Book Review: Shirley by Susan S. Merrell

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In my last post, I reviewed The Haunting of Hill House (THOHH) by Shirley Jackson. Shirley is  described as a psychological thriller, yet it’s really more of an homage, a fictionalized account of Shirley Jackson and her Professor husband Stanley about their time spent at their home in Vermont. The story has a dreamy, sleepy feel that fluctuates between biography and suspenseful fiction. Rose, a young pregnant wife from a difficult background and her Professor husband drive to Bennington College so he can work and finish his dissertation while living with his mentor Stanley Hyman and his wife Shirley Jackson. Jackson is an established writer and Rose admires her and becomes enmeshed with Jackson’s dynamics of the Hyman’s dysfunctional marriage. As time goes on, the troubled Hyman marriage is filled with secrets and Rose’s life begins to mirror theirs.

I enjoyed how the author explored the themes of jealousy, obsession, scandal and love. Yet certain parts of the book left me frustrated.  Merrell builds up tension throughout the story by creating an impeding sense of doom, yet the suspense doesn’t lead anywhere and the outcome is never revealed. For example, Rose becomes intrigued with the story of a young missing college student, but the outcome isn’t revealed to the reader. The premise of the story is unbelievable. Why would a couple with four children take in two strangers? As for the character development, I felt a palpable connection to Shirley, but didn’t feel an emotional connection to Rose.  Since Rose is a new mother, her constant drowsiness initially makes sense, yet the idea that the house is “alive and speaking” to Rose was  too reminiscent of – you guessed it- THOHH.

Perhaps I’d view the book in a more positive light, if I wasn’t already exposed to Shirley Jackson’s writing. I don’t think  Shirley Jackson would feel happy about the way she’s depicted in this book. Although Shirley has all of the merits of a well written interesting book,  since I’ve already read The House on Haunted Hill, my thoughts of Shirley are already skewed. There are just too many similarities between the books.

RATING: 3.5 stars

** An advanced review copy of Shirley was provided by Netgalley for a fair and honest review.

Memorable Book Monday: The Haunting of Hill House

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

One of my favorite horror stories is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. This is not your standard horror story, yet more of a psychological horror story. The main character, Eleanor, is a shy, introverted young woman who was invited to be part of a paranormal investigation for a weekend at a haunted house. Eleanor was chosen to be part of the investigation because she demonstrated “poltergeist tendencies” in her youth. Other supporting characters are Theodora, a woman who is the polar opposite of Eleanor; Luke, the heir to the house; Dr. Montague, the squirrelly scientist in charge of the investigation.

Told from a point of view of an unreliable narrator, it’s unclear whether the paranormal activity is affecting everyone equally or are we peering into Eleanor’s unstable, inner psyche? The special part of this story is Jackson’s subtle descriptive approach of the haunting. Through all of her vagueness, she embeds key clues within the story pointing to a specific ghost haunting the premises. Overall, the haunting operates via torment, wearing down Eleanor’s psychic defenses until she can’t differentiate between her distorted inner thoughts and reality. And at times, neither can the reader.

Stay tuned until my next book review this week, which is heavily inspired by The Haunting of Hill House and its author, Shirley Jackson: Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell.

RATING: FIVE STARS