Sag Harbor author Susan Scarf Merrell smiled and slowly shook her head. “It’s surreal. I’m just speechless,” she said.
That’s because Merrell has hit a writer’s emotional jackpot — her novel Shirley, about author Shirley Jackson, which was published in 2014, is currently in production as a major motion picture starring Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Michael Stuhlbarg (“Call Me By Your Name,” “The Shape of Water”). The book, a psychological thriller, follows a fictional young couple who spend a year at Bennington in 1964 with novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband, literary critic and Bennington professor Stanley Edgar Hyman.
There’s only so many times you can use the word “disturbing” to describe Shirley Jackson’s works, but it’s the most fitting. Jackson’s deeply unsettling short story “The Lottery” was required reading in almost every high school English class, everywhere, forever (remember the stoning?), but a deeper dive takes you to Jackson’s other works, all of them equally unnerving and sinister, often blurring the line between what could be a mental breakdown or an actual supernatural event.
And the works of Jackson have been put to film before.
The Haunting of Hill House is one of her books, which Stephen King — who called Jackson a great inspiration to his own work — named as “one of the most important horror novels of the 20th Century.” That book was made into the brilliant and chilling 1963 film The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise and starring Claire Bloom and Julie Harris. (An interesting aside is that Wise went from the stark, black-and-white horror of The Haunting directly to the vast technicolor musical The Sound of Music.) Another one of Jackson’s books, We Have Always Lived In The Castle, considered by many as her masterpiece, has been presented both as a play and as a film, which has yet to be released.
But back to Merrell, who had written two books prior to Shirley — A Member of the Family, her first novel, and prior to that The Accidental Bond, which examined sibling connections and how they influence us.
Merrell has long been fascinated by Jackson and her life, a fascination that began while she was in grad school in Bennington. Merrell started reading Jackson’s works, and became “obsessed,” and found herself confessing her fixation to one of her professors, who helped Merrell find the local connection. “It’s where Stanley and Shirley spent their adult lives, but I didn’t know that,” she said.
The obsession continued through Merrell’s thesis in 2009, which was about Jackson. “I went down to the Library of Congress, and there are these incredibly sexy, funny, unbelievably smart love letters exchanged between Shirley and Stanley when they were 19, 20. I made copies of all these letters, thinking, ‘I’ll write something about this one day.’ I knew their marriage had not been a perfect marriage. It was very complex. I was really interested in the idea of what happens to a marriage over time; how you could start out so perfectly matched and then end up in the mess they ended up in.”
Merrell planned on a straight-up biography, meeting with Jackson’s children and others who had known her (Jackson died in 1965 at the age of 48). But more interesting tie-ins began to surface, including the real-life disappearances of several people around that time and in that area, including an 18-year-old female Bennington student, Paula Welden, which added to the intrigue. And so, the biography became more of a thriller, with real life events and people.
“But I could never really find the way in for the project that I wanted to do. After graduate school, I was walking in the woods with a friend of mine from grad school — the novelist Martha Cooley — and I said ‘I just don’t see the way in,’ and she said, ‘What if someone else could see what was happening?’”
Thus came the idea of the observer, the narrator, the Nick Carraway, who could tell the story. “I remembered, from reading her diaries, these notations of people who had come to stay with them, and I just began to imagine who that person might be. Merrell struggled for five years to bring the book to fruition, but all the time, she said, “I kept having these feelings while I was writing the book that she really wants me to do this.”
Eventually, Merrell came up with the idea of a younger couple who come to live with Shirley and Stanley, with the young woman, Rose, who becomes All About Eve-style obsessed by Shirley, gradually coming to “imagine that the house is haunted, and that Shirley and the house are somehow guiding her. And that Stanley, who was a philanderer, had something to do with Welden’s disappearance. And what’s real and not real is never really established,” just like one of Jackson’s storylines. “She really does lose her mind,” said Merrell. “But she’s living in a world where people don’t really have their minds, so who can judge whom?”
Four years ago, the book was optioned, and even though there have been a couple of moves, the project has stayed in the original hands. The film is being directed by Josephine Decker, with a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins (creator and writer of “I Love Dick”), and has begun filming in the Jefferson Heights region of Catskill, NY — a good stand-in for the 1950s feel of Bennington, VT.
“It’s a very weird little book,” Merrell acknowledged. “I like to think that she would have liked it. And having the film made, with such a stellar ensemble, is just so exciting.”