Connie Willis and the Spooky Magic of Shirley Jackson


It has been a few weeks since I had the splendid opportunity to speak with the legendary science fiction author Connie Willis about her career-spanning collection, The Best of Connie Willis. Getting to breathe such rare air is kind of a job perk. I’ve interviewed some of the best and most well-known writers in speculative fiction. (Best and well-known? Yes. Sometimes these aren’t always the same thing, although both are true in Connie’s case.) In addition to Willis, I’ve chatted with George R.R. Martin, Harry Turtledove, Michael Moorcock…. The list goes on and on.

There’s one thing that all of these great minds have had in common: They all admire writers, and sometimes it’s not the ones that you’d imagine. Moorcock loves P.G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” books, for example.

That’s not to say that they don’t read other genre writers, only that they all read far and wide and never let imaginary literary boundaries limit their curiosity. I’m no genius, literary or otherwise, but this eclecticism is common ground I share. Look at the stack of books next to my side of the bed and you’ll see all kinds of stuff: narrative journalism by the likes of Jon Ronson, Peter Clines’ last “Ex” novel, historical accounts of the ancient Celts, wild-eyed ramblings about Bigfoot and UFOs, comic books, and – of course – that most mysterious of categories: Literature-with-a-capital-L.

It’s this last category that can get tricky, especially these days. Elements of surrealism, magic realism, and plain old fantasy has been creeping into the fancy-pants world of “serious” fiction (Whatever that means, right?) for a while. Really, that division between fantasy and Literature (See? That capital L again?) isn’t as steady as you might think in the first place: Flying villagers in  Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Lords of Demonland in E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, magic rings in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, to just name a few examples. Then there’s Shirley Jackson.

During our interview, Willis and I got sidetracked into a pretty good conversation about our mutual love of Shirley Jackson, one of those “Capital L” Literature authors. I discovered Jackson probably the same way you did: A story titled “The Lottery”. The story was assigned to me as part of a mandatory reading assignment in high school English, and as you can imagine, the story’s message – conformity can be deadly – made quite an impression on me. Sadly, not enough to move on to her other books, though. I wasn’t really aware of the rest of her work, and besides, I was on a major Stephen King jag at the time. Fortunately for me, King – like Willis – was (and I assume still is) a big fan of Jackson’s work. I can’t remember when or where he did it, but he name-checked her in one of his books. Maybe Salem’s Lot or The Shining? Hmm… Could have been Danse Macabre. In any case, if King liked her, I thought that I would too. I bought her novel The Haunting of Hill House solely on his recommendati0n.

I was enthralled. Jackson’s style of subtle horror was new to me. Here was a story about a haunted house, and the house itself was a character. There weren’t any fanged beasts lurking in the corners or hatchet-wielding psychopaths. The horror of Hill House was deeply psychological, and you know what? It scared the hell out of me. Here’s one of my favorite quotes. Not just from The Haunting of Hill House, either. Like, from any book:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. 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. Within, 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.”

-Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House.

That book opened up an entirely new world for me. I eagerly dived into her work. I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, next. Wow. Another work of very subtle horror, but one of implication. Maybe there’s a poisoner among that family of eccentrics living in the decrepit mansion on the outside of town. Maybe not. There’s something odd going on, though. Maybe you should go check it out.

There was a lot more, too. Short stories, of suburban unrest and the insanity-inflicting banality of everyday life. Of witchcraft. Of motherhood. Of everything – and all of it as deeply weird and creepy as Stephen King promised.

Is it any wonder that Connie Willis, another incredibly talented, brilliant writer unafraid to wander where her imagination takes her, would find so much to love in the works of Shirley Jackson? Not to me. And much like I found her work by Stephen King’s recommendation, I’m hoping that you might discover it yourself by way of Connie Wilson. Listen to our interview, check out her work, and then give Jackson a try.