Thursday, March 18, 2021

"The Daemon Lover" (1949)

This Shirley Jackson story works so subtly as horror that it almost isn't. If you insist, it isn't. And yet, its most uncanny detail is also its best: the door which no one will ever answer, though voices can be heard from behind it. Down here on the natural plane, the story especially in 1949 is every woman's nightmare (and a lot of men's too). It takes some time catching us up on the whole situation but the scope of devastation is also large. We see our unnamed main character seized by nervous but happy anxiety and Jackson doesn't make us wonder long why, as she sits down to write a note to her sister: "Dearest Anne, by the time you get this I will be married. Doesn't it sound funny? I can hardly believe it myself, but when I tell you how it happened, you'll see it's even stranger than that...." Then she tears it up and throws it away. Over the course of the story the contents of the letter will grow a little haunting: you'll see it's even stranger than that. We follow her actions and learn much about her. What a hard time she has selecting her outfit. The fact that she lied on the marriage license and said she was 30 instead of 34. The story chugs on a kinda-cute rom-com neurosis Annie Hall style as she remakes the bed with clean linen, changes her underwear, and checks the groceries she has bought for breakfast the next morning. But when the appointed hour arrives and her beau does not, we start to feel sick with her. In a way Jackson plays cruelly with her and with us. The woman is flawed and pathetic in many ways but she is sincere and deserves her dignity, even as it gradually slips all the way away. Everyone she meets and questions about him in her search on that day—the people in his apartment building, the newsstand man, the florist, the shoeshine guy—all smirk at her as if they are mocking her right down to her most vulnerable parts thinking she was going to be married. Until finally we arrive at that door behind which are those voices and likely, perhaps, her lover, Mr. James "Jamie" Harris. But no one ever responds to her knock—at story's end, we are weeks out.

Jackson has offered a further rabbit hole, for those so inclined, in this Harris fellow. In fact, the subtitle of The Lottery, the only collection by Jackson published in her lifetime, which includes this story, is The Adventures of James Harris. The subtitle was subsequently often dropped by publishers apparently unaware she intended the collection more as a cycle of connected stories, with Harris as a recurring character. You can take it even a step further (thanks to this discussion by Anne M. Pillsworth and Ruthanna Emrys at as there is also a James Harris, who is also a daemon lover, in a certain 17th-century Scottish ballad. This is not a coincidence. The story in that ballad is somewhat different from the Jackson story at hand. In the ballad the lover visits her again when she has married another and had a child and entices her away at that point. That would be a kind of embarrassment of riches for the woman in "The Daemon Lover," who for all we know is still climbing those stairs on her way home from work and knocking again at that door, from behind which are voices, but no one ever answers.

Shirley Jackson, Novels and Stories (Library of America)
Read story online.

No comments:

Post a Comment