Author Shirley Jackson might not quite be a household name, but her work has been haunting American psyches for decades. Both Stephen King and Neil Gaiman cite her as an influence, and novelist Susan Scarf Merrell was so captivated by this literary figure that she penned an entire novel about her, Shirley, in 2014. It has now been adapted by Director Josephine Decker into a darkly meditative psychological thriller filled with the kind of slow-building existential dread that is a hallmark of Jackson’s work.
(Mild spoilers below.)
The protagonist of Merrell’s dark psychological thriller is the newly married (and pregnant) Rose Nemser, who moves to Vermont with her husband, Fred, a graduate student at Bennington College. They end up staying with Fred’s mentor, Stanley Hyman, a famed literary critic, and his equally famous wife, Shirley Jackson. Fred becomes increasingly caught up with his academic life, while Rose forms a tenuous connection with Shirley, who is struggling with anxiety and agoraphobia and self-medicating with prescription drugs and alcohol. But Rose is increasingly troubled by strange late-night phone calls and tales of a female student who went missing long ago.
While the novel is set in 1964, later in Jackson’s life, Shirley takes place in 1948, right after The New Yorker has published Jackson’s most famous short story, The Lottery. Otherwise it seems to hew pretty closely to the source material. Elisabeth Moss plays Jackson, with Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley Hyman, Logan Lerman as Fred Nemser, and Odessa Young as the increasingly fragile Rose Nemser.
To fully appreciate Decker’s film, it helps to have at least a passing familiarity with Jackson’s 1951 gothic novel Hangsaman, since it plays such a central role in the film. The title is a reference to an old folk ballad, and a little extra sleuthing turned up “The Maid Freed from the Gallows,” recorded in 1939 as “The Gallis Pole” by the folk singer Lead Belly—the same Lead Belly tune Hyman plays to his classes at the start of each semester in the film.
While Jackson has always defied traditional genre boundaries to some extent, Hangsaman is technically a bildungsroman, centering on a young woman, keen to escape her oppressive home environment, who enrolls in a liberal arts college and gradually descends into madness. Jackson was partially inspired by the real-life disappearance of a young Bennington College student named Paula Jean Welden in 1946, who went hiking one afternoon on Vermont’s Long Trail and never returned.
Sticklers for accuracy might not care for the handful of liberties taken with Jackson’s life. Most notably, her struggles with anxiety and depression, and corresponding abuse of prescription drugs (barbiturates, amphetamines) and alcohol, occurred much later in life than depicted in the film. In the 1940s, she and Hyman were known as gracious, lively hosts who counted Ralph Ellison in their social circles. They also had four children together, and by all accounts Jackson enjoyed motherhood, even though she felt alienated by the ladies of Bennington. There are no children in the house in the film at all.
That said, the couple did meet at Syracuse University’s campus literary magazine, and he did vow to marry her after reading one of her stories. And yes, Hyman was notoriously unfaithful, often seducing his students and insisting upon an open marriage, to Jackson’s dismay. He was also very controlling, right down to their finances, even though Jackson earned significantly more money than he did after The Lottery appeared. But he was a genuine admirer of his wife’s work and regularly read her manuscripts. (He was purportedly too scared to read The Haunting of Hill House.) He frequently decried the relative lack of recognition Jackson received while she was alive, correctly predicting that her work would stand the test of time.
Fudging a few biographical details is to be expected, even encouraged, but Moss’ Jackson is a deeply unhappy, frequently unlikable character by design, and this, more than anything, is likely to annoy hardcore fans. For instance, she is clearly resentful at having a pregnant young woman in the house, rolling her eyes and sighing deeply when Rose express admiration for The Lottery. At dinner, she asks when the baby is due in front of Fred (who doesn’t yet know), telling him, “I hope it’s yours.” Even though she becomes kinder to Rose, it’s mostly because she’s trying to get inside the head of her own female protagonist, and Rose is a useful, easily manipulated stand-in.
Hyman doesn’t come off much better. He makes inappropriate advances to Rose and, when he thinks Fred is becoming too confident, sets him up to fail with a guest lecture. Then he twists the knife by pretending to celebrate Fred’s “victory” before ripping him to shreds in front of Rose and Shirley, denouncing the “derivative mediocrity” of Fred’s research—much to Shirley’s amusement.
Moss’ portrayal is brilliantly subversive, even if sometimes hard to watch.
The biggest mystery might be why this young couple would even consent to stay with such awful people for so long. The film’s answer is that Rose is increasingly obsessed with Shirley, even undertaking some amateur sleuthing to find out what happened to the missing Paula Jean Welden. There are increasingly erotic overtones to their interactions. But it’s difficult to tell how much of this is real, part of Shirley’s manipulation, and how much is happening in Rose’s head as she starts to lose her grip on reality.
Moss’ portrayal is brilliantly subversive, even if sometimes hard to watch. This is a fictionalized version of Shirley Jackson, after all—seen through the eyes of an increasingly unreliable narrator, Rose—and it’s a character that Jackson herself might have written had she ever set out to portray herself in a novel. It’s to Moss’ credit that she still manages to evoke our sympathy at times. It’s hard not to root for Shirley when Hyman’s current mistress, Caroline (the dean’s wife), tries to give her shade at a departmental party. Shirley gives a wicked smile, leans forward, and menacingly intones, “You’d bore him to death in a week.”
Ultimately, that is the secret to the marriage. For all the caustic sniping and passive-aggressive behavior, these two are twisted soul mates. While Hyman might engage in a fair share of “negging” during his wife’s writing process, when Shirley finally completes Hangsaman, he declares it a triumph and gives a hearty toast to his “horrifically talented bride.”
Shirley isn’t likely to suit everyone’s taste, given how fundamentally interior it is in nature and its deliberately ambiguous ending. But it’s very much a fitting homage to the author’s work, and I suspect that Jackson herself would have been quite pleased with the result.
Shirley is currently streaming on Hulu and is also available on Amazon, iTunes, and other digital platforms, including VOD.
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