Book review: ‘Shirley,’ by Susan Scarf Merrell

June 22

If the Internet had existed in 1948, it’s a sure bet that the reaction to Shirley Jackson’s most famous short story would have gone viral. Instead, after its publication in the New Yorker, “The Lottery” provoked a record number of readers to write letters to the magazine, many proclaiming their revulsion for the story’s premise: a village’s annual stoning rite.

A controversial but much admired master of the mid-20th-century horror genre, Jackson was 48 when she died of heart failure in 1965. In recent years, Penguin has reissued her novels; the Library of America has released a volume of her works, edited by Joyce Carol Oates; and Guillermo del Toro included “The Haunting of Hill House,” her most famous full-length work, in “The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories,” a collection of horror he edited last fall. A new biography and newly discovered stories are in the publishing pipeline.

Now comes “Shirley,” a welcome Jackson tribute by Susan Scarf Merrell. This homage psycho­-thriller, starring the illustrious Jackson, paints a partly true, partly fictitious portrait of a writer about whom many 21st-century fans know little.

Merrell brilliantly weaves events from Jackson’s life into a hypnotic story line that will please Jackson fans as well as anyone in search of a solidly written literary thriller. And it’s far from derivative. Its merit lies in its inventiveness even as it draws inspiration from Jackson’s own stories. As with the “Easter eggs” implanted in movies and video games (think Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos in his films), Merrell strews the landscape of “Shirley” with nods to Jackson’s trademark plot devices, including haunted houses, witchcraft and closed-rank New Englanders.

In the mid-1940s, Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, set up house in Bennington, Vt., where they raised their four children. Fast forward to 1964. Merrell adds the fictional Rose Nemser to the family dynamic. The teenage, pregnant Rose and her husband, Fred, move in with the Hymans. Fred has been hired to help Stanley with his teaching load at the local college. Rose, around whom most of this dazzling yet dark tale spins, spends her days with Shirley, who splits her time between writing stories and taking care of her family.


“Shirley” by Susan Scarf Merrell. (Blue Rider)

Merrell draws us into the household. When we meet Jackson, we see a short but sturdy middle-aged housewife. Her red hair is lank and messy. She’s wearing brown-framed glasses, a frumpy housedress and Chinese slippers. A cigarette dangles from the corner of her mouth. Wallflower Rose latches on to her, believing they’re kindred spirits.

Jackson fans will recognize Rose. She’s like so many of the female characters about whom Jackson wrote. Insecure, untested and emotionally warped by a fractious childhood, Rose, like Eleanor in “The Haunting of Hill House,” just wants to fit in. She wants to be somebody, and the only way she can think to do it is by absorbing someone else’s life. Jackson becomes her obsession. She wants to be Jackson and makes no secret of her desires: “I want to be important. . . . Maybe I could write. . . . I want to believe what you believe.” She’s so Jackson-like a character that Jackson’s daughter Sally tells Rose, “You’re crazy and evil enough for Shirley to write about you.”

Merrell takes some inspiration for her plot from local Vermont history, just as Jackson did. Her 1951 novel “Hangsaman” and her short story “The Missing Girl” contain fragments of the real-life, still-unresolved 1946 disappearance of 18-year-old Bennington College student Paula Welden. In “Shirley,” Rose gets it in her head that Jackson had something to do with Paula’s disappearance, that maybe Paula was having an affair with Hyman and Jackson killed her. Rose’s suspicions permeate the novel even as Jackson and Hyman deny they knew Paula. But Bennington is a tight-knit community where everyone seems to know everyone else. Merrell cleverly paints Rose’s suspicions in shades of gray.

Obviously, nothing good can come of the suffocating, emotionally strained relationship between the Nemsers and the Hymans. When their clashes become explosive, Merrell stokes the dramatic fire by injecting a real-life, mid-1960s tragedy into the plot. The creepy, sad ending is Jacksonesque in tone, but the imaginative details are Merrell’s own.

One of the best things about “Shirley” is that you don’t have to be familiar with Jackson’s stories to enjoy it. But old fans and the newly curious will want to reach for “The Lottery” and revel in its timeless gothic perfection.

SHIRLEY

By Susan Scarf Merrell

Blue Rider. 288 pp. $25.95

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