This is a short-term project of essays on women who write horror, suspense, and other dark fiction. I am no longer actively updating it, although I may add a new essay as the spirit moves me. If you like my writing, I encourage you to visit my main blog at shannonturlington.com, which is updated regularly.
All content published here is copyright Shannon Turlington and may not be reproduced without permission. Contact me if you would like to republish an essay or hire me for new writing: shannon.turlington @ gmail.com
Books discussed in this essay: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and The Blunderer (1954). Slight spoilers.
Patricia Highsmith could have been a character in one of her novels, a dark and distinctly odd personality. She was a smoker and an alcoholic, a bisexual who never stayed in a long-term relationship, and supposedly, a cruel misanthrope who preferred animals to people. She published her best-known novels in the 1950s and 1960s, of which her most famous is The Talented Mr. Ripley.
In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith’s writing style is a little old-fashioned by today’s standards, perfectly conveying the time and place of the story, but her word choices are so precise and evocative that when reading it, I could almost see the action unfolding in technicolor in my imagination’s eye. I hope it’s not spoiling anything to tell you that there is a scene where a murder takes place, and that scene is so well narrated that I actually felt like I was the one committing the crime. At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy, I don’t know if people write like this anymore.
Her antihero, Tom Ripley, is a character who is impossible to like, or even to sympathize with, but he does fascinate. Tom is not particularly clever or charming, or even that self-aware. Rather, he is a very lucky opportunist who wants to be anyone other than who he actually is — he despises himself — and he gets away with what he does through a combination of skillful lying and unthinking brazenness. Therein lies Tom’s talent: He doesn’t just lie effectively, but he convinces himself that his lies are what actually happened. Since he believes them so sincerely, everyone around him must believe them too.
We may not like Tom Ripley, but we do love his story, as it goes completely against the kind of story we’ve been conditioned to expect, in which the good guys triumph and no one gets away with murder.
The Blunderer, which was published a year before Ripley, might have been a warm-up for the later novel. Highsmith does nothing to dispel her reputation for misanthropy with this thriller. First, let’s take a look at the women characters, such as they are. Two of them are shrill, nagging wives who both die violent deaths, and it seems they deserved them. The last is pretty much a non-character, who falls in love with Walter (the most non-romantic person imaginable) without any provocation whatsoever and spends the rest of the novel not doing much.
Highsmith is obviously more interested in her men than her women, specifically three men. The first is Walter, the titular blunderer, who when his wife supposedly commits suicide by jumping off a cliff during a rest stop on a bus trip, he does pretty much everything he can to make himself look guilty of murder. Walter has none of the misplaced charisma of Ripley. He is milquetoast, indecisive with his feelings, slow on the uptake, “nothing but a pair of eyes without an identity behind them.” After reading a news story, Walter becomes obsessed with a man named Kimmel, who really did murder his wife at a bus stop (as revealed in the first chapter). Kimmel is in every way repulsive, who considers himself so much above the rest of humankind that he can get away with murder; he thinks of himself as “powerful and impregnable as a myth.” Highsmith takes care to mention Kimmel’s physical appearance at every opportunity, his fatness, his lack of grace and bad eyesight, his repulsive thick lips like a heart.
It takes a lot to get the reader to feel even a modicum of sympathy for such a man, who did, after all, brutally strangle his wife without any sense of remorse whatsoever. However, when Corby, Highsmith’s third man, comes into the book, she almost manages to do so. Corby is the police detective obsessed with pinning both deaths on the husbands, by any means necessary. While Walter is stupid and Kimmel is arrogant, Corby comes across as nothing less than evil, which is all the more shocking because he represents justice.
Again, Highsmith brilliantly turns our expectations upside down and has us rooting for Kimmel and Walter to triumph over Corby. She is an expert manipulator, and it shows in this novel, but after finishing it, I felt icky, contaminated. These are not people I’d care to know, and Highsmith offers no alternatives, not even a hint of one. The world is full of people like these, she seems to be saying; take a close look at anyone and you’ll find something to disgust you. So while The Blunderer is a well-written novel and an effective piece of horror, it is not a book I can say that I liked.
Highsmith was clearly a talented writer who adroitly explored the dark side of human nature, but is she a writer that many readers could love? For this reader, the answer is probably not.
This essay discusses Frankensteinby Mary Shelley (1818). There are spoilers.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s classic gothic novel, originated many horror tropes that we now take for granted: the obsessive mad scientist, resurrection of the dead, the misunderstood monster, and the ultimate folly of playing god. Originally published in 1818, Frankenstein — along with Dracula, published in 1897 — bracketed the nineteenth century with iconic works that established the modern horror genre.
I have previously written about Frankenstein’s origins during a cold summer Mary Shelley spent with the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Each was challenged to come up with a ghost story, and that is where Mary first conceived Frankenstein’s monster. She published the first edition anonymously. A second edition, this time bearing Mary Shelley’s name, along with an introduction by her husband, was published in 1823. Following the death of Percy Shelley, Mary revised the text and released it as a third edition, published in 1831.
Mary Shelley wrote about the first edition of her book:
‘If there were ever to be another edition of this book, I should re-write these first two chapters. The incidents are tame and ill arranged – the language sometimes childish. – They are unworthy of the rest of the narration.’
For the third edition, she fulfilled that intention. However, despite her claim in the 1831 Introduction that she had “changed no portion of the story nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances,” she made other changes that impacted the overall theme of the story. The third edition places more emphasis on the now overused warning against man playing God. The original story, though, with less emphasis on religion, might also be read as an indictment of bad fathers and men who try to take women’s place in the role of reproduction.
Victor Frankenstein, one of the most dislikable characters in literature, is a full-on narcissist in any version. He takes on the challenge of creating new life out of an obsessive need to prove himself as a scientist, but he refuses to take responsibility for his creation. He abandons the monster he made and runs away home. The monster follows and, maddened by his isolation and disillusionment with humanity, seeks revenge by murdering those closest to Frankenstein. For Frankenstein, the murders are horrifying only in how they impact him, not for the loss of innocent life. Even when the monster tells him, “I will be with you on your wedding night,” it never occurs to Frankenstein that the monster means to come after Elizabeth, supposedly the great love of his life but really only another mirror in which he can admire himself. Instead, he assumes that the monster means to attack him.
Compared to Frankenstein, the monster is a more admirable, and more understandable, character. His story, at the center of the book, is one of awakening, learning, rejection, and isolation. It parallels a loss of faith in God. When he is created, the monster is a blank slate. “Who am I?” he asks, repeatedly. As he goes out into the world — alone, remember, because his “parent” has abandoned him — the world rejects him solely based on his appearance. Because he looks like a monster, everyone who sees him assumes he is a monster. He becomes entirely alone.
It didn’t have to be that way. The cottagers he spies on model for him how to be loving, kind, and compassionate. But when he reveals himself to them, they reject him. He is shot, beaten, and chased away. He believes he has no self worth. Even after declaring his hatred for the human species, the monster saves a young girl, but he is punished for his good deeds. Is it any wonder that he develops feelings of hatred and bitterness, that he cannot control his rage? The monster is made, not born, by his experiences. Monsters — human monsters — are made in this way every day.
The monster is denied his humanity. Even the one who gave him life doesn’t care for him and cannot answer his fundamental question: “Why am I here?” This drives him to madness and echoes the human condition. We are all in this same boat. If we can’t answer that question for ourselves, we too might go mad.
The horror of Frankenstein’s monster lies not in his monstrousness, but in his thwarted humanity. The same capacity for monstrousness lurks in us all.
“Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone?”
Books discussed in this essay: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson; 1962). Spoilers galore.
We don’t usually think about how things got they way they are in the fairy tales and ghost stories we are most familiar with. The witches have always lived in their gingerbread houses deep in the woods. The restless spirits have always haunted their ruined castles. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson tells us about the time before the fairy tale begins. She takes us into the haunted castle before it becomes a ruin, before children dare each other to go up on the vine-covered porch and possibly disturb the ghosts inside.
Still, even this story starts with a legend. Six years before the story begins, the Blackwood family sat down to dinner. By dessert, most of them were dead of arsenic poisoning. The arsenic had been put in the sugar bowl. Only the eldest daughter, Constance, her younger sister, Mary Katherine (or Merricat), and their uncle Julian survived. Julian, however, was crippled and suffered ever after from dementia and an obsession with that “last night.” Constance was accused of the crime, but acquitted due to insufficient evidence. She returned home to take care of her sister and uncle, and the three of them kept the house unchanged, stopped in time, stuffed with the remnants of the dead.
The local villagers–and there always is some unnamed village in these stories–had convicted Constance of the crime in their hearts. Indeed, the locals always hated the Blackwoods, who were wealthy and aloof and strange. Merricat in particular suffered their taunts and ostracization whenever she went into the village for food and library books. The children had even made up a rhyme to torment her.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me. Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep? Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
We Have Always Lived in the Castle exists in the unreal world of the fairy tale. The Blackwood sisters live on the edge of a wood. The path through it is barred to the villagers by locked gates. Like witches, the girls keep a familiar, a black cat. They know the names and uses of all the wild herbs and mushrooms, especially the poisonous ones. Constance is constantly in her kitchen, baking gingerbread, stirring a bubbling cauldron of soup.
While there are no supernatural elements in the story, it is suffused with an atmosphere of magic. Merricat speaks words of power, nails talismans to trees, and buries significant items to ward off evil–meaning the outside world. Perhaps her magic really works. By the end of the story, her barriers successfully keep she and her sister safe in their isolated house, where no one can reach them.
But before that end, a change must come, one that Merricat senses even before it arrives, forewarned by bad omens. That change is the arrival of their cousin, Charles. Merricat sees Charles as a ghost or demon, a grotesque caricature of their dead father returned to life. In reality, he is nothing more than an ordinary man, boorish and greedy, and like many men, he gets offended when everyone does not fall in line with his notions of how the world should be. The witches are not the monstrous ones in this inside-out fairy tale–the normal people are.
Jackson channels some of Frankenstein as well, when Charles’s arrival sets in motion a chain of events climaxing in an enraged mob of villagers attacking the Blackwood house and driving the two girls into the woods. But unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the Blackwood sisters embrace their differences and their consequent isolation from the world. They come to call the people outside “strangers”; the monsters are outside the walls, not in.
This is a ghost story told from the inside out. By the end, the Blackwood sisters, still alive, are nonetheless haunting their ruined house: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Parents tell their children stories about the sister-spectres, how they capture and eat naughty children. Offerings are left as baskets of food, a la “Red Riding Hood,” to appease the spirits.
We readers know that the two sisters have not always lived in the castle, that indeed the castle was once just a house. But by the end, we come to believe they will always live there, just like the old fairy tales and ghost stories live on in retelling after retelling.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a short, tight novel, not a word of its 130 pages wasted. It was Jackson’s final novel, and many believe that it was her masterpiece. While it echoes those old stories we know by heart, this is a story we’ve never heard before, at least not told in this way.
Is there an attraction in the “happily ever after” ending, the idea of walling oneself up away from the world? Surely there must have been for Jackson, who toward the end of her life became an agoraphobe and didn’t leave her bedroom for several months. Sometimes there is for me as well, when I am confronted in my morning newspaper with the banal evil that human beings are capable of. No wonder Constance and Merricat are happy. How nice it must be to live in the fairy tale, to be the ghosts in the story, to have found the way to the moon.
Stephen King said in Danse Macabre, his 1981 survey of horror fiction, that The Turn of the Screw (Henry James; 1898)and The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson; 1959)were the only two “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” If you have already read those two books, though, and noted how the second is a direct descendant of the first, where should you venture next in the haunted house genre?
You could turn to the descendants of Hill House. The similarity of the title of Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971) is no coincidence. The general plot–four psychic researchers investigate a haunted house–is essentially the same. The ambiguity of Jackson’s novel dissatisfied Matheson, and Hell House is his response. Stephen King’s own Carrie White (Carrie; 1974) is another descendant. Carrie’s childhood, like Eleanor’s, featured an unexplained shower of stones, and she also had a troubled relationship with her mother (to say the least). While there is no haunted house in that story, Carrie’s home is creepy enough to satisfy on that score. It’s no surprise that Hill House’s influence on King was strong, considering his high esteem of the novel. It’s not a stretch to claim that Hill House laid the foundations for both of the terrifying buildings in Carrie’s follow-ups: the Marsten House in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) and the infamous Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1977). The Shining, for my money, wins the “what’s the scariest book ever written” parlor game, but Hill House follows at a close second.
Moving a little later in time, we have plenty of haunted houses to choose from, all owing something to Jackson, certainly, but still offering a unique perspective to the genre. The House Next Door (Anne Rivers Siddons; 1978) features a modern, newly built haunted house with an equally ambiguous source of the haunting. The Woman in Black (Susan Hill; 1983) is a short novel as imprecisely placed in time as Hill House is in location. It introduces Eel Marsh House, a brooding gothic mansion on the edge of a treacherous moor. The house in The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters; 2009) is a dilapidated mansion that represents the decline of the British upper class after World War II, with yet another ambiguous haunting placing it squarely in line with its precedents.
Leading us to others, as yet unread: The Red Tree (Caitlin R. Kiernan; 2009); The Unseen (Alexandra Sokoloff; 2009); White Is for Witching (Helen Oyeyemi; 2009)–2009 was a very good year for haunted houses, it seems. We might expect to become bored with the premise after all this, but betrayal by the structures we have built to shelter and protect us continues to fascinate and terrify us. Rooms (Lauren Oliver; 2014) is a recent haunted house read, which delves into the minds of the ghosts who have merged with the rundown old house they inhabit. The gloomy, gothic haunted house might be an old chestnut, but it keeps on exciting our imaginations.
Books discussed in this essay: The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson; 1959); We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Jackson; 1962); The Sundial (Jackson; 1958). Slight spoilers for Hill House.
Journeys end in lovers meeting.
This line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night plays a constant refrain in the mind of Eleanor, the protagonist of Shirley Jackson’s ghost story masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House. The thought is first prompted not by meeting one of her fellow haunted-house researchers, but by seeing Hill House itself. A lot of the horror of Hill House stems from how the house seduces Eleanor into falling in love with it, by writing her name on the wall, caressing her, whispering to her, even–in one of the most memorable and scariest scenes–holding her hand in the dark.
Hill House belongs to me.
Shirley Jackson seems to have been obsessed with houses, so much so that she featured memorable mansions in her three best-known novels: The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Sundial. The houses are primary characters in each book, with a distinct personality and perhaps even desires–but nowhere so overtly as in The Haunting of Hill House.
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.
Two stories about Jackson’s research for Hill House may be too good to be true. When she was searching for houses to serve as the model for Hill House, she found a photo of a suitably haunted-looking one in a magazine article. Since this house was located in California, Jackson asked her mother, who lived there, to find out more about it. The house turned out to have been built by Jackson’s own great-great-grandfather, a San Francisco architect.
Within, its 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.
Also, Jackson and her husband went to New York for a weekend away and passed a house that so terrified Jackson, she couldn’t enjoy herself. She insisted on returning at night–“in the night, in the dark,” as Mrs. Dudley would say–so that she wouldn’t have to see the house again. Later, she asked a friend to find out more about the house and discovered that nine people had died there in a fire, leaving basically only a shell of a house behind, which was what Jackson saw.
The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.
Whether these stories were true or embellished by Jackson, the writer, I don’t know, nor do I care much. They lend a mystique to the legend of Hill House, now generally considered one of the best–if not the best–haunted house stories ever written. Perhaps Hill House itself exists somewhere–Jackson never identifies its location in the novel–and we might stumble upon it by accident sometime. If we do see it, will it inspire love or fear? Or that most delicious of emotions, a mixture of both?
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,—
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.