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People / Places / Things
Sincerest Flattery
by Deborah Markus

ilton read the very beginning and the very end of the Bible and gave the world Paradise Lost. Tennyson spun half a page of backstory from The Odyssey into his "Choric Song of the Lotus-Eaters." Jean Rhys gave the madwoman in the attic from Jane Eyre a chance to tell her own story in Wide Sargasso Sea.   There is, in short, a long and honorable history of great writers being set afire by other people's stories. This tradition dates all the way back to the ancient Greeks, who were lucky enough to live in a world young enough that there were actually new stories to tell. And what did these fortunates do? Told their stock of old stories over and over again. Sophocles didn't come up with Oedipus the king, Oedipus the character; he just wrote his tale most memorably, drawing on legends everyone already knew.

A certain Mr. Stephen King is a good contemporary example of an author working at times in this tradition. Early in his career, he wrote 'Salem's Lot -- a novel that's far more entertaining, and probably more frequently read, than its progenitor, Dracula, which itself drew upon both traditional vampire legends and contemporaneous novels and stories about vampires.

Still earlier in his career, Mr. King fell under the spell of Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," which in turn took inspiration from the isolated line in King Lear from which the poem drew its name. Mr. King has written several novels now about his own Roland and dark tower, and plans to write more, for which his readers may be properly grateful. And all thanks to a false madman's mockravings, which might so easily have been overlooked or ignored, being picked up and played with by a great poet a hundred and fifty years ago.

Perhaps the obscurity of such lines is exactly what makes them perfect seeds of inspiration. The later artist has so much more room to play when everything hasn't been spelled out for him. The Odyssey says nothing about the lotus-eaters except that they were some guys who liked to eat fruit. Jane Eyre's Bertha Mason gets a few incoherent screams onstage and a loathing description by a husband who never loved her. Milton did pick a pretty epic and obvious tale to write about, but civilian readers agree that he only really shone when dwelling on the literally darker and less seen elements of his story. God and the angels get a lot of air time in the Bible, but check again for any really cool descriptions of demons and the devil in that tome. Good writers, great artists know the special joy of seeing a diamond where the uninfatuated eye would glimpse only coal.

Which brings us back to Mr. King. An admirer of Shirley Jackson (he dedicated a book, and a great many words in Danse Macabre, to her), he may have been inspired by a small but significant episode in Jackson's best-known novel, borrowed the bones of it, and worked it into a longer and at least equally significant passage in his own novel Carrie.   Readers of that book may recall the stones falling on Carrie White's house and yard when she was only three. Clearly this was a shadow of what was to come -- an early example of Carrie's telekinetic powers, which would later lash out in rage at her classmates, her tormentors.

Twenty-five years earlier, showers of stones had fallen on the home of Eleanor Vance, heroine of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. This poltergeist activity, long forgotten by Eleanor herself, would lead her to be invited, when she was thirty-two, to stay at Hill House and see if anything transpired in the allegedly haunted mansion. Which it most certainly did. But nothing that happens there, in Eleanor's presence or out of it, has anything overtly to do with the earlier shower of stones, detailed brilliantly but briefly by Jackson at the beginning of the book: day, when she was twelve years old and her sister was eighteen, and their father had been dead for not quite a month, showers of stones had fallen on their house, without any warning or any indication of purpose or reason, dropping from the ceilings, rolling loudly down the walls, breaking windows and pattering maddeningly on the roof. The stones continued intermittently for three days, during which time Eleanor and her sister were less unnerved by the stones than by the neighbors and sightseers who gathered daily outside the front door, and by their mother's blind, hysterical insistence that all of this was due to malicious, backbiting people on the block who had had it in for her ever since she came. After three days Eleanor and her sister were removed to the house of a friend, and the stones stopped falling, nor did they ever return...

Even given Jackson's interest in showers of stones (if you don't know what I mean, please go read her short story "The Lottery" and then kick yourself hard for not having done so years ago), this would seem a strange passage to single out for special attention. But King likes strange. He likes girls on the verge of womanhood finding terrifying powers from within. Certainly he likes strong visual images, as opposed to Jackson's general preference for the visceral and the conversational (there's a reason why his books often inspire good movies and Jackson's, with one blazing exception, don't). So, apparently, he took this scene and ran with it.

What he might not have known was that this little gem was probably, in turn, inspired by a much older source. Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions, was first published in 1689, and has influenced writers as diverse as Daniel Defoe and Edith Sitwell, though its most famous beneficiary is probably Edgar Allan Poe, who, admiring but apparently not satisfied with the work's quotability, made up a passage to head his short story "Ligeia." Despite its admitted historical and literary significance, Saducismus' 600+ pages are barely in print; the book is impossible to find except in university libraries, and isn't what most modern readers would consider a fun Friday night.

But Shirley Jackson adored it. She sprinkled the Lottery short-story collection with quotes from it, and borrowed names for her characters from people involved in the witch trials it recounts. It was probably one of the books she hauled out when she was doing research for The Haunting of Hill House. Being already familiar with Saducismus, as her earlier work makes clear, she would by now have a fine eye for detail in it. And so she singled out from the trial of "Florence Newton, an Irish Witch," the testimony of one Mary Longdon, allegedly tormented.

Longdon had "Fits," brought on, she claimed, by Newton's malice. Before those fits first began:

several (and very many) small stones would fall upon her as she went up and down, and would follow her from place to place, and from one room to another, and would hit her on the head, shoulders, and arms, and fall to the ground and vanish away.... she and several others would see them both fall upon her, and on the ground, but could never take them, save only some few, which she and her Master caught in their hands. Amongst which one that had a hole in it she tied (as she was advised) with a Leather thong to her Purse, but it was vanisht immediately, though the Leather continued tied on a fast Knot.

Talk about diamonds in dust. Jackson, unless she was skimming, had to wade through some four hundred pages or so of seventeenth-century spookiness to get to this passage, which (take this writer's word for it) is outstanding, given the context, in its interest and readability. She obviously recognized its power; but what could she do with the strange story? It wasn't the subtle sort of horror she preferred to deal out. This odd little anecdote eventually settled on the origin story of Hill House's heroine, who certainly needed some spice (Eleanor Vance's idea of painting the town red, as King points out in Danse Macabre, is going out and buying two new pairs of slacks for her trip to Hill House).

Jackson focused purely on the human aspect of the bizarre; her rewrite is hardly visual at all, as she found the reaction to sudden strangeness more interesting than the event itself. She ends the anecdote quoted above by noting that Eleanor and her sister "each had supposed at the time that the other was responsible," and that "the feud with the entire neighborhood was never ended." The falling rocks, striking at a critical time of Eleanor's life, become formative:

they feed the dislike for one another that Eleanor and her sister never grow out of; they stunt her already meager social life and skills; and, of course, they lead her, eventually, to Hill House.

King expanded and heightened the visual interest of the incident; while Jackson clinically leaves the details to the omniscient narrative voice, King gives the story to someone who saw the rocks falling and was, quite naturally, terrified. Those rocks were a step on the road to destruction Carrie unwillingly found herself on. It would be interesting to know if King realizes that the story of some other rocks, different but in a sense wed to those in Carrie, led to the destruction of another life -- a real one -- some three hundred years ago.