Shortwave Magazine

Interviews / NonFiction

Your Favorite Author's Favorite Author: Gwendolyn Kiste on Shirley Jackson

an interview
by Patrick Barb

June 27, 2024
2,063 Words
Genre(s):

To round out the month of June, I got to chat with a modern queen of horror about one of the genre’s most legendary authors, one who truly broke new ground in the genre just as surely (heh) as she laid the groundwork for much of what we know and love in contemporary horror fiction. The ground-breaker and trailblazer in question is Shirley Jackson and I can’t think of a better person to discuss Jackson’s work with than Gwendolyn Kiste.

Gwendolyn Kiste is the three-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, Reluctant Immortals, Boneset & Feathers, Pretty Marys All in a Row, and The Haunting of Velkwood. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in outlets including Lit Hub, Nightmare, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, CrimeReads, Tor Nightfire, The Lineup, and The Dark. She's a Lambda Literary Award winner, and her fiction has also received the This Is Horror award for Novel of the Year as well as nominations for the Premios Kelvin, Ignotus, and Dragon Awards. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, their excitable calico cat, and not nearly enough ghosts.

Who is your favorite author and why?

I would have to go with Shirley Jackson. She’s my literary touchstone in so many ways. I love how she looked at the world, and I love her gorgeous, haunting prose. Even just answering this question makes me want to read The Haunting of Hill House all over again.

We’ll get into favorite and recommended works of Jackson’s shortly. But I’m curious what makes Hill House the work you were immediately drawn to in the question above?

Honestly, I’m always thinking about hauntings in general. I feel like ghosts are one of the most potent symbols in all of literature. And The Haunting of Hill House has endured for so long because it really gets at the heart of what it means to be haunted. It’s without a doubt one of the most legendary and influential horror novels, so that makes it an easy pick when discussing Jackson’s work.

When were you first made aware of this author and when were you first drawn to their work?

I read “The Lottery” for the first time in college. The irony is that I wasn't at all shocked by the ending; it felt so real and inevitable to me. I had grown up knowing people just like the villagers in “The Lottery” so it didn’t necessarily have the same shocking impact on me that some people describe.

Still, the writing intrigued me so much, and over the years, I kept seeking out her work. Once I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it really lit up something in me, and utterly shook my world to the core in the best possible way. Ever since then, I’ve been a full-on devotee to the altar of Jackson. 

Is there one particular piece of work from this author that you are especially fond of or that’s had a significant creative impact on you? What is that piece and what makes it so appealing or affecting for you?

Definitely We Have Always Lived in the Castle. That’s my favorite book of all time. It makes me feel less alone in the world. In terms of her short fiction, I absolutely adore “Louisa, Please Come Home.” It’s not one that people talk about very often, but I think it’s fantastic. I’m not even sure how to classify it genre-wise. It’s probably somewhere between fantasy and weird fiction with a couple whimsical horror touches thrown in there for good measure. I don’t want to spoil it too much for people who haven’t read it yet, but all I can say is that I related so much to it when I read it for the first time; it actually felt like Shirley Jackson had reached into my mind and pulled that story from my own daydreams. It was a wild experience.

Jackson’s writing does seem to have this capacity for capturing lived experiences and lived-in worlds even when delving into weird subject matter and plots. When you’re approaching character creation and the weird/fantastical, are there touchpoints in Jackson’s work from which you’ve drawn inspiration or found guidance in?

I really love the way her characters are often aware on some level of their outsider status. They react to it in different ways—Eleanor in Hill House does her best to flee from it while Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle embraces and even revels in it—but I’ve always loved that there’s a certain amount of self-awareness in all her characters. That’s definitely something that I keep in mind as I craft my own characters who are almost invariably outsiders in one way or another.

How often do you revisit your favorite piece(s) or the author’s work in general? What lessons have you learned at various times from the work?

I’m always thumbing through a Shirley Jackson book. The Library of America edition of her work is somewhere nearby at all times. In terms of lessons I’ve learned from her work, Shirley Jackson understood human nature better than any other author I’ve ever read. Her dark and fearsome insight is so incredibly inspiring to me.

Are there any pieces in the author’s oeuvre that have not worked as well for you? If yes, which ones and why do you think that connection was not as strong?

I don’t want to say a bad word about the queen of horror, Shirley Jackson, but I will say that I still haven’t gotten through The Road Through the Wall. I tried to read it a while back, and I just couldn’t get into it. Maybe it just wasn’t the right timing at that point; I’ll definitely need to try again, because I’m not even sure what it was about it that made me feel that disconnect. Again, perhaps it just wasn’t the right time.

That’s a great point re: reading a work at the right time. Outside of the works previously mentioned, are there other pieces in Jackson’s bibliography where you can specifically remember the experience of reading them and having something “click” for you? Could you talk a bit about that?   

“The Daemon Lover” really haunted me—and continues to stick with me, even though it’s been years since I first read it. Jackson was so good at capturing the slippery nature of sanity and reality. I don’t want to give away too much about the specifics of the story, but it’s so unsettling, and my heart ached for the protagonist. Also, because there’s an old legend about a so-called demon lover, I figured Jackson would be riffing on that tale when I initially started reading the story. But it ended up going in a very different direction that was actually far more upsetting and far more real.  

What writing lessons have you taken, purposefully or accidentally, from your favorite author?

I would say the biggest lesson I’ve taken from Shirley Jackson is that horror is as much about the existential dread of being a human being living in this world as it is about ghosts and goblins and other monsters. She knew how to dig down into the marrow of what it means to be human and how to convey just how horrifying that really is.

Are there any works in your bibliography that you feel are closest to the work of your favorite—whether in terms of style, subject matter, length, etc.? Talk a little about those similarities.

The title for my latest novel, The Haunting of Velkwood, is of course a nod to Shirley Jackson. That’s probably the one that pays the greatest homage to her. Honestly, though, any modern haunted house story owes an incredibly huge debt to Jackson’s work. The Haunting of Hill House is the standard we’re all chasing and that no one will ever catch up to.

I agree. In reading Hill House, it seems as though Jackson manages to synthesize all of the haunting lore, themes, and motifs that had come before, but then adds her own contributions to the subgenre. I’m thinking in particular of the notion of the haunted house as a character or antagonist itself, something that has really become synonymous with the haunted house subgenre overall since then. You’ve written about witches, vampires, ghosts, and more. When you’re tackling these subjects are you also looking to synthesize what’s come before while adding something new as well? Is that a conscious part of the process for you?

I would say that it’s a conscious part of the process most of the time. I don’t like the idea of treading the exact same ground that other writers have already covered. That’s not to say that everything I’ve ever written is so incomparably original; we’re all building upon the genre of horror, and there’s bound to be a lot of crossover. But I do try to see what I can add to the conversation that’s hopefully never quite been said before. 

Where does your writing diverge from your favorite author’s? Are there any elements from your favorite author’s work that you would like to incorporate in your own? If yes, what are these?

My work is definitely more overtly feminist and queer than Jackson’s fiction. That being said, readers have long discussed how queer-coded some of Shirley Jackson’s works are. The Haunting of Hill House in particular definitely seems like a queer novel in a number of ways. Theodora and Eleanor have a dynamic that lends itself to a queer interpretation. Similarly, both Jackson’s fiction and nonfiction have some very feminist qualities to them as well. She wasn’t necessarily as overt about those elements, but you can see it in her work if you look closely enough.

If a reader wanted to start reading your favorite author, what piece would you recommend they start with?

If you’re looking for a novel, you can’t go wrong with We Have Always Lived in the Castle. However, if you’d rather go with unusual short fiction, then I absolutely recommend the aforementioned “Louisa, Please Come Home” or another of her underrated gems, “Pillar of Salt.” Those are two of my favorite short stories of all time.

Could you talk a little more about what makes these works such good introductory pieces? What are some of the ur-Jackson elements present in these stories?

Perhaps my favorite part of both We Have Always Lived in the Castle and “Louisa, Please Come Home” is Shirley Jackson’s incredible use of humor. People don’t tend to talk about how very funny her work is. There are even some genuinely laugh aloud moments in Hill House, albeit ones that are still a bit unsettling. I feel like Jackson’s ability to blend humor, horror, and whimsy is truly second to none, and those two works in particular are a perfect starting place for that.

If you could ask your favorite author one question about their work, what would it be?

You know, I’m not sure I would ask her any questions about her work. I feel like the work says everything it needs to. If I could talk with Shirley Jackson, I’d mostly just want to hang out with her and maybe have a cup of tea. Hold the sugar, please.

What do you have coming out next on the writing and publishing front? What are you working on now?

For the time being, I’m focused on my short fiction and short nonfiction. I’ve got a number of stories that are out now or nearing release including in the anthologies, Mother Knows Best, Fear of Clowns, The Darkest Night, and more. 

Looking forward, I’ve got multiple projects in various states of development, and I’m super excited about all of them. I don’t want to say too much more at the moment, but they’re all obviously in the horror genre, though each one is so different from the others. That’s something I love so much about horror: how it can take virtually any form that you can imagine.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with me about your favorite author. Where can readers find you online?

I’m on Facebook and Instagram at @gwendolynkiste, and you can always find me hanging around my website and blog at gwendolynkiste.com.

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About the Author

Patrick Barb is an author of weird, dark, and spooky tales, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His published works include the dark fiction collection Pre-Approved for Haunting (Keylight Books), the novellas Gargantuana’s Ghost (Grey Matter Press) and Turn (Alien Buddha Press), as well as the novelette Helicopter Parenting in the Age of Drone Warfare (Spooky House Press). His forthcoming works include the themed short-story collection The Children’s Horror (Northern Republic Press) and the sci-fi/horror novel Abducted (Dark Matter Ink).

patrickbarb.com

Copyright ©2024 by Patrick Barb.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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