Horror Is Other People: Shirley Jackson and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”
The first and most important thing to know about Shirley Jackson is that, at a certain point in her life, she became too afraid of people to leave her own house. She had reasons; she was married to the only Jewish guy in Bennington, Vermont, and the townsfolk plagued them. She didn’t fit in; she was odd in and of herself. (Her sense of humor was so morbid that, when she died in her sleep at age forty-eight, her family assumed for quite some time that she was playing a prank.) She was intensely self-conscious about her appearance, something that she’d learned from her very unsatisfactory mother. But this is what you need to know: Shirley Jackson was afraid to leave her house, afraid of being part of the world, and she spent much of her time as a writer explaining exactly why.
You’ve read “The Lottery,” most likely; it’s one of those short stories that’s often inflicted on high school students. Which makes sense. Its basic premise – a happy town of good old-fashioned values, amongst which some values include picking out a townsperson once per year to merrily beat to death with rocks – should feel familiar to anyone who’s been a teenager. As should the fact that good Tessie Hutchinson is one of the Lottery’s biggest supporters, until
The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.
Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
That was the story’s nastiest take-away, the buried contempt in Jackson’s refusal to make Tessie in any way admirable or special. There’s no-one that we’re allowed to identify with in order to reassure ourselves that we’re good people: No idealistic young townsperson pointing out that, gosh golly gee, these Lotteries are killing people, no Katniss, no virtuous Christ getting nailed to the cross. These Lotteries are our values, they’re what we do. Participating in the Lottery is being a good person, isn’t it? Anyway, the only person who ever objects is the one who’s getting their skull crushed at the moment, and we don’t listen to them; it’s just a bunch of screaming. It’s always fair and right, until it’s you, is the intensely obvious message here, and it’s harsher for the fact that we know Tessie’s killed plenty of people, and never saw a problem with it until the first rock hit her.
In late-1940s, post-WWII America, that message was particularly primed to hit a nerve; the magazine got scads of angrily canceled subscriptions, and more letters in response to “The Lottery” than it did in response to any other story in its history. Of these letters, Jackson later said that, if she thought they represented the reading public at large, she would stop writing.
Judging from these letters, people who read stories are gullible, rude, frequently illiterate, and horribly afraid of being laughed at… People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.
But Jackson is being disingenuous here. In her view, people were gullible, rude, illiterate, horrible, and willing to do anything to fit in. That statement alone summarizes the basic thesis of half her work.
This doesn’t really get fun — Henry Miller, SURPRISE, does not have anything very interesting to say, unless you find ancient dudes mumbling about Buddhist spaceships riveting — until you know the backstory. These two had broken up in the early 1940s, when he moved to California and just sort of assumed she’d follow him, which was the last straw for Anais in re: what she termed Henry’s “monstrous egotism.” She had sent him quite a few letters informing him of things along the lines of: “Your letters… are cold, egotistical, and concerned purely with your pleasure. All you can answer to my emotional attitude when I think I can leave and then cannot leave is thoroughly inhuman and mechanical… Do not misunderstand me. I am not asking you to return. It would be meaningless if you did.”
They were estranged for quite a while, until they managed to spark up a strained friendship through his wife, Eve. “Strained” because Henry didn’t see anything wrong with selling Anais’s personal sexy-times letters about their secret sexy-times relationship to libraries, thereby giving Anais massive panic attacks, to which Henry (always a sensitive guy) responded by telling her that everyone was going to find out they boned anyway, and if she wanted the letters back, she should go to the library and steal them.
And yet, suddenly, the man who’d sponged off of Anais, used her money to self-publish, and used her writing to pad his own books, was being hailed as a genius and a hero of literary modernism. And her only chance of getting recognition for her writing (which was going through a very long, very dry spell of being rejected by every single publisher and magazine to which she applied) was to capitalize on the newfound interest in their “friendship,” which meant she needed his co-operation. Which he made really fun, by writing her letters such as, “I probably never did a portrait of a woman artist because I never knew any intimately.” (They had been together for eleven years. He had proposed, on multiple occasions. One of the chief bones of contention in their relationship, as he well knew, had been that he wrote so much about his exes, and not about her.) “Is it necessary to do one just to prove one is not antifeminist?”
Well. You really have to search your heart for your personal that guy, and imagine your whole career depending on doing publicity appearances with him, to enjoy this clip. Because here are Anais Nin and Henry Miller! Who totally did not bone! At all! And are just such good pals! And all of this backstory comes out at around 1:02, when he’s cut her off for the second time in sixty seconds, and is now talking about how he is the world’s best person at having dreams, and she barely suppresses a glare at him, and then just turns her face to the camera with a look that seems, to me, to be the world’s best expression of “OH FOR THE DAY MY WITHERED OLD WINDBAG OF A MAN-CHILD EX-BOYFRIEND WILL SHUT HIS FLIPPING FACE.”