking dream, as though they’ve crossed over into fairyland where the food is so good they don’t want to come home. In the same way that time runs more slowly there, Jackson’s stories can be dangerous for those who haven’t remembered to wind their watch.
While reading The Haunting of Hill House I felt particularly strange, as though her prose had the power to taint my reality in some way. What a superpower to have!
Aside from her bewitching, languorous language another significant way Jackson was able to create this mood was through the narrative mode: ‘stream of consciousness’ and her original use of punctuation and sentence length— using commas/semicolons/dashes to break up long sentences. Here is an example from The Haunting of Hill House:
‘I will go into a sweet garden, with fountains and low benches and roses trained over arbors, and find one path— jewelled, perhaps, with rubies and emeralds, soft enough for a king’s daughter to walk upon with her little sandalled feet —and it will lead me directly to the palace which lies under a spell'(2)
Here the lack of full stops interestingly makes us read faster and yet at the same time creates the effect of slowing everything down; a dreamy state that lulls us into a false sense of security.
Jackson shows us that we are powerful beings in charge of how our stories are read and the way this creates a certain experience for the reader. We can even enchant if we want to.
2. The Element of Surprise.
It is said of the Venus flytrap that it takes more than one touch for the mouth of the plant to snap shut around its victim, poised to react a few seconds after the first contact.
Like the Venus flytrap, Jackson’s protagonists are often the ‘innocent fly’— relatable characters with a moral compass that often find themselves in a situation and with people, whether this be strangers, friends or neighbours that are astonishingly cruel. Yet Jackson rarely makes this apparent from the outset. Like the Venus flytrap, it takes a little while to establish unease before the final strike.
A wonderful example of this takes place in the short story The Witch (1949), on the face of it a perfectly ordinary scene of a mother and her children taking a bus ride–or so we think. A stranger enters the scene and slowly the situation takes a very dark turn indeed.
The element of surprise is important in whatever kind of story we are writing and the best kind, as Jackson shows us, is not in the obvious or the dramatic but in the subtle.
This could mean that a character we’ve written suddenly does or says something that is slightly out of character based on the previous opinion a reader had formed of them or perhaps, like in The Witch, a perfectly ordinary scene is not ordinary at all.
3. Tension Between a Character’s Internal World and Their External Reality.
Jackson’s characters often feel like wild creatures domesticated through nurture and an education of society’s norms, but only just managing it. This makes perfect sense as most of her novels and short stories were written during the mid 20th century, a time when peoples’ roles were more clearly defined based on gender, race and class.
Jackson often used the domestic setting as the backdrop for her stories, creating an interesting tension between how characters wish to be and how much leeway the society gives in allowing that to be a reality. This is something we can all relate to and perhaps Jackson’s stories would not have worked so well had she not been writing in this era.
For my own writing, this has made me consider more closely the internal world of my characters and how this might come into conflict with the society in which they live. Perhaps you could do the same.
Although this hasn’t made the list, my favourite aspect of Jackson’s stories and novels are the times when she reflects upon something particularly enlightening. In chapter four of The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor Vance stops for lunch en route when she notices a girl’s parents trying to make her drink from the restaurant’s glass instead of the special cup she drinks from at home. This is Eleanor’s reaction:
‘Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile , and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl’.(3)
Until next time^^,
References: all references taken from — Jackson, Shirley (2009) The Haunting of Hill House, Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin Random House UK. First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin Inc. 1959.