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Like many horror fans, Shirley Jackson is one of my favorite writers of all time. I’ve read almost all of her books and short stories. One of the most interesting things about her writing is analyzing how her own life impacted her stories. Going into this movie, I thought that would be the major theme. Spoiler alert: Shirley wasn’t actually about Shirley Jackson, the real-life horror author. It’s a psychological drama that uses the names of Shirley Jackson, Stanley Hyman, and a few of her short stories. But was it still good?

If it’s not a biopic, then what is it about?

The story portrayed in Shirley and the novel that it’s based on is completely fictional. The movie starts with a young couple, Fred and Rose, on a train to Bennington, Vermont. Fred is an academic, and has just gotten a job helping Professor Stanley Hyman with his research. The professor has offered for the couple to stay in his home. He is very warm and friendly, the life of the party. His wife, Shirley, on the other hand, is incredibly cold, rude, and very clearly depressed. Stanley asks Rose to basically become his housekeeper in exchange for free room and board. Pressured by her husband, Rose agrees. Soon, her husband and Stanley are gone all day at work and she is stuck in the house cleaning, cooking, and talking to Shirley. Fred is out late every night, advising the campus Shakespeare Society. 

The two women start off with an antagonistic relationship (Shirley somehow guesses that Rose is pregnant, reveals it to everyone at the dinner table, and accuses Rose and Fred of having a shotgun wedding), but they soon grow close. Shirley is obsessed with the recent disappearance of a Bennington College student, and Rose agrees to help her investigate. This becomes the basis for Shirley’s new novel (you guessed it), Hangsaman. 

As Shirley and Rose grow closer, Rose starts to realize how similar her own life is to the author’s. Both women are pretty much confined to the home while their husbands cheat on them with their undergraduate students. This is especially true towards the end of the movie, when Rose has her baby and must take care of the child on top of the house. The film culminates in Rose having a breakdown after Shirley reveals that there is no Shakespeare Society, and that Fred has just been using that as an excuse to sleep with his students. 

College can be pretty horrifying.

What the movie got right

This film has one of the best aesthetics I’ve ever seen. The cinematography perfectly captures a gothic vibe. I’m even using one of the screenshots I took as my computer background because it’s so creepy and beautiful. Building off of that, the soundtrack for this movie was incredible. Tamar-kali, the composer, did a fantastic job of setting the paranoid, sad, haunted tone of the film. The soundtrack really highlighted the characters’ difficult emotions. I will definitely be turning this playlist on the next time I’m writing gothic horror. 

Give the cinematographer and set designer a raise.

I also would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the performances. Every single actor in this film did such a great job. Odessa Young as Rose gave a really compelling performance of a character that could have ended up being quite boring. Elisabeth Moss was phenomenal in her portrayal of depression, agoraphobia, and dissatisfaction (although, to nitpick, she didn’t do a good impression of the author’s voice). The scenes where Shirley interacts with her husband are so nuanced and real. She was hard to watch, in a good way. Another standout was Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley. He toed the line really well between being warm, manipulative, and predatory. All of the actors should get awards for this movie, in my opinion. 

I wish my desk looked like this.

The themes in the film were fascinating. Ultimately, Shirley is about the horrors that women face in a patriarchal society, of how terrifying it is to remove yourself from the outside world, be forced to run a household by yourself, and still be invisible. This film is very claustrophobic and delves deep into the profound loneliness that these women feel. Further, it connects these feelings to the novel Hangsaman, which you should read. For that reason, I think  Shirley is definitely worth watching. 

Finally, there were a lot of fun easter eggs for us fans of Shirley Jackson’s work. Obviously, there are plenty of references to Hangsaman, from a stern Stanley determined to read and critique Shirley’s writing to a wild masquerade party around a bonfire. There’s also a scene featuring something no fan of We Have Always Lived in the Castle would miss: death-cap mushrooms. 

What it got wrong

As the title states, this movie is not a biopic. So, I don’t fault the movie for not being true to life. However, I do think it’s interesting and important to talk about what Shirley Jackson’s life was actually like during the time the film takes place. 

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Shirley takes place in the late 1940s or early 1950s, after Jackson published her infamous short story The Lottery. The film portrays the author as a depressed recluse who is alone all day and obsessed with writing a novel based entirely on a real-life disappearance. In reality, Shirley Jackson’s life at the time was very different. I am by no means an expert on this woman’s life, but here are some facts that I do know about my favorite author. 

Jackson was actually raising four small children in suburban Connecticut during this time period. Obviously, I understand that there are legal issues that could have prevented the filmmakers from including Shirley and Stanley’s children. But, by most accounts, Shirley seemed like a fun, active mother. You can even read her own reflections on parenting in her popular memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. According to her children, at the time the film takes place, the house was always full of play, visitors, and pets. I doubt that this real-life element would have contributed to the gothic, sad tone of the movie. And, to be fair, Jackson never loved being a housewife and did have a pretty rough marriage. Still, it was a little bizarre to see someone who was described by most people who knew her as lively and kind, if reserved, to be portrayed as brash, unhinged and downright cruel at points. 

While Jackson did suffer from depression and agoraphobia after writing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, she actually seemed to have been pretty stable while writing Hangsaman. Furthermore, the film treats Hangsaman as though it’s some sort of true crime novel based on the disappearance of Paula Welden. That’s not really true. While Jackson did get some inspiration from the case while writing the novel, she wasn’t utterly obsessed with it as the character of Shirley was in the film. For a while, the movie took on this weird almost detective story tone as Shirley sent Rose to investigate the case. That was kind of jarring and had no basis in reality. 

One of the worst parts about this film was that it didn’t involve Jackson’s actual writing when it could have. Throughout the movie, Shirley reads lines from her Hangsaman manuscript. These lines aren’t actual lines from the book. It was really bizarre to hear these made-up quotes when they could have just quoted the novel itself and it would have worked better. This choice I really do not understand. Hangsaman is a great book that perfectly fits the themes of the movie. Why not have Elisabeth Moss read lines from it?  

Oh, and this is pure speculation but  I’m pretty sure Shirley Jackson didn’t have the X-Men power of guessing when a woman was secretly pregnant. 

Final Thoughts

This is a haunting, interesting film. It deals with the dread and horror of women grappling with being forced into a subservient, domestic gender role, mistreated by their husbands but unable to do anything about it. It’s about “lost girls” who live on the margins and disappear. But it is not biographical. I would really hate for people to come out of this movie thinking that it was a completely accurate portrayal of Shirley Jackson’s life. Her story was actually more empowering in reality: she broke free from a bigoted, repressive family, wrote some of the greatest horror fiction of all time, and found joy raising her children even though she had a difficult relationship with her husband. That story, to me, is more powerful than the one portrayed in Shirley, and why I didn’t love the film as much as I wanted to.  3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Brianna Schullo

    July 9, 2020 at 4:53 pm

    This is an excellent and thorough review! I really enjoyed Shirley too, but was unsure of the authenticity. Thanks for teaching me even more about Shirley Jackson’s real life!

  2. Kristin Cleaves

    July 9, 2020 at 7:04 pm

    Excellent analysis and facts about Jackson’s real life. Thanks for pointing out the differences!

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps, The Haunted Mask

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Episode two of Goosebumps was honestly more fun than the first. It was dark, funny, infuriating and wonderful. Best of all, it has a killer twist ending.

Let’s discuss.

The story

Based loosely on the 1993 story of the same name, The Haunted Mask begins sort of partway through the first episode.

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Cover of R.L. Stine's The Haunted Mask.

We’re introduced to a character we haven’t seen much of so far, named Isabella.

Isabella’s life doesn’t seem great. She’s all but invisible at school. She is responsible for taking care of her little brother. It seems like her only real joy is bullying people online. She was the person who tried to get Allison’s party canceled by sending the invite to her parents. Why? Because she is a very unhappy person.

Despite trying to get the party canceled, she decides to go anyway. At the Biddle house, a voice calls her down to the basement. There, she finds a mask.

The mask inspires her to do wild things. She wanders around the party, flirting with everyone. And she has a great time.

Several days later, after Isaiah breaks his arm, Isabella brings an expensive drone to school to get shots of the football team’s practice. Unfortunately, Lucas breaks it fooling around. And Isabella, tired of being ignored, says some awful things to him.

When her mother grounds her because she took the drone without asking, the mask compels her to do some awful things.

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What worked

I would first like to talk about the storytelling structure in this season. It appears that we’re going to be getting the events of Halloween night multiple times, from multiple points of view.

Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps.

I love this structure. It’s unique, and it allows for more mystery in a shorter period. It’s also more complex, showing just how much madness was happening, while just showing one part of the story at a time.

Another thing I appreciated was the evolution of the character Lucas.

On one hand, it’s easy to be angry at Lucas. Even if he thought the drone belonged to the school, it’s still kind of a selfish move to break it.

But Lucas just lost his father. We don’t know how yet, but we know from Nora that his death caused Lucas to start doing things like jumping on drones and skateboarding off the roof from his bedroom window.

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We all mourn differently. Losing a parent as a teen is awful. So while we can all agree that he’s being a problem, he’s also being a sad kid working through something hard.

And the same can be said for Isabella.

Look, we still don’t know what the adults of this town did to make Harold Biddle haunt them. But we do know that these parents are messing up in all sorts of other ways. And Isabella is suffering from parentification. She’s being forced to play mom at home while being ignored by her classmates at school. Even without the mask, I could see her lashing out and trashing the house.

Finally, I love Justin Long in this series. His visual comedy was fantastic here, as he falls through the hallways. But he also manages to be scary as hell. His creepy smile and jerky movements are enough to make anyone’s skin crawl. I honestly can’t think of a living actor who could have played this better.

What didn’t work

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If I have one complaint about this episode, it’s the music. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. Every song seems like it’s just screaming what the characters are thinking. Which isn’t really what I’d consider the point of a soundtrack.

Maybe it’s just a curse on RL Stine. None of his projects can ever have good soundtracks aside from the theme song.

Unlike the original Goosebumps series, there were moments in this episode that did startle me and unnerve me. Which is wonderful. And while it’s still clearly for kids, it’s something anyone can sit down and enjoy. I’m very excited for the rest of the season. But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

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If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters launch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps Say Cheese and Die

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Released in 2023, Goosebumps is the latest in a line of content based on the insanely popular children’s book series with the same name. And if you’re here, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you a lot about Goosebumps. Most horror fans are at least passingly aware of the colorful covers, dark plotlines, and surprise twist endings. Some of us even have a few of the original books lying around.

For nostalgia.

Cover for Say Cheese and Die, Goosebumps number 4.

With so many good and bad versions of the original stories floating around, I was unsure how to feel about this brand-new series. I was sure, however, that I had to watch all of it. Especially with the infamous Slappy appearing so prominently in the advertising.

So, how was the first episode?

The story

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We start this episode with a flashback to 1993, and a young man named Harold Biddle. We don’t spend a lot of time with him. He comes home from school and goes right to the basement. There he starts writing some concerning notes in his journal. This is interrupted when a fire consumes the basement, killing him.

We then flash forward thirty years to the real start of our story. The Biddle house has just been inherited by a man named Nathan Bratt, played by the delightful Justin Long. He adores the place but is less than thrilled when a bunch of teens crash it for a Halloween party.

The teens end up not being thrilled either.

Now we come to our real main characters, Isaiah, Margot, Allison, and James. It is the four of them that planned the ill-fated party.

Zack Morris in Goosebumps

While in the house, Isaiah finds a Polaroid camera. He starts taking pictures of his friends, only to find that they don’t come out right. One of them, Allison, shows her on the ground in the woods, terrified for her life. Another shows Margot in a panic next to a snack machine.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he eventually sees both of the girls in those exact situations. The real trouble comes when Lucas takes a picture of him, and it shows him on the football field, horribly injured.

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All of these near-death experiences seem to be caused by the flaming spirit of Harold Biddle. And it soon becomes clear that the adults of the town likely know more than they’re willing to tell about what went down at the Biddle house thirty years ago.

What worked

For someone who grew up with the series, and is therefore of a certain age, the first scene of the episode was a lot of fun. It oozed 90’s vibe in a way that’s immediately recognizable to most, and familiar to my generation. Well, insomuch as wearing flannel and coming home to an empty house is the pinnacle of being a 90s kid.

It was also fun for the constant references to books in the original series. Blink and you missed them, but I saw the Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Haunted Mask, and Go Eat Worms. These make sense, as they each have their episode this season. But I’m sure I missed a few. Please let me know in the comments.

That was a lot of fun for someone who grew up with the series. But it wasn’t so constant and all-consuming as to distract from the story. Someone could have never read a Goosebumps book in their lives and just enjoy this episode of television.

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More importantly, younger viewers can watch this and feel like it’s for them. The main characters aren’t the parents, they’re the kids. And it’s clear even in this first episode that, even if it was the grownups who caused this horror, it’s going to be the kids that fix it.

This is a series that is for kids. And that’s great. It’s introducing a whole new generation to a series in a way that feels like it can be theirs just as much as it was ours when we were kids.

What didn’t work

All that being said, the story also felt a little dumbed down. A little too predictable. There was one line that particularly irritated me in this regard. When Nora goes to see Isiah’s dad in the hospital, she just flat-out says, “The children will suffer for the sins of the fathers.”

Not only is that just a bad line, it’s also a lazy one. It’s awkward and unrealistic. People simply do not talk that way. And we frankly didn’t need this information dropped on us. It was pretty clear during the football game that at least some of the grownups in town were going to be involved with this when we saw Nora recognize what was happening to Isaiah and try to stop the game. Kids are smart. They would have figured this out by themselves.

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It’s also a really tired trope. Freddy and Jason after all, are both killing young people for the sins of their parents. It was a big part of the storyline in Hide. And while I get that this might feel relevant to the next generation who are all paying for the mistakes of Boomers that Gen X and Millennials have not done enough to solve, it’s also a bit lazy. I just feel like, if this is going to be our main story, it could have been a better one.

But this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this episode. Overall, it was a fun start that left me with lots of questions. I’m excited to see where the rest of the season takes us.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Book Reviews

The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem

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“Julie crawled onto the table, straddling her intern, both hands around the knife. She torqued it downward, cursing. Brad shrieked harder.” -pg 57, The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw & Richard Kadrey

The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in a duology by authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It was published in 2023 by Tor Nightfire (like the Scourge Between Stars, which I reviewed here). I was not previously familiar with Kadrey’s work, which most notably includes the Sandman Slim series. However, I was introduced to Khaw through The Salt Grows Heavy (review here), which I absolutely adored in all its twisted, gory glory. Therefore, I was thrilled to pick-up The Dead Take the A Train, which promised similar heart in a modern cosmic horror package.

In The Dead Take the A Train, a magical fixer named Julie must hunt down eldritch monstrosities threatening the lives of those around her. To do this, she has to go up against her shitty ex, a questionable angel, finance executives, and her own sobriety. When an old friend shows up, Julie is terrified to find herself making a retirement plan that doesn’t involve getting murdered by a demon.

The Dead Take the A Train is reminiscent of N.K. Jeminsin’s The City We Became, with both featuring queer characters tackling eldritch horror plots in New York City. In the same way, the novel was reminiscent of a gorier version of Dimension 20’s Unsleeping City actual play series. However, it clearly carves out a space for itself among the droves of cosmic-horror inspired love letters to New York City. For one, it is mostly unconcerned with borough beef, which (not to sound like a curmudgeonly Midwesterner), is so refreshing. The book also has a relatively novel way the world works, which helps it stay memorable.

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Overall, I really liked The Dead Take the A Train. First off, the characters are fun and easy to root for. Julie is a mess in pretty much every aspect, but her bad decisions are understandable and she is charismatic. Her romance with her friend, Sarah, also serves to make Julie more likable. It helps that the villains are so easy to hate too. What’s not to hate about rich Wall Street assholes engaging in human sacrifice? Speaking of which, I liked the juxtaposition of corporate Wall Street and cosmic cultists. The actions taken were evil, but more importantly, they were just business.

The prose was flowery, but not quite as much as in The Salt Grows Heavy. So, if you struggled with Khaw’s other works for that reason this may be a much easier read. Personally, I enjoyed the prose in both. There is quite a bit of gore in The Dead Take the A Train, but I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. I think you could still enjoy the book if you don’t love gore, though maybe not if you have a weak stomach.

One of the largest issues I have with The Dead Take the A Train, is the lack of clarity in power levels of the various characters. Especially since all their forms of magic work in different ways, it is sometimes unclear the level of danger present. This can also sometimes create room for plot holes. For example, Julie has a friend who is tapped into anything and everything happening online. This is an absurdly powerful ability (and is used as such). But there were moments where the main conflict probably could have been avoided or solved using that power. It also felt odd that no one else in this thriving magic community felt strongly about stopping a world-ending catastrophe. Because of this, the magic underground of NYC could feel smaller than I think was intended.

Having been familiar with Khaw’s work previously, The Dead Take the A Train clearly feels like a mix of Khaw’s style with someone else’s. This could be a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view of Khaw’s distinct prose and storytelling. Either way, if you are interested in learning more about the process or the authors, check out the interview they did for SFF Addicts Podcast!

Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey on the SFF Addicts Podcast

I recommend The Dead Take the A Train, especially for those who are fans of modern urban eldritch horror. The book is an even bigger steal if you are looking for danger, gore, and queer characters. Check it out! And keep your eyes peeled for the next book in this duology. 

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