Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Bird's Nest, by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson's 1954 novel The Bird's Nest is extraordinary. Elizabeth Richmond works in a museum, the wall beside her desk removed during renovation, so that she sits beside an open chasm. If that were not sufficiently unsettling, she's getting anonymous hate mail. And then there are her Aunt Morgen's accusations of her wanderings in the night...

The basis for the malady suffered by Elizabeth - Lizzie, Beth, Betsy and Bess - is spelt out on pp. 57-8, when Jackson quotes directly from Morton Prince's The Dissociation of a Personality (1905):
"Cases of this kind are commonly known as 'double' or 'multiple personality', according to the number of persons represented, but a more correct term is disintegrated personality, for each secondary personality is a part of a normal whole self. No one secondary personality preserves the whole physical life of the individual. The synthesis of the original consciousness known as as the personal ego is broken up, so to speak, and shorn of some of its memories, perceptions, acquisitions, or modes of reaction to the environment. The conscious states that still persist, synthesized among themselves, form a new personality capable of independent activity. This second personality may alternate with the original undisintegrated personality from time to time. By a breaking up of the original undisintegrated personality at different moments along different lines of cleavage, there may be formed several different secondary personalities, which may take turns with one another."
I'm writing an article about the book, and Jackson, and the psychoanalyses of her time. More to follow...

Saturday, October 06, 2018

The Story of Doctor Who

The nice people at Doctor Who Magazine have published The Story of Doctor Who, a shiny, comprehensive guide to the 55-year history of the series. It's perfect for those joining or returning to Doctor Who with Jodie Whittaker's Doctor - and has plenty to delight those of us who think they know it all backwards.

I've written the pieces on the Second, Fourth, Sixth and Twelfth Doctors, and dug out all sorts of stuff that was new to me. In fact, quite a lot of my work right now is looking for new things to say about Doctor Who, with a lot of dogged detective work to make sense of conflicting accounts of how particular bits of the series were made.

My knowing-it-backwards has also informed my watching of Jonathan Creek, which I never really saw when it was on in the 1990s but we're enjoying now on Netflix. The major revelation is how much it owes to Sherlock Holmes, which I'll write something about another time. But the Sixth Doctor is the first person killed in the series; in the first episode of the second series (produced by Verity Lambert), the Fifth Doctor walks under a broken-off piece off the TARDIS. Then, in episode 2.5, when the police arrest Alistair Petrie they also confiscate his VHS of Doctor Who and the Two Doctors.

(That Doctor Who story saw Patrick Troughton return as the Second Doctor, accompanied by Frazer Hines as his companion Jamie McCrimmon. A couple of years ago, I wrote an audio Doctor Who story, The Outliers in which Frazer played Jamie and also recreated Troughton's Doctor, both of them battling a smooth management consultant in space, played by Alistair Petrie.)

Anyway. I am giddy with excitement about new Doctor Who tomorrow. Amid all the flurry of promotion going on, I recommend catching up with this morning's Saturday Live, in which Richard Cole quizzed m'colleague Christel Dee. She talks candidly about growing up in care, how Doctor Who helped her to come out as gay, and her obsession with Ace. I'm a big fan of Saturday Live and a bit thrilled to have got a mention.

Have I mentioned that we wrote a book?

Thursday, October 04, 2018

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Straight on from her Dark Tales, I've ploughed through Shirley Jackson's final (and greatest, says the back cover) novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

It's told by 18 year-old Mary Kate Blackwood, known to everyone as "Merricat", a strange, scared girl with much to be afraid of. To begin, we follow her on an essential, regular trip into town to shop for food, where she must endure the mostly passive tyranny of ordinary people. It's incredibly effective, a threat that feels horribly real. Only once we've experienced and felt it does Jackson reveal why: almost all of Merricat's family died six years ago, poisoned by arsenic intentionally put in the sugar bowl.

Merricat now lives in the old family house with her agarophobic elder sister Constance - acquitted of the murder but still generally thought guilty - and her uncle Julian, who survived the poisoning at some cost. Wheelchair-bound and mentally disturbed, he's determined to uncover what really happened that night... Merricat is the only one to ever leave the family home, and her head is full of strange thoughts about magic ways to protect the house and also journeys to the Moon.

Into this unsettling space comes cousin Charles, who soon casts a spell over Constance and threatens the whole household. But he's just one of many tensions: the townspeople are never far away, and Merricat is herself bound by all kinds of rules - things she seems innately to know she is not allowed to do. The immaculate, ordered domestic space is a place beset with danger.

As in the Dark Tales, Jackson makes this strange situation so credible. In her afterword to the Penguin Classics edition, Joyce Carol Oates speaks of Jackson's own agoraphobia and says:
"Jackson's difficulties with her fellow citizens in North Bennington, Vermont are well documented in Judy Oppenheimer's harrowing biography, Private Demons (1988): the suggestion is that Jackson and her husband, the flamboyant 'Jewish-intellectual' cultural critic Stanley Edgar Hyman aroused resentment, if not outright anti-Semitism, in their more convention neighbours." 
Joyce Carol Oates, afterword to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, p. 152.
I think Jackson drawns on more than her own experience of real horror, too. There's repeated mention of a figurine, an object that survives a fire in the house. It's surely significant that it's always described as the "Dresden figurine", conjuring images of another conflagration.

The fire involves the most chilling moment of the whole novel. We know the townspeople are antagonistic to the Blackwoods, but in a moment of crisis the local men rush to help put out the fire. Only then, emerging from the house to the expectant crowd, the head of the men picks up a stone and throws it back at the building to smash a window. It gives licence to the mob, who stampede on the house...

Whatever the strange and murderous qualities of the household, it's the ordinary people outside who are most to be feared.