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Halloween is around the corner, and for our October Readers’ Review we’ve chosen an appropriately scary story: “The Haunting of Hill House.” The novel by Shirley Jackson was first published in 1959. It’s now viewed by many as one of the best literary ghost stories of the 20th century. It was made into a feature film twice. Set somewhere in rural America in an old house with secrets, the story follows a professor and three assistants who seek to confirm the presence of supernatural phenomena. Like the evil in the house itself, fear sneaks up on the visitors – and the novel’s readers.
From THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson, published on October 1, 2013 by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Shirley Jackson, 1959. Copyright renewed by Laurence Hyman, Barry Hyman, Sarah Webster, and Joanne Schnurer, 1987.
MS DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. "The Haunting of Hill House" has influenced many horror fiction writers since it was published 56 years ago. Stephen King says it contains one of the finest descriptive passages in the English language. The novel by Shirley Jackson is set in a country mansion where strange things happen in the night.
MS DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about this month's Reader's Review, Judy Oppenheimer, author of a biography of Shirley Jackson, Louis Bayard, novelist and writing teacher of the George Washington University and Rachel Louise Snyder, author and professor at American University. I do invite you to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you for this early Halloween novel.
MR. LOUIS BAYARDGood to see you.
MS. JUDY OPPENHEIMERGood to be here.
MS. RACHEL LOUISE SNYDERIt's a pleasure.
REHMThank you. Louis Bayard, tell us about this house. What's so special about Hill House?
BAYARDThe book or the house itself?
REHMThe house itself.
BAYARDThe house itself. Well, we note, first of all, how close it is to Hell House. I think that that's partly intentional. It's this house sitting out in the middle of nowhere and really nowhere. We're not even sure what state we're talking or even what country. It seems to be more of a geographic terrain -- or a literary terrain than a geographic terrain. But it's this place that was built 80 years ago and it doesn't seem to want people, but once people come it, it doesn't seem to want to let go of them.
BAYARDAnd it's designed specifically to be disorienting, I think. Nothing is centered. Everything is off-kilter. It's designed to disorient you from the moment you walk in. And...
REHMSo why in the world does anybody want to go there?
BAYARDWell, there's a guy named Dr. Montague who's a researcher in supernatural and paranormal and he's decided that this should be the focus of his research and he's invited three other people to come join him for what looks to be a kind of larkish experience out in the country and communicating with various spirits. In fact, it turns out to be something darker than that.
REHMAnd Rachel, how does he choose the people he wants to come to Hill House?
SNYDERWell, he's not really a scientist. I mean, he's a little hapless. I mean, I kept thinking of the men in Scooby Doo who never solve anything, right, like they're always sort of coming in right at the last minute, "something's happened. I can define it, even though I didn't see it or hear it." So he chooses the two women in particular, Theo, who's a very gregarious, kind of silly woman, and apparently has telekinesic (sic) powers and then Eleanor, who is really mousy, very lonely. She doesn't have any real family.
SNYDERShe's been caring for her incredibly mean mother until she dies and so she's...
REHMShe cared for her.
SNYDERShe cared for her mother. And she had a metaphysical incident when she was young, that he learned about, although she doesn't have any memory of it. So he picks those two and then the third one is Luke, a thief, but the heir...
REHMA thief and a liar.
SNYDERA thief and a liar. Charming, though, as they so often are. And the heir to the house.
REHMYou know, it's fascinating. Tell us about Shirley Jackson.
OPPENHEIMEROh, there's so much to tell.
REHMI know. Why did she come up with this? Was there something in her own background that lead her to write this book?
OPPENHEIMERWell, one of the things about Shirley that -- along with an awful lot of other things, is she was always fascinated by old houses and she was pulled towards them and they feature in a lot of her books. And when she studied to -- when she's doing research before she did Hill House, she was looking through various, you know, pictures of old houses to try to get exactly the atmosphere she wanted and she found one that was from California and she wrote her mother who'd lived there all her life and said, you know, do you know anything about this house?
OPPENHEIMERAnd her mother said, yes, your great grandfather built it and apparently, it was burned and it was thought that the townspeople burned it down because it was so scary. But she had this connection to houses. She thought of them as reflecting personality. She also, I mean, one of her sons told me when I did the book she was a definite believer in the supernatural. She called herself a witch. It was partly joking and partly not. She felt that she had powers and I think she felt those were reflected in these houses.
REHMNow, when did you write "Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson"?
OPPENHEIMERIt was almost 30 years ago. It was in '88.
REHMAnd was she still alive at the time?
OPPENHEIMERNo, unfortunately, but her kids gave me wonderful, long mammoth interviews and I was able to track down almost all her friends because, you know, she died young. She would've been in her 60s then if she had been alive. But she died at 48.
REHMAnd how many books did she actually write?
OPPENHEIMEROh, it was something like seven or eight. But the thing that fascinated me as a kid was, you know, I first read her very funny stuff, which she wrote about her children. She wrote hysterically funny books, "Life Among The Savages," and "Raising Demons." They're collections of anecdotes and stories about her kids. And I read those when I was young and I was just thrilled to find somebody who had been a writer and had also had children because it was kind of rare.
OPPENHEIMERI wanted to write and I wanted to have kids and I couldn't find anybody else practically who had done that. And she'd had four, you know. So I was pulled to her by that. And then, later on, I read the other stuff. The truth is, I still like the humor best and I feel like it figures in her scary stuff as well.
OPPENHEIMERThere are little bits and snippets and of it. I mean, there are in "Hill House."
REHMEspecially comments that Theo makes.
SNYDERBut also the...
OPPENHEIMERThe housekeeper is a funny figure and the wife.
BAYARDMrs. Montague, yes. She's hilarious.
OPPENHEIMERShe's funny, too. So she -- people are always surprised. How could she write humor and how could she, at the same time, write horror. But it's not that different in a funny way, especially when you're writing about kids. I mean, some of the kids stories are -- if you just switch it a tiny little bit, it becomes horror.
REHMSo Dr. John Montague, is he serious? Is he really -- what's he trying to figure out? Is this house haunted? Does it do things to people? Describe the house, Louis.
BAYARDThe house is terrifying. And it's interesting, you talk about describing the house. There's no physical description of any of the characters in this book, any of the human characters. All we know about Theo is that she's lovely, but we don't get any other sense of what they look like. But the house is lavishly described, right down to the cornices, which are likened to eyebrows. And there's this sense that the house is always looking at you, always sort of stirring around you.
REHMBut isn't there also a sense that the house is not straight up and down? There are slants. There are uncornered corners. The roof is askew. Everything about the house is nutsy.
BAYARDYes. And that is by design, apparently. That is, apparently, how the architect originally wanted it, everything is -- nothing is trued. Nothing is centered. So wherever you think you are, you're not and you think you're looking over the veranda, but, in fact, you're looking at the turret, you know. It's all haywire.
REHMSo you get lost very quickly in the house.
SNYDERYou do. And the hapless doctor -- I'm going to call him the hapless doctor.
BAYARDHe is hapless.
SNYDERHe never even carries a notebook, right? Like, what does he -- you know, he has to lead them around because they're forever getting lost. But, of course, by the end of the book, Eleanor knows her way around the house. But nothing seems to lead to anything else. Doors close after they, you know, open them. They open all the windows and curtains.
REHMThis is terrible architecture. I mean, to say the least, the doors just won't stay open. You've got rooms that you can't find. You come out of one room thinking you're headed for the room you thought and it's not there.
SNYDERHow did the owners get insurance on that house?
REHMYeah, right. I mean, we're laughing. I don't know to this moment how I feel about this book. You, Louis, adore it.
BAYARDI do. I do for a couple of reasons. One, it's a ghost story that never raises its voice. You know, it's written so quietly.
REHMYeah, very quietly.
BAYARDSo economically and it traffics not in shock and horror, but in suggestion and in direction. And it...
REHMIt's an internal look.
BAYARDYes. It's very internal.
BAYARDVery psychological and it suggests that what's known and what's seen is not nearly as terrifying as what's unknown and what's unseen. And it leaves so many questions that are never answered. It leaves all these sort of empty spaces that a reader has to fill in.
REHMWhat is she trying to do with this book, Judy?
OPPENHEIMERWell, I think when she believed, supposedly, in the supernatural, she never knew whether it was coming from outside or inside 'cause she believed in the powers of the mind, the powers of her mind. And it's true in the book. And, too, you get this feeling you don't really know whether it's the house doing it or whether it's Eleanor. I mean, it's confusing, you know. And that was her.
REHMAnd are you suggesting she was somewhat the same way?
OPPENHEIMERYes. She had problems. She had anxiety and she understood that, but at the same time, she kind of prized it in a way. You know, she did not want to be normal and yet, she was very normal. I mean, she -- on one level, she was a mother and she had a very demanding husband and she had four kids that she had to knock herself out for and all that kind of -- and she cooked and she had parties. But this other time, the other ways, she was -- should I stop?
REHMJudy Oppenheimer, she's the author of "Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson." And she is the former arts editor of the Baltimore Jewish News. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, I hope you'll join us with your comments about "The Haunting of Hill House."
MS. DIANE REHMAnd apparently a great many of you really adore Shirley Jackson's writing, both "The Haunting of Hill House," her humor. A Facebook comment from Jude says, this is my second favorite Shirley Jackson novel. My first is "We Have Always Lived in the Castle." Love these both because they are slightly twisted but not overly horrific. And one other posting on our DR Show website says, and let's not forget the scariest short story I ever heard, "The Lottery," also by Ms. Jackson.
MS. DIANE REHMWhile at summer camp, oh dear heaven, while at summer camp the counselor for our cabin read it to us just after lights out, a wonderful way to ensure sweet dreams for all of us, not. So people clearly love her writing. I must say there is the first paragraph in the book that Stephen King regards as a truly great piece of writing. Would you read it for us?
BAYARDI'd love to because I agree with him. To me it's one of my favorite opening paragraphs ever. No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality. Even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within. It had stood so for 80 years and might stand for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
BAYARDWhat I love, too, is she brings it back, that paragraph, at the very end.
BAYARDSo it forms a kind of chord, you know, that brings the whole story together.
REHMWe need to talk about the background of Hill House because it did have a very sad story to begin with, Judy.
OPPENHEIMERThe background meaning...
REHMThe people who lived there earlier on.
OPPENHEIMEROh, the two sisters.
REHMThe two sisters.
OPPENHEIMERYou're talking about the two sisters, the tragedy of the two sisters. Well, there -- the original owner, or the builder of the house, I can't remember his name now.
REHMThe builder, the builder.
BAYARDHugh Crain, yeah.
OPPENHEIMERYes, thank you. His wife died as she was coming up to the house. She never even saw it. So that was the first tragedy, right, she died minutes before she was going to enter it. And then he attempts to raise his two daughters. He gets married, but then he and their stepmother die abroad in Europe. So now the girls are orphaned. And there's -- cut to the chase, there's a tussle between the two of them over who is the rightful heir.
REHMA tussle is a mild word.
OPPENHEIMERIt's a mild word.
OPPENHEIMERThere's a raging fight between the two of them that lasts decades, decades.
OPPENHEIMERIn fact, you might argue that it's still going on, right.
OPPENHEIMERThat the one sister who felt she was the rightful owner is in fact the one haunting Hill House now because neither sister ended up with the house.
BAYARDAnd yet that's never spelled out. We get that back-story, but we never get that specific, saying okay, this is who is haunting you. All we have are voices and flashes, at one point a picnic party on the grass but no kind of clear explanation of what's going on and who...
OPPENHEIMERI know, and I think that's one of the more interesting things to me is that there's this theme in the book where they're constantly, like Dr. Montague is constantly saying people expect to have a name for things, right, you want to be able to name what it is that's haunting you. And he refuses, and in fact all the previous tenants refuse, to talk about it. And so there's this sense of things being unnamed. And it's a clever trick, in a way, by Jackson because she also is saying to the reader, I'm not going to name it. You're going to want to know, but I'm not going to solve this mystery for you.
SNYDERBut she gives it a background because she feels that houses like this have to have a background. There's a reason it is the way it is.
REHMWell, and she did so much research for this book.
OPPENHEIMERShe did. One of the stories she tells when she talks about her research is that she and her husband were going down, because they lived in Bennington, of course, because that's where he taught, and they were going down to New York for a weekend, and they passed a house that she saw as they pulled into the station, which was so terrifying-looking to her that she didn't enjoy the weekend. She couldn't sleep at night. She was a very sensitive woman.
OPPENHEIMERAnd she insisted that they go back at night so she wouldn't have to see this house again. And she later had a friend of hers look into it to find out what it was, if there was anything about this house, and apparently it had been in a fire and had -- nine people had died. And the only way you could see that house, there was only one angle you could see what was left of it, it was basically a shell, and the angle was what she'd caught from the train.
OPPENHEIMERSo she did believe that there were -- you know, of course the thing is that that's a very good story, just like the story about her great-grandfather building the house, and you never know with Shirley what was quite true or not.
SNYDERI think that story might scare me more tonight than this book did. Thanks a lot, Judy.
REHMHow did you feel about the book, Rachel, as a whole?
SNYDERAs a whole, you know, horror is not, is not really my thing, despite the fact that I brought you a dead gecko carcass to your studio today. That's part of my charm. But I was reading it in a hotel room in Seattle, alone, recently, just last week, and there was a scene where I was, like, I wish there was somebody in this room with me.
SNYDERBut so I didn't love it in terms of the story, but I loved it as a writer appreciating the craft of what she's able to do, the tension she's able to create by having us inside of a character. You know, it seems to be limited omniscience, and then we get this omniscient narrator that breaks from the rules that she sets up as a writer. So I think it's fascinating.
REHMTalk about the relationship between Laura and Theo, two very different women.
BAYARDYeah, Eleanor and Theo are very -- extremely...
BAYARDYeah, yeah, very different women. Eleanor, as you said, was mousy. She's --- she's never had a life of her own. She was tending to her mother. She's really escaping from her life.
REHMShe had to steal her sister's...
BAYARDShe had to steal her sister's car, which she half-owned.
REHMYeah, exactly. She half-owned it, and the sister and brother-in-law say no, you can't drive the car. And finally in her one act of real strength and courage.
REHMShe says, I'm taking this car. And she drives to where Dr. Montague has led her.
BAYARDShe drives to Hill House, and she really is the central consciousness, as you said. It's told almost entirely through her mind. Theo is almost an antithetical creature. She is -- she's never given a last name, I don't think. So just a first name. She's Bohemian. She's quite possibly lesbian, depending on how you read the code of how she's introduced. They talk merely about living with a friend, who is never identified by gender. But she is also very sexual, very flirty, and she's treating this, yeah, as kind of a game.
BAYARDShe doesn't -- she doesn't brine the stakes, the emotional stakes that Eleanor brings to this.
REHMBut Eleanor becomes so drawn to Theo because of her almost Bohemian personality that at one point in the book she thinks, I want to come and live with you. I want to -- it's almost as though she wants to be Theo.
OPPENHEIMERAlso, it's interesting that it seems to be in this house, which is having its effect, supposedly, on Eleanor, nonetheless she's happier in some cases than she's ever been before. And Eleanor is a typical kind of Shirley Jackson character. Somebody sort of like her appears in almost all her books.
REHMWhat do you mean by that?
OPPENHEIMERSomebody who is, you know, not comfortable with themselves, not comfortable with the world, a little bit mad, perhaps a little, a little, you know, holding on for survival and not. It was, in a way, maybe one way Shirley saw herself.
REHMShe questions, Eleanor questions every thought she has. She questions every statement that comes out of her mouth. Oh, I shouldn't have said that. Oh, I shouldn't have done that. They'll think this. They'll regard me this way.
REHMI mean, I kept thinking get on with it. I really did. I have to tell you, I am not a fan of this book.
SNYDERIt's becoming clear.
REHMNow all of our listeners are going to say, Diane, you're nuts, but I can just tell you I got very impatient with Laura, and it is at the end one finally realizes exactly how sick she is.
SNYDERIt's her borders, which are not clear, you know.
SNYDERAnd that's how she fits so well in the house because the house is becoming her as she's becoming the house, or where is the emotion coming from, and you're not sure.
BAYARDYeah, it's her own lack of identity that allows her to be occupied and possessed by this house, right, because she doesn't have that -- those boundaries you're talking about.
SNYDERWell, she also has Theo, they have the same thoughts, they sometimes have the same dreams.
BAYARDThey wear the same clothes after a while.
SNYDERRight, after a while they wear the same clothes.
REHMWell, and was it blood, or was it paint? And you can describe that scene.
SNYDERThe thing is, you were saying what do you like about this, and it's not my favorite Shirley Jackson book, either, but what I like about all her writing is sentence by sentence, she is such a clear, unembellished -- I mean, she just -- I love the way she writes. She doesn't go into, you know, analogy or she doesn't change things. She just sets it out. She comes out clear as a bell.
REHMAll right, a number of our listeners would like to join us. Let's go first to Katie, in Indianapolis. Hi, you're on the air.
KATIEHi, thanks, how are you guys?
KATIEI was calling because I read this book, and I feel like there's just an overwhelming feminist tone that Shirley Jackson has with the characters of Theo and Eleanor, and it almost appears that Theo and Eleanor kind of have, like, almost, like, a lesbian-type of relationship. And I just want to know, in the time era which it was written, was she trying to make some kind of feminist statement in her -- in the way she was choosing her characters and her characters' personalities and according to the haunting of Hill House? What do you guys think?
REHMWhat do you think, Judy?
OPPENHEIMERWell, she would -- she would definitely oppose any idea that she was a feminist or that she was doing that. That doesn't mean she wasn't doing it without knowing it, but she would be against that idea. She didn't...
OPPENHEIMERYes, she did not -- I don't know how she would've been if she lived on into the rise of the -- she, you know, she died early in the '60s, so she didn't see...
REHMWhat kind of a mother was she, according to her children?
OPPENHEIMERAccording to her children, she was a very involved mother. She was extremely emotional. She was up, she was down, she was all over, but she was very much into their lives, and she enjoyed them a lot, she really did. But she was erratic. She could be erratic. She could -- like Sally, who is now Sara but called Sally, was her second daughter, and she remembered that sometimes she would sneak downstairs at night to hear her mother holding forth hysterically on something she had done during the day, which she had -- Shirley had completely punished her for, but later on she was telling the story as something funny. So they would get these...
OPPENHEIMERVery mixed messages from her.
REHMThat's kind of scary in and of itself.
SNYDERYeah, that's unsettling. That's...
SNYDERBut that's really what happens to Eleanor.
SNYDERShe becomes, yeah, unsettled.
REHMDo you think that Shirley Jackson had all of her faculties?
OPPENHEIMERWho knows? And maybe that -- maybe you can't be that kind of creative writer and not be a little bit nuts. I'm not sure. She knew, and she didn't know. I just, one of the daughters, and I think it was Jay, the older one, said to me, really remained with me, she said, where is the real her. She said, you know, because she knew I was trying to find the real her. And she said she wrote these letters to her mother all her life. She really hated her mother.
OPPENHEIMERHer mother had wanted a society girl, a frivolous, beautiful little fool like Zelda Fitzgerald said, and that's not what she got with Shirley, you know, she got a tough, brilliant, erratic, creative person. And she was -- also Shirley was very large, and her mother was always sending her girdles.
REHMWow. And you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Let's go to Aaron in Charlotte, North Carolina. You're on the air.
AARONHey everyone, how are you? Long time listener, first time caller.
REHMOh, I'm glad to have you with us.
AARONThank you. I'm so glad you guys are talking about this today. I love the book. It's one of my favorite books. And I was very excited to see the films. I'm only 29 years old, so when the first movie came out in '63, Robert Wise's version, I thought it was good but not great. And then when they remade it in '99, Jan de Bont's version, it was just terrible in my opinion. I wanted to ask your panel their opinions on both films and what they could have done to make them better.
REHMI think Louis agrees with you on those two.
BAYARDYeah, I think there's a general consensus that the more recent one is a pretty awful movie and quite -- and not at all faithful to the original, by the way. Two of the characters die, I think, over the course of that movie. The first one I am a big fan of, actually. It's one of my very favorite ghost story movies, as well. And it's very close to the book and very interior. Julie Harris, who plays Eleanor, does a lot of voiceover. So you get her inner thoughts, much as the book supplies. So it's very close and has some of that same quiet chills that we were talking about that the book gives you.
REHMDoes Julie Harris play Eleanor?
BAYARDShe plays Eleanor. Claire Bloom plays Theodora, and Russ Tamblyn is the nephew. So if you remember from "West Side Story." So these are the early '60s we're talking about. I think it's a very artfully, artfully done movie.
REHMI wonder if it's available on Netflix.
BAYARDI think it is. I know you can find it on YouTube, as well.
REHMOkay, what did you think, or have you seen the movies?
SNYDERNo, I saw the movie but a long time ago, and I was impressed with it.
REHMYou saw the '66...
SNYDERThe first movie, yeah, yeah. I thought they did a good job, but...
OPPENHEIMERI didn't. I didn't, no.
REHMI've never seen either one, but certainly in reading some literature about the book, the consensus seems to be that that second movie is not very good. So we are talking about "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson, and there's an introduction by Guillermo del Toro. What did you think of that introduction?
SNYDERI'm afraid I didn't read it.
REHMYou didn't read it. Did you read it?
SNYDERJust like every college student I've ever had. I'm sorry.
OPPENHEIMERI read it, and it kept putting me to sleep. I did read it, but I found Laura Miller's...
OPPENHEIMERMuch more accessible.
REHMFlowing and easy.
OPPENHEIMERBut I do, you know, I love -- I love his movies. So I just, I -- anybody who can sort of connect the worlds of art for me is, you know, fascinating.
BAYARDAnd he has a haunted house movie coming out very soon, actually, in the theaters, right? He's got one coming up. So this is some kind of shilling for him, I think, the introduction. One thing I do like that he does is he connects this book to "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James.
SNYDEROh, that's a great connection.
BAYARDWorks in the same vein of psychological horror. You have a governess who is convinced that two ghosts are haunting her young charges, but she may be wrong. That's the thing. There's always this -- there's this permanently sustained possibility that she is wrong. And the same ambiguities are at work here.
BAYARDI mean, we're never quite sure what is really happening and what is, yeah, what is in there.
REHMWhat's going on? And what's in somebody's mind.
REHMShort break here, and when we come back, more of your comments, your questions. I hope you'll join us as we talk about our readers' review, an early Halloween gift to you, "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson.
REHMAnd welcome back. For those of you who've just joined us, for this month's October pre-Halloween Reader's Review we've chosen "The Haunting of Hill House," by Shirley Jackson. And while we've certainly concentrated on that book, a number of you have asked to hear about "The Lottery." And, Louis, I know you teach that short story, which first appeared in The New Yorker magazine. What year?
REHMOkay. Tell us about it.
BAYARDWell, I teach it on the first day of class, my fiction writing class.
REHMFirst day of class?
BAYARDYes, yes. Because to me it is such a marvel of construction. It is so brilliantly constructed. You start reading this book and it just has the bucolic feel, country, you know, town villagers gathering together for the lottery. What could be, you know, someone's gonna win something. Yay. And they're -- and it's so wholesome and folksy.
BAYARDAnd then slowly the tension starts building, just as it is in this book, you know, very gradually. But it just starts tightening and tightening. And it isn't until you get to the end that you learn what the lottery is for. I'm not gonna ruin it for people who haven't read it.
BAYARDBut it's a stunning and shocking reveal. And it makes you just wanna go, you wanna read the whole story over again, just to see all -- what you missed the whole time.
REHMTell me, Judy, about Shirley's reaction to the reaction to that story.
OPPENHEIMERWell, I think she was pretty shocked. I mean, the point is, it got more letters than any story that had ever in The New Yorker before. People were outraged. People were -- one of her friends told her, I saw -- heard somebody talking about your story, but -- on the Metro and -- or not the Metro, the subway -- but then when I heard what they were saying I didn't wanna say anything about knowing you.
OPPENHEIMERBecause they accused of her doing or being, you know, anti-religious. And they -- and then there were some people who wanted to know where the lottery was happening so they could possibly go see it. And she saved all these letters. And it was an amazing reaction. It was just -- what gets me, though, you know, you say you read it to your kids, it's so often taught in high school. And I always thought it was taught in high school because they're trying to wake these 16-year-olds up. And that's gonna do it. Nothing else does it.
REHMNow, did her children save those letters?
OPPENHEIMEROh, yeah. Yeah, they're still around.
REHMSo you got to read them?
OPPENHEIMEROh, yeah. Yeah, I've read a lot. They're just amazing.
OPPENHEIMERPeople were just -- and she -- and also, they kept asking her what it means, what does it mean, what does it mean? And she would say, I don't know what it means. It's just a story, you know. Because she didn't like to explain herself. But later on she told one person it was -- it had something to do with the Holocaust, but that wasn't all. I think it had more to do with her living in Bennington, because they lived in the town of Bennington.
OPPENHEIMERHer husband taught in the college, but they lived in the town. And the town was a very tight New England town. And they did not accept them happily 'cause she was married to a Jew, because they had Ralph Ellison come up and spend the weekends and for many reasons there was this, you know, she did not feel accepted by the town and that was a part of where "The Lottery" came from, too.
BAYARDShe wrote another story, by the way, called "The Possibility of Evil," also set in a small town, about this nice old lady who turns out to be writing vicious poison pen letters to the fellow villagers.
REHMI've gotta wonder about Shirley Jackson's mind. I really do.
BAYARDWell, I -- but "The Possibility of Evil" could be the title for pretty much everything she wrote. I mean…
BAYARD…that -- the sense that…
BAYARD…even under this idyllic small town, rural existence there's this well of evil and darkness just waiting to bubble up.
REHMAnd what is meant when Eleanor says many times in the novel, to herself, "journeys end in lovers meeting." What is that about?
SNYDERWell, it's speculation, but I -- I don't wanna give away the end of the book, but throughout the whole book we see her -- we're inside her, we're sort of outside of her. We're seeing her react to people. And so we're never sure, as you mentioned earlier, it's all about the blurred edges of things. Right. But at the end of the book there is a coming together of her seemingly two halves. Right.
SNYDERShe's saying to herself, why am I doing this, don't do this, why am I doing this, don't do this. It's sort of paradox. And I don't wanna give away what happens, but that seems to me, in some sense, related to that phrase.
REHMAnd yet, Lou, you see a theme of doubling in the novel.
BAYARDYeah, well, you have the -- first of all, the two sisters who are in the house. They're doubled by Eleanor and her sister, who have a simile contentious relationship. You have the doubling with -- between Eleanor and Theo that we talked about before. But I -- getting back to what Rachel said, there is this sort of equal pull -- liebestod is the term that came to mind. The sort of love and death.
BAYARDAnd that kind of pull of both of those things instead of -- in the same direction, almost. So it's a dark book. But, yeah, she is -- it's never clear to me whether the house is even evil. It's spoken of as evil, but it's not clear whether it's ultimately a haven or a hell.
REHMBut why would it have been built this way, with all these strange angles and nothing meeting as it should, and how you get lost in it. It's almost as though Shirley Jackson is giving us a picture of her own inner mind.
OPPENHEIMERYeah, I would say something like that. And this doubling you talk about comes up in her next novel, "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," which is, to me, a much, much better novel. And in that there are two sisters, one of whom is very tough and outgoing and, you know, nasty and murderous.
OPPENHEIMERAnd the other one who's very warm and loving, and they're -- and yet they're sort of parts of the whole, you know. And that's written -- that had an -- even more of an effect on her than writing "The Haunting of Hill House." Because she ended up writing herself into the house, as she told somebody. She became agoraphobic after writing this story about…
OPPENHEIMER…two sisters who can't leave their…
REHMYeah. So her -- this house, the more I hear you talk about her, I'd love to have met her. Let's go to Winston-Salem, N.C. Cindy, you're on the air.
CINDYHi. I was curious, as somebody who teaches sort of documentary storytelling and makes documentary films, I'm curious about legacy. I think for any of us who create content, we'd like to think that our stories live past us and are sort of evergreen in their content. And I think Shirley, her stories are. I mean, I'm still terrified by "The Lottery," to this day.
CINDYI think I was scarred by reading that in high school. But I'm curious who you think she has influenced and what you see in sort of these contemporary writers and how they might take some of her style and incorporate it for a new generation of readers.
OPPENHEIMERWell, clearly "The Hunger Games" owes a lot to "The Lottery."
OPPENHEIMEROwes most of itself…
BAYARDOh, I know.
OPPENHEIMER…to "The Lottery."
OPPENHEIMERIt's about -- it's set up about a lottery, where, you know, it ends up being a very few people from each precinct fighting each other. And where else did that idea come from, you know. I mean, she goes on with it and she moves it out, but that's where it comes from initially. As far as her legacy of "The Quite Chill," whether that is picked up anywhere, I was trying to think were there any movies came up with that, not just books, but movies.
OPPENHEIMERAnd I, all I could think of was "The Blair Witch Project." Remember that? Because we didn't really understand what was going on…
SNYDEROh, yeah, yeah.
BAYARDWe never see what's going on.
OPPENHEIMER…and yet it was terrifying.
BAYARDIt's all off screen, yeah.
OPPENHEIMERSo I think maybe that.
REHMAnd what about writers she may have influenced, such as Stephen King.
BAYARDStephen King is one. I think Peter Straub is another. There's a contemporary writer, Keith Donohue, who wrote a book called, "The Boy Who Drew Monsters," who writes very much in that register, that kind of calm, unsurprisable register that Shirley Jackson has. I think she also influenced people like David Lynch, that idea of small-town life, with these pockets or these reservoirs of darkness and evil, but…
SNYDERAnd I also think she influenced all legions of funny mommies, which have now expanded to be funny daddies, now that that's all right.
BAYARDSure. Erma Bombeck and types like that, yeah.
SNYDERThey didn't -- they weren't as good as she was at that, but…
REHMAll right. To Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Jeff, you're on the air.
JEFFMorning. I'm a big fan of "Haunting of Hill House," and "The Lottery." And it's interesting, my sister just told me last week that they had recently found some old short stories of Shirley Jackson that they just recently published again. I was just wondering if you knew anything about them or had read them and if they were, you know, as good as, you know, some of her earlier works.
OPPENHEIMERI'm not sure, but apparently two of her kids, Lawrence and Sarah got together and published a great deal of short stories, a large collection, which are ones that have not been published before. So…
REHMHave you read…
OPPENHEIMERI haven't seen it yet. And I was trying to find out, actually, what the list of stories was. 'Cause I've read almost everything she's ever written. So I think I would know the stories. But a lot of them had not been -- her husband was the one who put together the previous collections, "The Magic of Shirley Jackson," and "Come Along With Me," and of course "The Lottery" had come out. That was a bunch of short -- that -- "The Lottery" and several (unintelligible).
REHMYeah, you know I find myself wondering -- and of course this has happened recently with Harper Lee -- how authors beyond the grave or at advanced age and who have manuscripts in their drawers or in the bank, whether they're really happy having those works published. I'm not sure.
BAYARDWell, I think every author has a manuscript in the drawer. And there's usually a good reason for it to be in the drawer.
BAYARDThat's where we want it to stay, yeah.
BAYARDSo I -- that's why when the Harper Lee book came out I was mortified on her behalf. Because I felt like if she were in her right mind that book would never have seen…
REHM…ever, ever, ever. I fully agree with you.
BAYARDBut then there's the counter-example of Kafka who wanted all his work to be burned…
BAYARD…after his death. And his friend, Max Brod, declined and now we have Kafka's work.
REHMAll right. And let's go to Evansville, Ill., a town not perhaps unlike what we think of as where Hill House is. Don, you're on the air. Don?
REHMYes. Go right ahead, sir.
DONActually, it's Evansville, Ind.
REHMOh, I'm sorry.
DONThat's okay. We were in grade school and we were all ushered into a room and shown "The Lottery" by -- Rod Serling did a version.
REHMYou mean a film version?
DONYes. It was a short film, but it was "The Lottery," and that was my introduction. And I was pretty much taken aback by that, being shown that in grade school, but, like I said, that kind was my introduction to the author and Rod Serling at the same time.
REHMHow interesting. And what was your reaction?
DONI, like I said, it was -- it got me to read the story itself. And I was -- that's kind of like my whole introduction to the author and the whole genre. I mean, the depth of it was just quite intense.
REHMWell, that's one word for it. Thanks for calling, Don. And to Cincinnati, Ohio. Dennis (sic), you're on the air.
DENISEDenise, thank you. Can you hear me?
DENISEOkay. What I find about Shirley Jackson is her writing has so much loneliness in it. When Eleanor, on her way to Hill House, she stopped at a restaurant. And there's a little girl at the table next door who wants her cup of blue stars. And that's -- it just brings up all the heartache and the loneliness of what Eleanor is going through. She doesn't feel she belongs to anyone. And Hill House -- she finally does belong.
SNYDERYeah, absolutely, Denise. And also she's looking for family. Right. She calls them all her family less than 24 hours after meeting them.
DENISEShe does. And sometimes I read that book and I can read it just fine. And other times I can read it and I am just frightened out of my mind. And Shirley Jackson, it's a bit of -- she used to say that her kind of horror was walking into the kitchen and finding, you know, a severed head under the table. She's got a short story called "The Renegade," about the family dog who has killed the neighbor's chickens.
DENISEAnd her beloved children come home and they're telling this story about how the neighbors are gonna get the dog killed by putting a collar around her neck with the needles going…
REHMOh, my God.
DENISE…the pins going on the inside of this…
REHMOh, my heaven.
DENISE…to pull the dog's head off.
OPPENHEIMEROne of her less subtle approaches.
REHMOh, my heavens.
DENISEYeah, I mean, that's what I love about her. She writes about really awful things.
REHMAwful things. Thanks for calling, Denise. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I mean, these thoughts are gruesome.
OPPENHEIMERI know, I know. It's not all like that, though. I mean, my favorite stories of hers kind of cross over between almost humor and horror. Like there's one -- and I hope it's collected in this new edition. I don't know if it is or not. I just read it. I don't even remember where I found it. But I was going -- you know, she has a lot of papers in the Library of Congress. It's a final -- somebody discovers a final exam. And all it is is the final exam.
OPPENHEIMERAnd it's obviously written sometime in the future. And there are questions about what they call the Aboriginal Americans. And it says things like, true or false, the Aboriginal Americans lived above water. I mean, that…
OPPENHEIMER…is so, you know, do you guys know that? Did you ever read that story?
SNYDERI don't, but I sort of admire her willingness to go sort of bright-eyed into the darkness, you know.
BAYARDYeah, that's a great way of phrasing it.
OPPENHEIMERShe says I like -- I've always enjoyed using fear.
BAYARDI assume Poe was an influence on her as well, 'cause Poe's stuff gets dark, really dark.
REHMAll right. And let's go quickly to Dana, in Cape Coral, Fla. You're on the air.
DANAHi, Diane and guests. I just tuned in and I heard somebody mention the new book. And I actually -- a shout out to the Lee County, Fla., public library. They had it. And I got it and I read it. It's called, "Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays and Other Writings." And the short stories are fantastic. I haven't read the essays yet, but the short stories are great. And they have that quiet, fear, chill going through the whole thing.
DANAAnd mainly what I got from it, too, was a take on growing up female, in a lot of them. One is kind of precocious child being treated almost too sexually by her parents. And another is on a university wife dealing with students who have a crush on her husband. And it's sort of a…
BAYARDAutobiographical, I'm guessing.
REHMReally autobiographical, Judy?
OPPENHEIMEROh, yeah, because Stanley, you know, he kind of played around a lot. Nothing serious until the end. There was one serious affair, but usually it wasn't serious. But he loved having a bunch of young students sort of fawn over him. And she knew this was going on. And…
REHMNo wonder she wrote horror stories.
SNYDERYeah, yeah, yeah.
REHMYou know? I mean…
BAYARDFour kids and a philandering husband? You'd write horror, too.
REHMYeah, exactly, exactly.
REHMWell, I must say I am as intrigued as I can be with Shirley Jackson, herself. I have to tell you also that I tend to read fiction before I go to sleep at night. This was not one I enjoyed. I have to tell you that. Judy Oppenheimer is author of "Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson." Louis Bayard, he wrote "Roosevelt's Beast." He teaches fiction writing at the George Washington University. And Rachel Snyder is professor of creative writing and journalism at American University. She's the author of "What We've Lost is Nothing." Thank you all.
BAYARDThank you, Diane.
SNYDERThank you, Diane.
REHMThanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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