It’s a tough choice, but if you had to choose five, and you had to do it off the top of your head. Which ones? Why?
As Kevin Wilson writes in a new introduction of the Penguin classic for The Bird’s Nest,
“And thus we discover the true focus of Jackson’s genius: the mysterious contents within all of us, the self-destructive tendencies that threaten to ruin the structure that keeps them hidden from the rest of the world.”
The final novel of Jackson’s is a masterpiece. Mercurial and mysterious from the beginning. By now she was a master of the first person, which is probably the overall most effective for her portrayals of the psychologically disturbed. The sisters are essentially the same woman, so alienated from herself—from her own monstrous rage—that she has divided in two. At least that’s my take.
Her most popular novel remains one of the most important horror novels of all time and certainly one of the most singular haunted house tales ever written. At no time do we or the characters actually see any visible ghostly manifestation. The phenomena are limited to cold spots, banging on walls and doors, messages on walls, and torn, bloody clothing in one room. There is a degree of insanity in every page. No one rivals Jackson in the ability to paint a deeply moving, psychologically deep portrait of the tortured soul. Eleanor wasn’t quite right to begin with. Unable to relate to people, the house becomes her lover and her best friend. They become as one.
Originally titled The Adventures of James Harris, today the collection could very well be considered a “novel in stories.” Published in 1948, this powerful collection of 24 short stories is incredibly the only one of her brilliant short fiction published during her own lifetime. “The Lottery” story is often coined now as “speculative fiction,” and still one of the most controversial ones The New Yorker has ever published. As always, with Jackson’s depictions of human nature both on the micro and macro levels, there is something deeply wrong with our fundamental natures. There are victims.
Comparable to Life Among the Savages, but a shade more mature. In both cases Jackson weaves her way through what had to be a challenging and busy household with wit and laugh-out-loud humor. Perhaps a little insight into how this prolific author and mother-of-four with mental illness coped?
1948 must have been a banner year for Jackson. Her semi-autobiographical debut novel, may be a surprising choice, especially as it wasn’t even given much attention by readers or critics when it was released. Though her first novel and actually lacking any supernatural element, it is among her best: complex, controlled, suspenseful. Many readers prefer Jackson’s first person narratives–and with good reason why based upon her psychological interrogations–but Jackson also excelled at writing as the omnipotent narrator, as she does here.
Other notables: The Bird’s Nest is an ambitious novel that attempts to dramatize multiple personality disorder, such as it was then understood, through the disenfranchised character of Elizabeth Richmond. While it’s not always easy to follow which of the four versions of Elizabeth are speaking, another interesting aspect of this novel is Jackson’s experiments with point-of-view. She writes in a convincing first person through the voice of the psychologist, Dr. Wright, Elizabeth herself, and her Aunt Morgan. The trip Elizabeth takes out of her small town and into New York is disorienting and fascinating.
Her worst? Probably Hangsaman. Francine Prose praises it as a “wildly strange, strong, and original novel,” but it also seems to have a less clear approach to the fantasies of the protagonist Natalie and the omniscient narrator. Check it out and see what you think.