This week, the last week of my Shirley Jackson marathon, we’re going to be looking at The Bird’s Nest. This is my all time favourite Jackson book, it’s the scariest, both in terms of psychology and bone chilling horror. Let me explain, as there are those who heartily disagree with that statement.
Elizabeth is having some issues. She lives with her awful Aunt Morgen (her mum used to live there too but she died some time ago), and is generally a quiet, non entity. Of late she’s been suffering with insomnia and having black outs, Aunt Morgen is accusing her of going out late at night and stealing alcohol, which she’s certain she hasn’t done. She’s also finding notes at work, nasty notes that seem to indicate a hate campaign against her. After an incident at some friends of her Aunt’s, Elizabeth is forced to see a psychologist.
Doctor Wright is an arrogant buffoon, an idiot, as much an awful person as Morgen. He treats Elizabeth like a child, and tries to persuade to undergo hypnosis. When she finally agrees, he discovers the problem. Elizabeth has four personalities and they are fighting for dominance: sweet child-like Beth, tearaway teen Betsy, and vulgar, manipulative Bess.
Surprisingly, all the horror in this book does not revolve around the battle for dominance WITHIN Elizabeth, but rather the battle to dominate her from WITHOUT. Both Aunt Morgen and Doctor Wright seek to control and manipulate Elizabeth/Beth/Betsy/Bess.
After Wright’s (badly handled) hypnosis sets off a chain of catastrophic events, he and Morgen try and regain control. In my interpretation of this book, what they do only exacerabates the problem. They try what is essentially a psychiatric exorcism of all other personalities, trying to bring Beth to the fore and subdue the others.
Effectively this traumatic event splits off a fourth personality, an unhinged, Beth/Elizabeth combination who is filled with both potential and traumatised emptiness. But Wright and Morgen see this emptiness as a challenge, they determine to create an entirely new person from the ground up, with all the characteristics they most admire and require.
That is horror. Pure horror. Being under the control of people like that, and essentially being helpless, because this new personality (who doesnt even get to name herself) is too far gone to fight back, although there is some indication that she’s aware of the danger she’s in:
‘I’m the gingerbread man, I’ve run away from a little old woman and a little old man.’
The end of this book genuinely gave me chills and I’d advise learning a little about why multiple personalities (dissociative identity disorders) occur before reading it, because I think that’s what differs between other people’s interpretation of the book and mine. Highly, highly recommended even if not as well written as some of Jackson’s other books!
You can buy this book in the UK here
And in the US here