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Friday, June 5, 2020

The great writer of dread, Shirley Jackson, finally gets a movie that befits her legacy

A woman holds a cigarette with a half-smile on her face. Elisabeth Moss plays the writer Shirley Jackson in Shirley. | Neon

Elisabeth Moss stars in the eerie Shirley as a fictionalized version of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers — and it feels like a story Jackson would have written.

The critic and scholar Stanley Hyman refused to read his wife’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House because he was too frightened. He’d been the first reader of her four prior novels and dozens of short stories that creeped the hell out of him and countless others. By then, Hyman knew: When you marry Shirley Jackson, your reading material might haunt you.

Throughout her life and after it — Jackson died in 1965 — the author was far more famous than her husband, even though she mostly tried to stay out of the public eye, preferring to focus on her children and her work. But the New Yorker’s publication of her 1948 short story “The Lottery,” which American schoolchildren read and rarely forget, instantly fixed her as one of the foremost writers of ... of what? She’s often lumped in with “horror” writers, but the characterization doesn’t quite fit.

“The Lottery,” for example, is about a town’s yearly ritual of stoning one resident, who is selected by a process in which all the townspeople drawing lots. It’s a premise readers realize with growing disquiet, horror the way the 2019 film Midsommar is horror: more interested in the basic terror of human existence and the rituals of human society than anything from the world beyond. Living, dying, and having to deal with other people is scary enough. If “The Lottery,” or Jackson’s 1951 novel Hangsaman, are horror, so is Camus’s The Stranger, or Kafka’s many yarns. And even when Jackson relies on more traditional horror plot devices (like The Haunting of Hill House’s ghost-haunted mansion), her rendering is infused with something uneasy, as if everything our brains register as supernatural are just the flailings of a disturbed psyche, and we, her readers, are as susceptible as the characters.

That delicious existential fright, which also reveals the inner workings of the human mind, is precisely why Jackson’s work has drawn such rabid fans, though she’s still often considered underrated when juxtaposed with her peers. So it makes perfect sense for a new cinematic consideration of the author to tweak its audience the same way Jackson did — even if it doesn’t stick exactly to her real-life details.

Jackson is the subject of Shirley, but the details have been remixed

Jackson and her family — Hyman, their four children, and an assortment of pets — bounced around New England throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. They spent time in Vermont, New York City, and Connecticut before finally settling down in Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman became a star professor at Bennington College. Bennington is a progressive college for women, and Hyman’s courses on mythology and ritual, in particular, were among the most popular on campus.

Meanwhile, Jackson looked after the children (a job she relished, by all accounts), claimed to dabble in witchcraft here and there, and wrote — sometimes to pay the bills and sometimes to scare the bejeezus out of people. As her fame grew, she also gave lectures and taught at writers’ workshops. The picture her biographies paint of her (especially Ruth Franklin’s seminal 2017 biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life) is a funny, hyper-talented, mostly confident woman with a keen eye for seeing past the niceties that people throw up to mask their real feelings. Late in her life, beset by health issues and anxieties and worn down by decades of Hyman’s philandering, she became severely agoraphobic. And though she began to recover with the help of therapy in 1964, she passed away in her sleep in 1965, at the age of 48.

Michael Stuhlbarg, playing Stanley Hyman, stands holding a cocktail in the movie Shirley. Neon
Michael Stuhlbarg in Shirley.

Most of these details show up in Shirley, adapted by playwright Sarah Gubbins from Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel by the same name. The novel is based on the life of Shirley Jackson but filtered through the spirit of Jackson’s own novels; the result is a fictionalized version of the real woman, kind of a Shirley Jackson remix, in which she’s locked inside a world she might have written.

Directed by Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), Shirley stars Elisabeth Moss as Jackson, who in the film is newly famous following the publication of “The Lottery.” (Aside from earning a spot as an iconic work of American short fiction, the story also holds the distinction of generating more reader mail than any work of fiction the New Yorker has ever published.) She’s both suffering from a serious bout of agoraphobia and beginning to write a new novel about a girl who disappears — a book that will become Hangsaman — when a pair of newlyweds, the Nemsers, show up with their bags at her house.

Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) is Stanley’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) new assistant, and Fred and his newly pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young) have been invited to move in with Stanley and Shirley while looking for more permanent housing. Rose is fascinated with the famous, prickly Shirley, whom she finds a little frightening and off-putting as well as strangely alluring. The weeks the Nemsers were meant to stay in the Hyman-Jackson household stretch into months, as Fred becomes busy with his new job. Rose and Shirley, stuck in oddly similar situations as faculty wives, grow closer — their lives more intertwined, their psyches seeming to meld into one another’s, their interest in the real-life case of a missing Bennington girl growing more keen.

Shirley expertly evokes the dread and panic that comes with societal expectations

Decker brings an expressionistic style to the story that’s a perfect match for Jackson’s dreamy, blurry writing and sets the film in a house that seems wild and feral, covered in ivy and sprouting dishes and piles of books around every corner. Occasionally, we watch people have conversations from a distance, and Decker’s use of a handheld camera gives the impression of an invisible lurking, watching being, or maybe it’s nothing — a technique that seems borrowed from Jackson’s work. Shirley starts out seeming strictly realistic, despite the liberties it takes with Jackson’s own biography; in this telling, there are no children in the house, and Jackson’s “spells” of depression, anxiety, and agoraphobia started far earlier in her life than they did in reality. But as the movie goes on, the in-world reality and fantasy start to coil and twist. As in Jackson’s novels, we start to wonder if we’re being led on by an unreliable narrator. We catch snatches of images, close-ups, and blurred moments that are pieced together. When one character digs in the dirt then writhes in it a little, is it really happening? Does it matter?

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young on Shirley.

And, more importantly, it seems possible the unreliable narrator might be the one who sees the world most clearly. All throughout Shirley is a sense of dread and panic, like the walls are pressing in, an apt sensation for a movie about the suffocating expectations to which women are held in a midcentury New England community — even one as ostensibly progressive as Bennington College. Might a woman who doesn’t want to play nice, who feels like everyone is looking at her, just flee? Could reality just collapse in on her and bury her entirely?

Shirley is a fictionalization of the real Shirley Jackson. But by the end of the film, when Stanley calls Shirley his “horrifically talented bride,” it feels like that fictionalization has captured her essence perfectly, if not her actuality. The details are smudged and fudged, but Shirley unpacks the crux of one of the 20th century’s great writers, evoking not just her life but the existential terror that she and women like her were always facing, and still do.

Shirley is streaming on Hulu and is available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and on-demand providers. If you’d like to support a local theater, you can also watch it through a “virtual theatrical” release at theaters around the country — see the Neon website for more details. (You will receive a link to watch the movie after buying a virtual ticket.)

If you’re new to Shirley Jackson, here are a few places to start to learn more about her life and work:

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