The voice was light, perhaps only a child’s voice, singing sweetly and thinly, on the barest breath. . .None of them heard it, she thought with joy; nobody heard it but me.
-From Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House
Two women are drawn to each other with suspicious speed at the start of The Haunting of Hill House. Theodora is an attractive, charming woman who tells Eleanor, the less social of the two, how much Theo adores her. Eleanor is beside herself with happiness in this oddest of places—a deranged old mansion.
Eleanor’s life before Hill House was hardly glamorous: she was a caretaker to her mother and, she says, was consumed by the role. Eleanor must steal her sister’s car order to even journey to the mansion where she will assist in a scientific investigation of paranormal activity. She drives away, deeply savoring the freedom of directing the vehicle down a road only she has chosen. She makes her way into Hill House; Theo arrives to claim her friendship, with some resistance from the mansion’s spirits.
They are driven apart by the haunting itself. It is the nature of Hill House’s ghosts to create strife from friendship.
In her stories, Shirley Jackson writes about disturbances that unsettle the most mundane of daily events. A man is being followed through the streets of Manhattan; he cannot shake off another man who is stalking him. A village gathers for a meeting in their town’s square; the gathering is routine enough until the stones start getting thrown. A group of twenty-somethings and a patronizing intellectual test the patience of an odious mansion. Delightfully demented, Shirley Jackson is preoccupied with upending the cliches of daily life.
I long ago decided to follow the lead of women writers who subvert the ordinary in their stories. Alice Munro, Sandra Cisneros, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Jamaica Kinkaid, and Margaret Atwood are a few mostly modern women writers who owe some of their artistic mastery to the Gothic-style storytelling of Katherine Mansfield, the Brontë sisters, Mary Shelley, and Virginia Woolf. When I started writing stories in college, I was wholly consumed by this subversion. To me, the greatest act of rebellion as a writer was pushing ordinary people into extraordinary moments within the walls of their own homes. I suppose you could call this Gothic realism, or just Gothic fiction.
In Toni Morrison’s interview with Junot Diaz in late 2013, she emphasized the importance of teaching writers to look for stories beyond their backyards. Morrison tells her students to write what they don’t know. Put your characters on a spaceship—let’s go somewhere! she said.
So then, what’s Gothic-meets science fiction-meets dirty realisim-meets horror? Is that just speculative fiction? What is this animal with the wings of a monkey and the feet of a mastodon and the heart of a gargoyle? When you create art from so much influence, you make new monsters. Watching creatures emerge from the imagination’s detritus is where the fun begins.
Outside of the homes in which we toil is a battering; time is a sadistic ruler, always taking a little more from you. As my friend Jen Fitzgerald said, “every moment you spend away from your work is slightly torturous.” But when you get inside your own stories, you make the rules, and then you subvert them. To me, that’s freedom.
What women writers influence your writing?