YOU MIGHT IMAGINE a novel with Shirley Jackson as its subject to unfold in a world filled with hauntings and occult doings. But Jackson did some of her best writing on the mundane, the inner lives of women left at home, the collective anxiety of villagers, and the private worlds of naïve college girls. Sure, she was a chronicler and embellisher of suburban wickedness, but her more subtle achievement was illustrating how conformity can give rise to evil, how malice might bubble up from the humdrum of homemaking, marriage, and small-town life. Jackson understood that real horrors hide in plain sight, in the faces of the people at the grocery store, in the whispers in the local library, in the difficulty of being a faculty wife, and even in the author’s own home.
Fittingly, Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell does not dwell on the ghostly and the inexplicable but instead digs into the everyday reality, at times both ugly and beautiful, that inspired Jackson’s writing — the unpleasant kernels of truth around which the author built her best fiction. Sure, there is something eerie that tingles at her book’s core, but Merrell’s hauntingly quiet novel is a story of marriage, of what we do to hurt the ones we love most and how far people will go to protect the vows they made when they were too young to understand them.
The narrator of this story is Rose Nemser, looking back on the months she and her husband Fred, a graduate student, spent living with Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman in the last year of Jackson’s life. At first it seems an odd choice, to filter the flamboyant character of Shirley Jackson through the timid gaze of a naïve, pregnant 19-year-old. But it soon becomes clear Rose’s perspective prevents Shirley and Stanley from running rampant and dominating the story as they dominated their dinner guests.
Rose arrives in North Bennington, Vermont with a slim sense of self. Relentlessly ashamed of her upbringing in a rough area of Philadelphia (even Fred’s mother who raised her children in the same neighborhood thought her son could do better), Rose longs to be part of a family like the one she never had with her sticky-fingered mother and arsonist father. Rose is a woman in the open ocean, grabbing onto any means of support or survival tossed her way. She longs for someone to let her know she can be a good mother and wife, but more important, an individual in her own right. Enter Shirley.
Rose’s infatuation with her host begins on the train to Vermont, where she reads Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, unconsciously casting herself as one of the writer’s naïve heroines and beginning to carve out her niche in Jackson’s world. Rose falls for Shirley the moment she sees the author standing in her housedress on the steps of her rambling house. She is transfixed by the older woman’s confidence, her career, and the abundance of love she believes overflows in the Hyman household. With no other examples of marriage other than that of her petty criminal parents and her drab, joyless in-laws, Rose wants everything that Shirley has, even if she doesn’t understand it.
There’s no accounting for love at first sight, either sexual or platonic. We fall for the person we believe completes us at that instant. A nervous college dropout entering a world of esteemed intellectuals, an “unmothered” mother-to-be, Rose needs Shirley. She welcomes and encourages Shirley’s invasive and sometimes overbearing presence, easily charmed by the writer’s brassy wit, sharp mind, and passion for her craft, despite the fact that Shirley is often drunk, quite temperamental, and on the verge of emotional collapse.
It is not just Shirley’s love and approval Rose craves, but that of the Hyman house itself. From the moment she steps inside its warm, chaotic interior, she feels that the house is alive, watching her, not haunting her exactly, but judging her for her meekness, as well as her social and intellectual inferiority to its inhabitants. She imagines that if the house welcomes her she will be allowed to stay in Shirley and Stanley’s world and maybe some of their bawdy confidence and familial love will rub off on her.
It is in Rose’s relationship to the house, to the powers she ascribes it and the powers she hopes to draw from it, that Merrell’s novel most closely parallels Jackson’s own writing. But Shirley is neither a tribute nor a derivation. In fact, Merrell peels back a layer of Jackson’s work, stripping away the suggestion of the paranormal to the understandable human emotions that give rise to belief and fear. And it seems reasonable, if not rational, that Rose who thinks she’s powerless to attain the things she most desires, turns to the sympathetic magic she believes the house controls.
Sometimes Rose’s voice is too self effacing and self-consciously aware of her own naiveté. She sounds rather timid for someone who survived a childhood such as hers — she is, if anything, a survivor — and it seems that she is working overtime to become one of Jackson’s insecure and innocent heroines. On the Nemsers’ first evening at Bennington, Rose wonders “if the Hymans would change us very much.” Her question is a bit wide-eyed and on the nose, and it indicates that Rose has a sense, even a desire, for what is in store.
It’s Fred who falls first, instantly becoming a mini-Stanley, a perfect replica of the esteemed academic. The two men, with Shirley chiming in from the kitchen or her study, sit up late at night, singing folklore ballads, debating Iago’s nature, tossing off ancient Greek literary terminology, drinking too much (a favorite pastime in the Hyman house), and ignoring Rose. It’s not difficult to see that Fred’s careless adulation is not going to end well.
Rose is more circumspect and cautious in her idolatry. Left at home with Shirley, Rose searches for ways to bind herself to the author, even secretly resenting Shirley’s children who might steal any affection that might come her way.
So desperate is Rose to be like Shirley that she willfully overlooks the unsettling quirks of the Jackson-Hyman house, the phone that rings unanswered during dinner, Shirley’s tearful moods and tempers, and town gossip about Stanley’s philandering. She fails to see that, despite the raucous dinner parties, the amusing and intellectual banter, and their literary success, Stanley and Shirley are like two lab mice given the opportunity to electrocute each other for the hell of it. They hurt each other because they can, because they enjoy it, and because each of them knows how dependent the other is.
The question of marital fidelity is the axis around which Shirley revolves. Like Jackson, Merrell understands that the worst horrors often begin at home. For Rose, Fred’s faithfulness is a foregone conclusion. Shirley has other ideas. Embittered and worn down by Stanley’s cheating, she believes that his philandering is something she must begrudgingly accept and she suggests that Rose do the same in her marriage when the time comes. And Shirley knows it will.
If there’s anyone who should fear the proximity of a campus filled with liberal-minded college girls, it should be Rose, who was Fred’s student when they met. But Rose is too blinded by the sanctity of marriage and the child growing inside her to acknowledge the threat inside the college gates. It’s enough to make you want to shake her. In her place, I would have worried, having attended a liberal-arts college myself and witnessed firsthand the magnetism of certain brilliant instructors whose seductive qualities might not be so bright in the outside world. But for Rose marriage is an inviolable contract, and she brushes off Shirley’s warnings. And for all the examples she’s been given in her own life (and even in Shirley’s house) Rose certainly expects goodness and honesty from the world that has showed her little.
Merrell’s unadorned and economic prose manages to be surprisingly vivid while still evoking both Rose’s uncertainty and timidity as well as the icy charms of a New England winter. In fact, the author’s descriptions of the seasonal shifts — the first snow, the transformation of the pristine winter white into springtime’s horrid mud, are some of most enjoyable passages in the novel. But the greatest success of Merrell’s style is how, when necessary, it lets the unworldly Rose fall into the background while Shirley and Stanley shine in their bawdy, boisterous, and unapologetically pretentious manner. Often this is achieved through indirect, discourse, in Rose’s nervous recall of the previous night’s conversation.
“The evening before, she (Shirley) had been hard work to keep up with. Half the time I didn’t even know who we were talking about: Howard’s name came up twenty times before I realized that she meant the poet Howard Nemerov. Paul? That was the painter Paul Feeley. They were friend with Ralph Ellison; the up-and-coming writer Joyce Carol Oates had recently spent the weekend.” It’s quite a lot to swallow, especially on Rose’s first full day in Bennington.
As colorful as the Hymans are, Rose begins to understand the price they pay (or rather Shirley pays) for their animated household and fierce displays of love and intellect. In a brilliant scene later in the book, we witness Shirley and Stanley at their divine worst when Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bernard Malumud comes to dinner. Stanley, too drunk to greet his guests, spends the evening passed out on the couch. Shirley, who has denied any jealously of Malamud’s success, wickedly prepares food that her guest is forbidden to eat, then disappears before dinner to write, leaving Rose and Fred alone with Malamud and his dreary wife. The Malamuds are as colorless as the Hymans are vibrant and Rose wonders if this is the price she must pay for a faithful marriage.
It’s never easy for a novelist to depict writers and the craft of writing — a potentially static activity. Merrell skillfully navigates this potential pitfall. It is a joy to watch Shirley ideas turn into stories, to see her drink in her surroundings, gobbling down the details that will appear on her pages. But what’s even more impressive is how Merrell recreates Stanley and Shirley’s literary conversations without making the couple sound pretentious or elitist. Their rather dismissive discussions of luminary writers and critics are some of the most entertaining passages in the novel and are possible to enjoy even if you don’t know who the players are.
Of course the majority of the Hymans’ conversations concern the world of letters, because this is where they both dwell, where they seek refuge, and where they excuse each other’s worst behaviors. Shirley is content, for better or for worse, to hide out in her fiction, escaping Stanley’s philandering in a world of her own creation and exacting her revenge on her characters. She believes it is enough to acknowledge the truth of the situation and transform it with her typewriter. But Rose has no such recourse. She needs to live in a real world and confront the horrors when they arise, not make them into fictions, but meet them face to face. By the novel’s end, she must stop being Jackson’s heroine to become Merrell’s protagonist — a woman who won’t hide behind the scrim of the paranormal and who doesn’t accept the evils inherent in the everyday just because she knows they are there.