I am probably going to be losing some sleep over the next little while.
I’ve decided I’m going to read a collection of Shirley Jackson stories I picked up recently. Jackson was, by all I’ve read, a perfectly ‘normal’ American housewife, married to a successful husband, who raised four children and did a fair bit of writing.
But it was her writing that may cause me to lose sleep. Jackson wrote short stories and novellas which are frequently cited as some of the greatest horror stories ever written.
The first short story she wrote which received much recognition, The Lottery, is only 12 pages in the book I have. I read it years ago and was totally blown away by the ending. I would estimate, going strictly by memory, that of the 12 pages in the book which The Lottery takes up, eight or nine of them will set the scene of a perfectly normal American town or village, holding an annual public gathering.
And it’s those last few pages that turn everything on its head.
Sometime later, I read The Haunting of Hill House as a Reader’s Digest condensed book, and spent a few sleepless nights. Later, I made the mistake of watching the 1963 movie taken from the book.
The movie stayed remarkably faithful to its material, which was fairly easy to do, because Jackson doesn’t write books about big, scary monsters from other worlds. Her monsters, in a lot of respects, come from inside the people in the book.
In both the book and the movie, the one scene I remember totally freaking me out was of the two female characters huddled in their bedroom one night, hearing something in the hall outside. The noises went up and down the hall, slamming into the walls so the two were afraid it would come through.
And then the noises stopped.
When they went out in the morning, there were no signs of any damage to the hall, and the two men said they had heard nothing.
And things continue to build, one incident on top of another, until the end.
Stephen King, who has said that both the book and the movie have strongly influenced him, once said: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try and terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”
As I start my reading of more of Shirley Jackson’s stories, I am sure I will not have to worry about a gross-out, and indeed, I anticipate very few moments of horror.
What I anticipate finding is moments of sheer terror, which is what I am looking for. I like my stories to hit me in the head, not in the stomach.
I have found the pictures I can conjure from my own imagination are more terrifying than any gross-out.