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November/December 2020
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
David J. Skal
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by David J. Skal

Three Degrees of Shirley Jackson


On a Vermont-bound passenger train in the summer of 1948, a young woman experiences a powerful aphrodisiac rush after reading Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" in The New Yorker, so much so that she insists her husband join her immediately in the train's toilet for some frenetic coupling. The idea of a mother being stoned to death by her own children—the only thing we're told about the story—is apparently such a hot mental image that it demands an instant response.

Audiences unfamiliar with "The Lottery" will be forgiven if they assume Jackson was an unusually effective and inspiring author of violent pornography, and Josephine Decker's new film Shirley doesn't get into the story in sufficient detail to disabuse the notion. In reality, "The Lottery" was indeed a scandal, but instead of delivering titillation, it prompted readers to write the author and publisher to ask if the human sacrifices were still being practiced, and, if so, where might they go to watch?

The frisky travelers are Rose and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman), on their way to Bennington College, where Fred is slated to begin a prestigious postdoctoral position assisting the renowned literary critic and professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). It's a residency that includes taking up residence—at least temporarily—with Hyman and his wife, the suddenly notorious writer Jackson (Elisabeth Moss).

Jackson is first glimpsed by a handheld camera jostling its way through a party crowd, circling the armchair from which she holds court. At first, Moss's appearance and clipped diction seem inspired by Bette Davis and her frumpy turn in Now, Voyager—an impression so strong that it's clear, had Susan Sarandon not already scored such a tour de force as Davis in Ryan Murphy's Feud, Moss would have been a clear choice for the role.

An innocent question about what she's working on next (the answer: "A novella called none of your goddamned business!") causes Shirley to bolt. It's an inopportune moment for Rose to chase after and introduce herself as one of the new houseguests, but she does so anyway, only to be drunkenly rebuffed. "You're all the same," says Shirley, waving her off. Then, uncannily, she turns back to Rose and says, "They didn't tell me you were pregnant." Later, at dinner, she escalates things considerably, demanding that Rose tell everyone "about your shotgun wedding." Rose excuses herself and tells Fred that Shirley is "a monster" and that they need to leave. Nonetheless, Hyman convinces them to stay on, and additionally take on the responsibility of monitoring his wife, who in addition to being alcoholic, is paranoid, depressed, and agoraphobic.

Somehow, almost impossibly, Shirley still manages to write.

Her novel in progress is Hangsaman, published in 1951 and inspired by the lingering mystery of a real-life Bennington student, Paula Welden, who disappeared without a trace and was eventually presumed dead. As Rose's pregnancy approaches term, Shirley reveals her interest in witchcraft, spells, and potions, raising Rosemary's Baby expectations but never fulfilling them. Rose finds herself drawn to the missing-girl mystery and forms a sexually charged bond with the writer, while fending off blatant advances from the writer's husband. The viewer already understands that Rose and Shirley have a lot in common; both Rose and Shirley have submerged their own needs and identities under those of their husbands. Eventually Rose imagines herself as the missing girl, taking her role in dreamlike sequences and begins to wonder if Stanley may have had something to do with the disappearance, or at least might be able to sow the idea in Shirley's mind. Decker's previous film, Madeline's Madeline, also explored psychologically blurred boundaries between women.

Moss and Stuhlbarg are so much fun to watch that you almost forget the lazy appropriation of a cliché—the bitter, hard-drinking, hard-brawling marriage at the center of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (itself an appropriation of—or homage to—Strindberg's The Dance of Death). Stuhlbarg's presence immediately brings to mind the remarkably similar role he played a few years ago in Call Me by Your Name as an archeology professor who lodges a postdoctoral assistant with his family, creating unexpected sexual fireworks. Here, Stanley and Shirley are presented as trollish predators lurking under a covered bridge in New England, waiting for hapless travelers.

The actors seize the showy parts with relish, exchanging knowing, teasing, conspiratorial glances, endlessly hinting at a secret agenda that will eventually be disclosed to the viewer. For a while I was sure that the older couple's arbitrary abuse of their younger counterparts would somehow end in a figurative human sacrifice, bringing the story full circle back to "The Lottery." That doesn't happen, and the ending is so clumsily handled that audiences will have difficulty determining whether a major character is living or dead. I watched it twice and still can't decide.

The cinematography of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is almost a character in itself, a striking combination of careful composition and lighting—his screen gives off a wonderful period glow—frequently and strategically offset by the almost subliminal nervousness of a handheld camera. The period details and costumes are first rate, and the Vassar campus provides a convincing stand-in for Bennington College. Even minor roles are perfectly cast: My favorite was Orlagh Cassidy's sharply etched turn as a dean's wife who is also Stanley's current mistress. An explosive confrontation with Shirley at a faculty party raises the ghosts of both Bette Davis and her onscreen/offscreen nemesis, Joan Crawford.

Despite its watchability and smooth performances, a question remains: Is Shirley a good film? Not necessarily, especially considering the far richer but poorly used source material, the 2014 novel of the same title by Susan Scarf Merrell. Usually, when filmmakers buy the rights to a novel, it's because they admire the book and deem it eminently screenworthy. Here, Merrell's book was essentially gutted, its entrails dumped at the side of the road while the movie makers headed off on a joy ride of their own making. A fun ride, certainly, but I hope the novelist was very well paid for the liberties taken with her work. I can't think of another film adaptation where so much exceptional material, including some darned good character-revealing dialogue, was so badly wasted. In Merrell's rendering, Shirley is still cryptic, but she's also a three-dimensional character who carries on coherent conversations. The growing codependence of the two women develops gradually and plausibly.

The film, by contrast, often resembles a bargain-basement version of Bergman's Persona. In the novel—spoiler alert—Rose ends up accepting her fate as an invisible academic spouse propping up a philandering husband. Perhaps Decker disapproved? If so, she chose a very odd feminist rebuttal, if the word "feminist" even applies. The underlying message of Shirley is old and tired. Men write with their intellects. Women's creativity, however, must be fueled by a spooky miasma of estrogen, mental illness, pills, and booze. Is this really a message we need in 2020? Just asking.

Shirley lists thirteen producer credits, including executive producer Martin Scorsese, as well as Moss, screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, and ten others. I don't know what kind of creative push and pull might have resulted, but it would seem almost inevitable, and may give a clue to a muddled film without an ending.

The touchstone for any serious consideration of Jackson's life and legacy is Ruth Franklin's impeccably researched and deservedly acclaimed biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (2016), which, among many other things, thoroughly debunks the idea that Jackson in 1948 was anything like the crazy woman in the attic depicted in Decker's movie or the more believably impaired character of Merrell's novel. By the time of "The Lottery," Jackson had earned a solid reputation as a working writer; she wasn't agoraphobic or hobbled by depression. She lectured frequently. She raised four boisterous children, and was successful enough in the early 1950s to be the family's primary breadwinner, a detail that would have gone far in elucidating the resentment/rivalry dynamic in the Hyman marriage—as it stands in the film, Stanley's attitude and behavior toward his wife swings arbitrarily and inexplicably between supportive and denigrating.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the big reveal is that George and Martha have an imaginary child. In Shirley, it would take a similar revelation to explain why Jackson's own children have been exterminated, or at least banished, in the screen story. The absence is especially jarring because some of Jackson's most popular works, like Raising Demons, detail the tribulations of midcentury motherhood.

Instead of tormenting the facts of Shirley Jackson's life for questionable dramatic ends, a screenwriter might have turned to documented reality. The actual backstory of "The Lottery" and its scandalous success is both gripping and mordantly funny, especially the faux moral panic that ensued as both Jackson and the New Yorker were inundated with letters. (Franklin rightly compares the widespread suspension of disbelief to Orson Welles's 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast.) Jackson's mental health problems occurred a decade later than Shirley, around the time of The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, not "The Lottery." A filmmaker wanting to go full-tilt Gothic might have easily built a biopic around Jackson's most famous novels, her life refracted through her fiction, which also channeled madness and magic.

The real Shirley Jackson was fascinated by witchcraft and amused that people wondered if she was a practicing witch herself. She once gave her approval to publisher Alfred A. Knopf to repeat an apocryphal story that she had settled some score by casting a spell to break his leg. No doubt, a screen incarnation employing a similar impishness to explore the complexity of her life and work would provide pleasures that are missed in the current film, but still worth pursuing by another director, another time.


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