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Kathryne realizes, too late, that the hardest part of parenting might be knowing when to hold back. But I can tell you, this young man is from a gentle, close-knit family.

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The news grieved me — and terrified me. If something like this could happen in their family, it could happen in any family; it could happen in mine. We all want to distance ourselves from tragedy. We read obituaries and search the details to try to uncover an explanation.

Shirley Jackson

No wonder this happened to those people, we tell ourselves. That man died from lung cancer because he smoked. That woman was kidnapped because she ran out of gas on I at 3 A. Their house caught fire. I invented a family for my book, and my fictional family told me their own fictional story.

But my grief, my intense emotion over what happened in that wonderful family I once knew helped fuel the writing of my novel. While I was working on my first novel, a sentence popped into my head.

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I decided to invent a family for whom that sentence would be true. It became the opening of my new novel. Later it was moved to the middle of the novel.

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Then it was bumped to the end. Early Leaving is the story of a woman who is so protective of her son — over-involved, suffocating — that the only way out for him is to disappoint her profoundly. And he does. At eighteen, Early Smallwood commits murder. The novel opens the night before his sentencing. His mother, Kathryne Smallwood, begins to probe the pieces of the past, to see if she should have seen the end coming. Was there any point where she might have come between her son and what lay in wait for him? Or was it just the randomness of fate and its consequences? Was she the cause?

She is obsession in the extreme — my own worst nightmare of myself.

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  6. When Eleanor is snared, so are we. Most ghost stories offer a cozy armchair chill or two, but The Haunting of Hill House exudes a lingering, clammy dread. The literary effect we call horror turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside. In the psychological ghost story, the dissolving boundary is the one between the mind and the exterior world.

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    The psychological ghost story is as much about the puzzle of identity as it is about madness. The governess in The Turn of the Screw yearns to be a heroine, to do something brave and noble, and to attract the attention of the dashing employer whose sole directive is that she never, ever bother him. She wants to be someone else. Is the house she presides over haunted by the ghost of brutish Peter Quint and his lover, her predecessor, the sexually degraded Miss Jessel? Or is it haunted by some half-formed, half-desired alternate version of the nameless governess herself?

    After all, Dr. Montague invited her to participate in the project because of a poltergeist incident during her childhood. Montague points out, Eleanor is not the only one who hears and sees them. But they could just possibly be caused by her poltergeist—a primitive, spiteful, violent, unthinking force—rather than by the house itself. Jackson, who had a lifelong interest in the occult, who dabbled in spells and liked to tell reporters that she was a witch, professed to believe in ghosts.

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    But both of these writers were too preoccupied with the notion that people are attended by multiple, imaginary versions of themselves to be unaware of the non-supernatural implications of their ghost stories. Shirley Jackson often wrote about solitary, mousy young women. In her last novel and masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle , two reclusive and unstable sisters hole up in the family mansion after the rest of their relatives are wiped out by a mysterious incident involving a poisoned sugar bowl. It may come as a surprise, then, that although Jackson did love big old houses, she wrote her novels of spooky isolation from the midst of a large, boisterous family. With her husband, the notable critic and academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson presided over a household that included four children, an indeterminate number of cats, and an endless rotation of guests and visitors, including several great mid-century American literary figures. They just had more life than most people do. Enormous confidence. The pieces, collected in two popular volumes, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons , were how some of her readers knew her best.

    Still, the difficulty of integrating these contradictory selves surely contributed to the way the women in her novels tend to come in pairs. To her elegant, conventional mother, Jackson—ungainly, eccentric, brilliant, and plain—was a perennial vexation. The relationship would torment Jackson, too, for the rest of her life.

    After a disastrous stint at the nearby University of Rochester, she finally began to establish her independence at Syracuse University. After a few unsatisfactory years in New York City apartments, the couple and their two oldest children moved to North Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman, who had been working as a staff writer for The New Yorker , got a job teaching at Bennington College. It was a choice that perpetuated her outsider status. Xenophobic, tight-lipped, and possibly inbred Yankee country folk begin to make appearances in her fiction at this point.

    North Bennington was the kind of place where you were considered a newcomer unless your grandfather had been born there. The houses were another matter. But Jackson also saw her houses as having wills of their own, including insistent ideas about how their rooms should be arranged. The good humor of the house in Life Among the Savages and the malevolence of Hill House are phenomena of the same order, despite the difference in tenor. The big, old, semi-personified manse is a fixture of gothic literature, as Jackson, who boned up on ghost stories in preparation for writing The Haunting of Hill House , well knew.

    All of those understandings, with the exception of sex—a topic Jackson avoided—apply to Hill House.

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    The incipient madness of Eleanor Vance seemed to affect her creator, though—or perhaps it was the other way around. She died in her sleep, of cardiac arrest, at age Then, even more than now, the domestic realm was viewed as insufficiently serious. Cain in print today. In a way, Jackson was a kindred spirit to the hard-boiled genre novelists of her time. She also depicted the cruel jokes of fate and chance unfolding in an amoral universe. The prevailing mood of The Haunting of Hill House , the spell of the book that so many readers have found so hard to shake, is one of physical and psychic claustrophobia.

    Along the way Eleanor weaves the landmarks she sees into a running fantasy life that, besides a kind of smothered rage, we soon recognize to be one of her chief traits. Fragments of these fantasies appear in the lies Eleanor will later tell Theo about her little apartment in the city, like the pieces of everyday life that turn up in dreams. Eleanor is drifting in and out of a dream state even before she arrives at Hill House, endlessly taking apart and reassembling bits of fantasy and experience to fashion the imagined life she hopes eventually to live.

    Dreaming, the opening lines of the novel explain, is exactly what keeps someone from going crazy. Escape is a mirage.