I am currently reading Ruth Franklin’s 2016 biography of American author Shirley Jackson, subtitled A Rather Haunted Life, and I’ve come across a couple of passages in Chapter One (“Foundations: California 1916-1933”) I would like to comment on. Franklin informs us that Samuel C. Bugbee, “San Francisco’s first architect and Jackson’s great-great-grandfather” built in the 1870s the city’s lavish “millionaires’ palaces” for the ‘robber barons’ who grew rich with their investments on the transcontinental American railroad, finished in 1869. “Nearly a century later”, Franklin claims, Jackson would turn to these mansions “for inspiration when she needed a model for the haunted house in her most famous novel”, The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
As Franklin informs a few pages later, since San Francisco’s Nob Hill mansions were destroyed by the fire that followed the devastating 1906 earthquake, Jackson had only seen Bugbee’s grand, extravagant buildings in pictures. In 1958, when she came up with the plot for The Haunting, while living in Vermont, she asked her mother for those pictures, because, Jackson wrote, “All the old New England houses are the kind of square, classical type which wouldn’t be haunted in a million years”. This is quite funny, considering everyone assumes Hill House to a typical New England mansion (Jackson does not mention any location), totally unrelated to sunny California. The mother, Geraldine, Franklin continues, sent the daughter “newspaper clippings she identified as ‘possible architectural orgies of my great-grandfather’, including the Crocker House. ‘Glad [it] didn’t survive the earthquake’, she commented later”. The three-story Crocker House, designed in a Second-Empire style by Bugbee but finished after his death in 1877 by other hands, seems today hideous, as you can see. Nonetheless, Aimée Crocker informs that “Featured in the book and photographic album Artistic Homes of California, originally published by the San Francisco Newsletter in 1888, the Crocker House was proclaimed, ‘one of the most beautiful architectural masterpieces to be found in any State in the Union’”.
The difference between the two passages I have cited is that whereas the first one suggests a sort of Freudian connection between Jackson’s imagination and her ancestor’s work, the second demonstrates how writers actually work. Jackson wanted to write a story about a haunted mansion and, being familiar with Bugbee’s work, she asked her mother for documentation. Having no great-great-grandfather who built castles in Transylvania, Bram Stoker sought documentation in the British Library, though others claim he used Slains Castle, at Cruden Bay in Scotland, as his inspiration for Dracula’s castle. Stoker’s own biographer, David J. Skal, rejects in his volume Something in the Blood (2016) that Slains, “where Stoker spent holiday time while writing the novel”, mattered at all because “to anyone growing up in England or Ireland, real castles were just part of the ordinary landscape, and they had always been central to the virtual landscape of fairy tales. By the time Bram Stoker was in his forties, he hardly needed the poke of inspiration to realize a haunted castle might be a good location for a scary story”.
Nor did Jackson, also in her forties when she wrote Haunting. She knew that Gothic fiction had been using castles as a space of dread since Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) and that, chagrined that the United States had no medieval castles, Edgar Allan Poe transferred that dread to an ancient mansion somewhere up North in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). Jackson’s own mansion, Hill House, is in terms of the Gothic chronotope, very new, having been built only eighty years before the events she narrates (that is, in the 1870s). It was just luck that she happened to be Bugbee’s descendant and that his ugly houses (by 1950s post-Victorian, Modernist standards) had been the seat of a variety of tragedies. Many other people had seen Bugbee’s houses but nobody else had thought to write a ghost story set in one of them, just like many others were familiar with Transylvania but never thought of writing a vampire tale.
The two biographies by Franklin and Skal, then, attempt to do the impossible (namely, explain how the writer’s imagination works), by piling up plenty of information which in the end feels superfluous. Or contrived. This method of dissecting the writer’s biography in search of clues for this or that point in their fiction is particularly laughable if you consider authors of the fantastic or, more largely, of speculative fiction whose works stretch plausibility. Authors may explain now and then where they took their inspiration from, but this explains very little. Most famously, Mary Shelley claimed that Frankenstein came from a lucid dream in which she saw Victor leaning over his newly-made monster. Biographers have endlessly speculated whether this waking dream came from drugs or from anxieties caused by Mary’s misfortunes as a young mother, but the fact is that not all women who take drugs or lose several babies write horror fiction. This is precisely the reason why the biographical approach to analysing fiction went out of fashion about one century ago with the rise of formalism, and, later in the 1940s, with American New Criticism.
I do give brief biographical introductions in my subjects, but I always caution students against going too far in that direction. The truth is that nothing in Emily Brontë’s biography can explain Wuthering Heights, and even if we had a complete list of all she read, we would still not know what mental processes led her to write her masterpiece. I have never written fiction, but whenever I read a writer’s biography I play the game of thinking what kind of novels I would write, given my biographical background. I invite you to do the same, and you will immediately see how all biographical analysis of writers must fall flat. Supposing you are the kind of extremely self-conscious novelist who knows very well your own biography, you might still not want to use any of it for your work. This is just not automatic.
I personally prefer asking authors technical questions. I am currently in communication with Kim Stanley Robinson about Frank May, the main male character in The Ministry for the Future (2020). Robinson has explained in diverse interviews that he has a penchant for using the name Frank frequently in his fiction. He has a Frank Chalmers (in Red Mars), Frank Vanderwal (the Science in the Capital trilogy), a Frank Churchill (“A History of the Twentieth Century, With Illustrations”), a Frank January (“The Lucky Strike”) and this Frank May. His explanation for that quirk is that “all of my liars are called Frank”, though that explanation is useless in May’s case (he’s too frank, not a liar). A biographer would dig into Robinson’s life to seek a double-faced great-uncle called Frank but I find that a waste of time. I am asking Robinson instead why he does not describe Frank as soon as we meet him, since this induces readers to visualize him incorrectly, and why May’s biography leads him to a particular ending. Robinson puts May in an extremely singular friendship with Mary Murphy, a powerful woman whom he kidnaps for a few hours, and I very much want to know why Robinson had to limit that friendship (and make room for conventional romantic love with another man). Perhaps Robinson has had a very singular friendship with a woman and this is where Frank and Mary come from, but this is irrelevant. At least to me. I am more interested in the architecture of the novel.
Does this mean that we should not write or read biographies of authors? No, not at all. I prefer autobiographies and memoirs, but I understand the need for biographies, and the curiosity that writers elicit. My post is, rather, a critique of the impulse most writers’ biographers feel to provide readers with by-the-numbers literary analysis, in a romantic biographical style now totally outmoded. I must clarify that I am reading Shirley Jackson’s and Bram Stoker’s biographies because I need to gather information (beyond Wikipedia!) to participate in a round table, but otherwise I tend to avoid writer’s biographies, precisely for their shaky literary criticism. In any case, what I am finding more interesting in these two volumes are the details of the respective author’s professional careers: when they started publishing, how many attempts it took, how their fame grew, how their career developed, how their posthumous reputation was built. Stoker was a very secretive man, which I totally respect, but Jackson bared her soul as a working mother in her memoirs (Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons), both amazing pre-Betty Friedan books about a woman author’s life in the 1950s. Franklin’s biography, written from a feminist point of view, does a good job of vindicating Jackson as an unfairly overlooked author, but its agenda might not correspond to what the author really needs. Likewise, Skal’s interest in presenting Stoker as a queer man is part of his own gender agenda, but not really how the author saw himself, which we will never know. I teach Dracula as a queer text, which is in many ways inevitable in our days, but I do not speculate on the author’s sexuality in my lectures. Quite another matter is approaching an author who wishes openly to be read as queer, black, post-colonial, an abuse victim… you name it!
Returning to Jackson’s inspiration for Hill House, Owen Hatherley comments in his fascinating article “Slashers, demons and head exploders: why horror revels in modern architecture” that “The reason why a ‘haunted house’ tends to be old and gothic isn’t just the fact that its floorboards might have a satisfyingly eerie creek, but because there is so much unseen in a Victorian house”, with all its nooks and crannies, and cloying decor. He proceeds then to examine the presence of post-1920s, post-Modernist, straight-line architecture in contemporary horror cinema, highlighting Candyman’s (1992) use of Chicago’s derelict Cabrini Green estate as a major turning point. In literature, I would recommend Mark Z. Danielewski’s highly experimental House of Leaves (2000) as a particularly unnerving (long) tale about an ordinary house which contains a mysterious labyrinth inside.
By the way, Stephen King has a note in his website about how a nightmare he had in 1974 while staying with his wife Tabby at room 217 of The Stanley Hotel in the Rocky Mountains gave him the inspiration to write The Shining: “We were the only guests as it turned out; the following day they were going to close the place down for the winter. Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect—maybe the archetypical—setting for a ghost story”. Then he dreamed that his terrified 3-year-old son was chased by a fire-hose in the corridors. When he woke up from the nightmare, he says, “I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind”. You can go the Freudian biographical way, and gossip about what kind of phallic father Stephen was to his son, now fellow novelist Joe Hill, or marvel that his brain connected the massive spaces of the hotel (built in 1909 and still in operation) with the specific sub-genre of the ghost story. Or visit the place itself and see how it haunts you… Here’s the bad news: you will not write The Shining, no matter how awful your nightmares there can be.