Today I have just added The Missing Girl to my ever-growing collection of Shirley Jackson stories. If you do not know yet, Shirley Jackson is my favorite author. Now that is not to say that she has written my favorite book (that is Tolkien). Rather, I have loved all her work consistently, and the genre she writes in is my favorite: horror/thriller/downright odd. The three stories in The Missing Girl are no exception to my love of Shirley Jackson’s work.
Most of you have probably watched the recent show “The Haunting of Hill House”, based on Jackson’s book of the same name. The book is wonderfully spooky and psychologically compelling, dealing with the main character Eleanor’s neuroses about herself and how she fits into the world, and ultimately how she fits into the scheme of Hill House itself.
Shirley Jackson takes a mundane world and turns it upside down. Often her stories center on a female main character living a normal life – whether as a wife, a secretary, an old woman living alone in her house, friendly to all her neighbors (remember that these books were written from around the 40s to te 60s). These characters step out of their normal routine by doing something that wouldn’t seem abnormal – going on an errand, sending a letter, visiting a friend, getting away for the weekend – and she meets the abnormal on the way, getting lost in some way on the journey. Similar plots happen in the three stories of The Missing Girl.
In the first story, “The Missing Girl”, a 13 year old girl goes missing from a summer camp. Her roommate didn’t think anything of it at the time because the girl said she would go out. When the camp realizes she is missing they do what people normally do when someone goes missing: they search. However, as the search goes on longer, the camp and the girl’s family start to realize that the girl may not have ever actually attended the camp as she was supposed to. At the end, the question becomes, did the girl ever exist in the first place?
In the second story, “Journey with a Lady”, a young boy travels on a train alone, when a lady sits down on the train next to him. It turns out she is running from the law. The boy at first does not want anything to do with the lady, but when he finds out she is a fugitive and why, he spends time with her, giving her a sense of normalcy and life before she has to turn herself in.
The last story, “Nightmare”, lives up to its title. A secretary, Miss Morgan is tasked by her boss to deliver a package to someone across town. Along the way she sees advertisements for people to find a “Miss X”, who coincidentally (or perhaps not so much) looks exactly like Miss Morgan. After hours of trying to escape the advertisements and people following her, knowing she looks like their “Miss X”, she succumbs to this new role into which the world has put her. And ultimately, she is very happy with the change.
One of the key points in Jackson’s writings is the stepping over the threshold into a different reality. Sometimes the reality is better than the old one, as with Miss Morgan. Other times it leads to loss and confusion, dealings with supernatural beings, or otherwise, death as in Eleanor’s case. The liminality of these stories makes the reader (i.e. myself) feel so wonderfully uneasy, and has them wondering what threshold they have yet to cross, or what supernatural and odd aspects of life are waiting for them in a version of their own realities.