It may be the ultimate tribute to a novelist when she becomes the subject of someone else’s fiction, or it may be poetic justice. For the four children of American writer, Shirley Jackson (1916-65), it has been hard to recognise their mother in a new film by Josephine Decker. Although Shirley contains detailed portraits of Jackson and her literary critic husband, Stanley Hyman, it is more gothic fantasy than bio pic.
The setting is North Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman taught English at the local college. The time is June 1948, shortly after Jackson’s most famous story, The Lottery, had appeared in The New Yorker. No short story ever published by the magazine has proved more controversial or generated such an avalanche of mail. A slice of cold-blooded horror set in the heart of suburbia, The Lottery established Jackson’s reputation as a creator of eerie, disturbing tales.
This view would be consolidated by works such as The Haunting of Hill House (1959), in which a group of people move into a supposedly haunted house to study paranormal phenomena. It was the basis of Robert Wise’s film, The Haunting (1963), and a less distinguished movie of the same name directed by Jan de Bont in 1999.
While there are frequent references to the supernatural in Jackson’s novels and stories they bear little resemblance to pulp horror fiction produced for a mass market. Her writing is conspicuously ‘literary’, filled with complex psychology and wilful ambiguity. She might be seen as a modern American counterpart of the French Symbolists of the Belle Époque. I’ve read most of her books but looking at them again in preparation for this article, I could barely recall the stories and scenarios. This is the mark of a writer that demands to be studied rather than read for pure pleasure – even if one believes, along with the great Pierre Ryckmans, that pleasure is the only reason one should read any book.
In Shirley, Josephine Decker and her scriptwriter, Sarah Gubbins, make a pretty good fist of reproducing the atmosphere of Jackson’s stories. There is the same brooding mystery, the sense of secrets being concealed, the studied banality broken by sudden jolts of cruelty. Visually the film owes a debt to David Lynch’s aesthetics of weirdness, while the verbal exchanges between Shirley and Stanley are reminiscent of the Taylor and Burton fireworks in Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Missing from the story are the couple’s three children (a fourth was to follow in 1951). While there may have been legal reasons for the omission it allows the filmmakers to recast Shirley and Stanley (Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg) as a codependent couple welded together despite a constant trading of barbs and prickles. It also portrays Shirley as a lonely, deeply disturbed person – which was only half-true. Agoraphobia is an occupational hazard for a writer, as there’s always a good reason to stay home and work, but in Shirley’s case it was a clinical condition. She still managed to bring up a brood of children, but this would be unthinkable for her fictional counterpart who is gloomy, depressed, and often savage.
In this story, a young couple, Fred and Rosie (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young), come to stay with Shirley and Stanley, while they settle into life at Bennington. Fred is Stanley’s subordinate in the English Department, while Rosie, being pregnant, is obliged to suspend her studies. Instead she becomes a housekeeper and companion for Shirley. Stanley wants Rosie to keep an eye on his erratic wife but it will take a few bruising weeks or months until a relationship develops between the two women. When it does, it becomes so intimate there are vague but powerful sexual overtones.
Throughout the movie the sexual tension is on red alert. Fred and Rosie can barely keep their hands off each as newlyweds, although their ardour will diminish. Stanley is a great philanderer whose brazen, extra-marital exploits are driving Shirley ever closer to the edge of insanity.
Moss and Stuhlbarg may not be Taylor and Burton but they excel in these roles. Stanley is extroverted and garrulous, with a Joe Biden-like penchant for running his hands over women, young and old. As a professor-on-the-make, today he’d rapidly fall foul of the #MeToo movement.
Where Stanley is superficial and sociable, Shirley displays a manifest disgust for the human race. She buries herself in her room with a pile of books, a typewriter and notebook, only emerging to launch abusive remarks at meal times. Her behaviour is dangerously unpredictable. At a faculty party, the Dean says: “Shirley, you’re too much. I never know what you’re going to say.” She replies: “Neither do I”, before pouring red wine over the sofa.
Free of the humanising distractions of children (at least until Rosie’s baby arrives), this version of Shirley has grown monstrous in pursuit of her art. Writing is an all-consuming preoccupation that leaves her with no time or patience for other people, and blurs the line between fiction and reality. In her mind Shirley keeps transposing Rosie onto the character of Natalie, the protagonist of Hangsaman, the novel on which she is working. The story is based on the disappearance of a college girl named Paula Jane Welden. When Shirley imagines Paula walking down a path, Rosie’s face will appear from under a hat.
Rosie is attracted to Shirley, perhaps because the older woman seems to have so much more integrity than sleazebag Stanley, or because of her suffering, which exerts its own perverse magnetism. Rosie is the most ambitious role yet undertaken by Australian actress, Odessa Young. Her personality has to keep changing, as a growing closeness with Shirley makes her increasingly uneasy playing “the little wifey”. If Moss is being talked up as an Oscar contender, Young will look back on this film as a career breakthrough.
It’s risky for a director to take so many liberties with a wellknown figure such as Shirley Jackson but Decker manages to create a persuasive atmospheric drama, part horror story, part feminist fable. The greatest horror it reveals is that of the artist’s life – a 24/7 obsession that removes Shirley from the world and locks her into a prison of her own construction. If art is a lie that tells the truth, as Picasso is alleged to have said, this portrait of the artist will feel convincing even to those who know the biography to be false.
Directed by Josephine Decker
Written by Sarah Gubbins, after a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Victoria Pedretti, Orlagh Cassidy, Robert Wuhl
USA, rated ??, 107 mins
At the movies from 9 July
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 July, 2020