Shirley: A Novel

Paperback | July 7, 2015

bySusan Scarf Merrell

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“[A] totally explosive thriller starring the fascinating late author.” —Entertainment Weekly 

Best known for her short story “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson is an endlessly fascinating figure whose chilling tales of psychological suspense are still widely read and taught around the world. In this darkly captivating novel, Susan Scarf Merrell uses the facts of Jackson’s life as a springboard to explore the 1964 disappearance of Paula Weldon, a young Bennington College student. Told through the eyes of Rose Nemser—the wife of a graduate student working with Jackson’s husband, Bennington professor Stanley Edgar Hyman—Shirley reimagines the connections between the Hymans’ volatile marriage and one of the era’s great unsolved mysteries.

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From the Publisher

“[A] totally explosive thriller starring the fascinating late author.” —Entertainment Weekly Best known for her short story “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson is an endlessly fascinating figure whose chilling tales of psychological suspense are still widely read and taught around the world. In this darkly captivating novel, Susan Scarf Mer...

SUSAN SCARF MERRELL is the author of a previous novel, A Member of the Family, and a nonfiction work, The Accidental Bond: How Sibling Connections Influence Adult Relationships. She teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literature at Stony Brook Southampton and is Fiction Editor of TSR: The Southampton Review.
Format:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 8.02 × 5.34 × 0.62 inPublished:July 7, 2015Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0147516196

ISBN - 13:9780147516190

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Read from the Book

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***Copyright © 2014 Susan Scarf MerrellNo live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.—The Haunting of Hill House One  “You have green eyes,” she said. I handed her my end of the fitted sheet and she tucked the corners deftly together, folded again to make a smooth square, her knob-knuckled fingers making quick work of a task I’d never had to do. Bed-making I knew all too well, but, oh, the luxury of a second set of sheets!“No,” I said. “My eyes are blue.”The closet door opened easily for Shirley, mistress of all the warped wood in this eccentric house. She stacked the folded sheets, nodded for me to follow her down the cramped back staircase to the kitchen. There were breakfast dishes to do. She washed, her hands reddened by the soapy water. I dried. Finally she responded.“Envy. It’s wanting what other people have.”Well, that was pointless to deny. I added two chipped saucers to the stack on the cupboard shelves. One of the black cats, the one with the white splash of fur on her paw, undulated irritably from behind the teacups, tail high. Shirley emptied the water from the basin, splashing the faucet stream to rinse the scummed soap left behind. “I only want what I have,” she said. “I want exactly what I have.” She wiped her hands on the dish towel, pushed her wedding band back on with a grimace.“You know who you love,” I said.She laughed, as if I’d said something terribly clever. And then she added, “I’ll do what’s needed to keep what’s mine.”“I see.” I could picture my mother waiting outside the playground fence when I was very young, feeling herself unwelcome— or unworthy—while I played with schoolmates. Was it love that made her hover there? I didn’t know. She did what was needed, just as Shirley claimed to do. “You protect what’s yours.”“Yes,” she answered calmly. “I do.” She pointed to the packing box on the wobbly kitchen table. “I brought that down for you. Things for the baby, attic treasures. You’re welcome to use any of it.” Confused, but eager to please her, I undid the flaps and opened the carton. Withdrawing a crinkled ball of newsprint, I carefully unfurled the paper until a child’s cup emerged. “Pretty!” Easy to be enthusiastic about such a solid piece of china, the limpid-eyed bunny painted on the side. The child I was making could one day hold this cup in his or her hands, would never know what it was like to come into a world without Beatrix Potter china, and look, stuffed among the wrapped baby dishes—a green sweater with a cheerful button-eyed polar bear sewn onto its belly. Already I knew my baby would be far luckier than I had ever been.“The cups were from my mother.” “One for each child?”“We could have used help with the rent, but she sent us china and silver spoons. That’s Geraldine.”“I love them.” I was breathless at the thought of having a mother who provided such bounty.“We had to buy each child on layaway,” Shirley said. “Couldn’t pay the doctor or the hospital. But she sent bunting. For the crib we couldn’t afford. And christening gowns. You can imagine how well those went over with Stanley.” Her laugh was not a happy one.Whatever Shirley disliked about her mother had to be small change compared to what I’d grown up with, I thought. I wanted Shirley’s baby cups, and the silver spoons, and the bunting if she offered it, and the clothes her four babies had worn. I wanted things, for I had never had them. I pulled a piece of newsprint off a cereal bowl, straightened it out, laid it on the table. “Who’s this? Missing student?”She peered at the photo. “Oh my, that’s from a dozen years ago at least.” PAULA WELDEN MISSING SINCE SUNDAY FROMCOLLEGE CAMPUS: SEARCH IS MADE OVER WIDEAREA: GIRL’S FATHER ARRIVES HERE FROM HISSTAMFORD HOME; WHEN LAST SEEN MISSINGSTUDENT WAS WEARING RED PARKA , BLUE JEANSAND THICK- SOLED SNEAKERS Eighteen years, in fact. “She looks like you, Rose, doesn’t she?” A hole in the fabric of one day and entry to another. I glanced around the kitchen, anywhere but at Shirley—if I were Paula Welden, I would have been thirty-six that September morning. “Did they ever find her?” It seemed terribly important, immediately so. It wasn’t that we looked alike; it was something more. It mattered, oh, it mattered more than anything, to believe that if there had to be women in danger, there would be those who found them.I shivered, felt the walls of the kitchen shiver with me like so many sheets flailing on a clothesline on a windy day. I pulled out a rickety chair and sat. I had to.“They found her, didn’t they?”Shirley began to unwrap the other cups, smoothing page after crumpled page. “No, never. I remember some people thought she’d run away. With a boyfriend. And our local police came under the gimlet scrutiny of the FBI.”The girl was lovely, her blond hair smooth and cut to the shoulders, her smile relaxed. She was from elegant Stamford, Connecticut—a far cry from South Philly—and her father came up to aid in the search. He must have loved her. If I had seen Paula Welden’s picture, knowing nothing else, I would have wanted to be like her.“Me, too,” said Shirley softly. I’m not sure I had spoken. “Did you know her?” I asked.A pause.The black cat on the windowsill stopped licking his paw, tongue protruding through tiny, sharp teeth. The house itself held its breath; not even a floorboard creaked. “I never met the girl,” Shirley said finally, her voice light. “Not once.”She was an honest woman, or so I believed. But can anyone who makes up fictions hour after hour and year after year be wedded to the truth? Even now my memory recircles the events of my year in Shirley Jackson’s house, what I understood at the time and what I now trust to be fact. Conditions of absolute reality have a glare all their own, like sunspots on water or the glinting of ice against a mountain boulder on a cold Vermont afternoon. You think you know where you are, you are sure of what you’ve lived through, and yet, at the same time, the whole thing seems a dream.Perhaps this makes it easier to believe.

Editorial Reviews

“A finely crafted novel charged with Jackson-like atmospherics….Shirley is both a strikingly original homage to an important American writer and a chillingly sinister novel in its own right.” —The Cleveland Plain Dealer“Merrell brilliantly weaves events from Jackson’s life into a hypnotic story line that will please Jackson fans as well as anyone in search of a solidly written literary thriller….Its merit lies in its inventiveness even as it draws inspiration from Jackson’s own stories….[a] dazzling yet dark tale…One of the best things about Shirley is that you don’t have to be familiar with Jackson’s stories to enjoy it.”—Carol Memmott, The Washington Post“[A] totally explosive thriller starring the fascinating late author as the main character.”—Entertainment Weekly“Jackson has always been one of the more intriguing and misunderstood writers of her generation, a woman writer at the cusp of feminism’s second wave who nevertheless was erroneously dismissed for writing mere “domestic fiction.” Merrell brings this complicated and compelling woman to life through the kind of taut and intimate thriller Jackson herself would have been proud to call her own.”—Booklist“Brooding… A sidelong portrait of a category-defying writer dovetails surprisingly snugly with the drama of one young woman’s coming-of-age.”—Kirkus  “A compelling fictional tale.”—Library Journal “[A] precisely accurate look at the sexual and intellectual failures that real love must allow for and survive, and a darkly fantastical meditation on magic, revenge, love, and reality….The brilliance of Jackson’s life and Merrell’s writing is that they convey [a] depth and beauty…In the end, Shirley is a love story, albeit an unexpected and uncomfortable one—perhaps the only kind that could ever be told by or about Shirley Jackson.”—The Daily Beast“To the great literature of obsession we can now add Susan Scarf Merrell’s brilliant and captivating Shirley, a novel as full of passion and intrigue as any traditional love story. The twist is that the obsessive in these pages is a quiet young academic wife and the object of her fascination is none other than gothic storyteller Shirley Jackson. A fantastically original book.”—Ann Packer, author of Swim Back to Me and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier “Susan Scarf Merrell writes about desire, female friendship, and obsession with a true storyteller’s sense of the human heart. Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman, giants in the world of twentieth century letters, make for a brilliant intersection of vivid fiction and literary myth set in the vortex that is North Bennington, Vermont. Shirley is a love story that will keep you up all night.”—Susan Cheever, author of e.e. cummings, a life