Shirley Jackson is rapidly becoming my favorite horror author. Most people will know Shirley Jackson from her short story “The Lottery”, which they will have been forced to read in school. I, actually, have no recollection of having read it in school, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I discovered her from her short story “The Summer People,” about vacationing city-folk who decide to retire and live year round in their country summer home. The locals are, needless to say, this being a horror story, not very fond of the idea.

The titular character of haunting of hill house
The titular character of haunting of hill house

There are at least two schools of thought in horror, and two corresponding types of horror fan. One is waiting (impatiently) for the pending payoff, which they expect to be loud, gross, outrageous and sadistic, and the more so the better. They endure everything else the way a Godzilla fan ignores the first hour and fifteen minutes of an old Godzilla movie. In Godzilla, we all know we are there to see two men in rubber monster suits duke it out, and everything else is there because you can’t make a 90-minute film of two men in rubber monster suits fighting. Let’s call this the “payoff philosophy.” Maybe there is a better word out there for it. I could also call them the “destination crowd,” in the sense that, for them, its the destination, not the journey, that matters. But I’ll stick with payoff.

The other crowd is not really interested in the “payoff.” It is, inevitably, a let-down for us. And I will shift to the plural first-person here, because this is the crowd I am in. We are more interested in the journey. How tightly can the writer wind us up, and keep us wound up, over the course of the work?

I appreciate Shirley Jackson because better than any other horror writer I know of, she knows how to wind me up in knots. I know bad, bad things are happening in a Shirley Jackson story. Shirley Jackson knows I know bad things are going down. And she knows what I imagine happening is way scarier than anything she can possibly show me. She knows when she does show me, that’s when the story is over. The payoff moment. Actually, it’s the least scary moment in the entire story.

Slasher movies actually illustrate this really well. Slasher movies know that they are not frightening at all, which is why, inevitably, they have to give us Final Girl, who does what we have been screaming at the movie for everyone else to do for 90 minutes: fights back. Everything up until Final Girl starts to defend herself is tear-jerkingly boring, and everything afterwards is action, not horror.

If I’m just loud enough… If I’m just obnoxious enough… If I’m just gross enough… If I’m just outrageous enough, people will confuse those emotions with terror.

Shirley Jackson does not take this approach. I don’t think I’ve found a loud moment in a Shirley Jackson story, and I’ve never found an obnoxious or gross moment. But there’s lots of terror in her stories.

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30 November 2014