Indie films have seen a sudden surge of coming-of-age stories, from Sing Street and The Way Way Back to The Edge of Seventeen and The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Most of these stories, though some are darker than others, offer optimistic visions of growing up. This is arguably one of the most existentially frightening processes human beings have to go through, yet the films themselves are never scary. Then there’s Shirley Jackson, the master of quiet terror. She looks at growing up and finds all the absurdity, the madness, and the horror, along with the liberation.
In Hangsaman, her second novel, Jackson tells the story of Natalie. Just before going off to college, Natalie experiences a horrible trauma that follows her into the dorms and classrooms. She falls into a world of petty students, teacher-pupil love triangles, and bizarre peers, ever haunted by her domineering father and the terrible thing that happened to her. Reality and illusion blend as she becomes further isolated and unable to connect, while her hallucinations threaten to consume her.
Like all of Jackson’s work, this novel is unsettling, and the strange occurrences mount until it seems the entire world has gone insane. Natalie’s loneliness becomes a black shroud over her mind, conjuring demons and villains around every corner. For anyone who experienced the terror of leaving home and entering a new, often uncomfortable environment, the fear that Jackson creates is extremely personal. Natalie is an outsider, made so by her strange upbringing and experiences that society refuses to acknowledge. Connecting to reality becomes a life-or-death struggle for her. It’s frightening to witness, especially for a reader who has felt this way before. Even still, Jackson’s work takes surprising emotional turns—the novel is laced with her famous gallows humor, and Natalie’s fight for identity is not in vain. She is able to find some sort of peace within her unusual self.
Jackson presents an opposite depiction of youth, and an even more powerful narrative, in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This time, the protagonist—a self-proclaimed witch named Merricat—must fight to protect her atypical and contained environment, rather than assimilate into a larger one. After her entire family is poisoned, aside from her older sister Constance and their invalid uncle Julian, Merricat’s life becomes one of ostracisation; the scandal has shunned them from the town and the outside world, but she is happy this way. A surprise visit from their cousin Charles threatens to destroy their isolation, but Merricat refuses to let go of her way of life, however, and shows just what she’s willing to do to protect it.
Unlike Natalie, Merricat is confident in her otherness—she takes violent pride in it, and is willing to do anything to protect it. Her adamance is terrifying in its own way, leading to certain consequences in the novel’s chilling conclusion. Yet there’s something gleeful about it, too, because the outside world is just as ugly in its treatment of those they deem as “others.” Natalie discovers the opposite truth: sometimes the inner world can be equally as deadly. Dread and anxiety surround Jackson’s characters and stories, and sometimes it even consumes them. In more “adult” novels like The Haunting of Hill House or The Sundial, people are unable to come to terms with reality at all. In Castle and Hangsaman, the outcomes are slightly different.
Perhaps Jackson doesn’t offer any comfort in the way that more mainstream coming-of-age stories do. Her novels always leave one with a queasy feeling of disorientation. But growing up doesn’t really end, and comfort never comes. She presents a truth in her otherworldly characters, who are so far from the norm that they seem like satires at times. They project the insanity and absurdity of the world. In a way, they also celebrate their own strangeness, and show that there is something grand in being so different. On darker days, this can serve as a reminder that it’s all right to feel like an outsider, to feel frightened when interacting with the world. One can join forces with Merricat and Natalie in creating worlds of their own… though the price may be steep. And if that terror never ends, who wants to grow up after all?