Horror is meant to evoke fear—across all subgenres and categories, this is a fact. The most overt examples dig into surface nightmares and draw terror from monsters, shadows, and uncanny situations. Yet, there are quieter horror stories that exist in the light and discover the darkness. They are perhaps less accessible and entertaining—but once they find their way under the skin, they cannot be extracted.
Shirley Jackson knows better than any artist how to burrow beneath the reader. She takes her scalpel to a wide range of American situations, all superficially “normal,” and finds terror. Any of us at odds with the “normal” discover that her stories ring true. Her most famous plots feature some element of the supernatural (The Haunting of Hill House) or the Gothic (We Have Always Lived in the Castle); but then, on another spectrum, there is The Bird’s Nest.
Here we find little of the traditional Gothic or macabre. There is only the protagonist Elizabeth’s mind, broken into four personalities that slowly reveal themselves and battle for dominance of her body. On one side is Elizabeth’s overbearing aunt, who greets her niece’s situation with shock and hatred; on the other is Elizabeth’s psychologist, who fancies himself a hero in charge of salvaging her honor. And caught in the middle are four metaphysical rivals. The entire battle takes place inside her mind.
Regarded as a legitimate study of mental illness, it’s as inaccurate as any depiction of such things in the 1950s—split personality disorder, a trope of so many classic thrillers, has been proven to be a mythical (not to mention trivializing) illness. But it seems that Jackson did not intend to represent these diseases which we still do not fully understand. She instead examines a mind that appears healthy, at least by the standards of her time, and, in a revolutionary way, finds her “madness” there.
This may not be apparent at first. The occurrences throughout the novel are so extreme, they are almost fantastical. Elizabeth is constantly chastised by her aunt for obscene acts that she does not remember committing. It is not until the doctor’s point of view takes over that we witness her personalities switching, slowly at first and then within seconds of each other; she is a timid girl one moment, then a raging witch the next, all of her mental sides fighting for attention. These moments are so intense that they become comical—a sick, lingering sense of humor. Of course, this would never happen in such an extreme way. But perhaps it happens to all of us, in a quieter, more dangerous manner.
Imagine being at the mercy of your own mind with the personalities in Elizabeth’s head—is this not something we all experience? How many of us have awoken from a drunken night and hated ourselves for our actions, or made a claim in anger that in happiness we wished to retract? Show me the person who has not looked back on their past and despised some lost version of themselves, at least for an instant, for what they had done. We have memories of doing things that we hated, which makes reflecting on them even more painful.
These, of course, are mild examples compared to what Elizabeth encounters during hallucinatory and satirical scenes in which her personalities literally fight over her body, causing it to flail in bizarre ways. Yet, that is the job of good fiction: exaggerate the issue until it becomes easy to recognize and empathize with. We like to be blown out of proportion, don’t we? Seeing Elizabeth at the mercy of her personalities, we can recognize our own moments of self-betrayal, and, if we’re lucky, laugh at them.
To read Ben Larned's Forbidden Tomes piece on Clive Barker, visit: