Shirley: A Novel

Shirley: A Novel

by Susan Scarf Merrell


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“Susan Scarf Merrell brilliantly weaves events from Shirley Jackson’s life into a hypnotic story line”* in this darkly thrilling novel starring the author of The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery.


Two imposing literary figures are at the heart of this captivating novel: celebrated author Shirley Jackson and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic and professor at Bennington College. When a young graduate student and his pregnant wife—Fred and Rose Nemser—move into Shirley and Stanley’s home in the fall of 1964, they quickly fall under the magnetic spell of their brilliant and unconventional hosts.

While Fred becomes preoccupied with his teaching schedule, Rose forms an unlikely, turbulent friendship with the troubled and unpredictable Shirley. Fascinated by the Hymans’ volatile marriage and inexplicable drawn to the darkly enigmatic author, Rose nonetheless senses something amiss—something to do with nightly unanswered phone calls and inscrutable accounts of a long-missing female student. Chillingly atmospheric and evocative of Jackson’s own classic stories, Shirley is an elegant thriller with one of America’s greatest horror writers at its heart.

*The Washington Post

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399166457
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/12/2014
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
No 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


“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.”








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.


Excerpted from "Shirley"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Susan Scarf Merrell.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“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.”

“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

 “[A] wonder. One of the gripping things about the book is how set in place it is in Bennington, Vermont, a town where the townies and the college have long gazed at each other skeptically—in Jackson’s work much of the roiling beneath the surface is because of this dynamic—and it is present in Shirley too, as Merrell hauntingly weaves in the disappearance of a missing young student named Paula Weldon to the novel.”
—A.N. Devers,

“In Shirley, Merrell extrapolates fact and expertly blends in fiction…Merrell’s book works beautifully as homage, and as an original, inventive novel in its own right.”
Rain Taxi


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Shirley: A Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Under The Influence ... A haunting, beautifully written novel. Like Shirley Jackson, Merrell knows how to seduce and disturb and stay with you long after you've finished.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's Shirley's world, Rose and Fred are just visiting. Merrell takes us deep into Shirley and Stanley's world and that is a heady place to be. This book is a cocktail of fact and fiction. I did not know where one ended and the other began and while some may take issue with that to me it was half the fun. We know things will get messy at some point, but we don't know exactly when or how. The mood of the novel is very much in the spirit of Shirley's writing. If you like Shirley Jackson, you will like this book. If you like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," you will like this book. If you like Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," you will like this book. Shirley and Stanley’s world is dark and stormy and hard to resist.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A novel about Shirley Jackson that is as strange and dark as one of her stories. A wonderful read. ~*~LEB~*~
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