I came to Gregory Maguire's fairy tale retellings via a somewhat unusual route. Whereas most of Maguire's fans began with his take on L. Frank Baum's Oz, in particular through the novel Wicked and its incredibly successful Broadway musical adaptation, I began with his Cinderella retelling: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. After falling in love with that book, I eagerly devoured Wicked and was very excited to receive the gift of his then-newly-published book Mirror, Mirror (published 2003). I'll admit that I came into my first reading of Maguire's Snow White retelling with certain expectations. Both Confessions and Wicked subverted the tales upon which they were based by giving the traditional 'villains' of those tales voice, and providing them opportunity to be the heroines in their own story. In particular, I expected that Mirror, Mirror might have a similar approach to its fairy tale as Confessions; I anticipated that Maguire would make use of an historical setting where any of the magical elements of the tale are eliminated in favor of a more realistic take on the tale. These expectations were very much wrong; despite surface similarities, Mirror, Mirror is very different from Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Revisiting this book over a 15 years later, I am better able to recognize just why it was that reading Mirror, Mirror left me with an uncomfortable feeling of disappointment, as though I were the one who had bitten into a glossy apple only to taste a poisonous bitterness.
I will not go into full detail on my thoughts regarding Mirror, Mirror here, both to limit spoilers for those who might want to approach this novel for the first time, and because I will be saving much of what I have to say for my Book Club discussion with Mary (which will be posted this weekend in the Enchanted Garden). What I will focus on here is providing an overview of what to expect going into this book, and of the rather mixed feelings I have with respect to it.
Mirror, Mirror begins in a way that is, indeed, very reminiscent of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, in that it is clear that the setting for this tale is an actual historical place and time. I have written about the primary places and historical figures Maguire includes in my post in the Enchanted Garden. However, it deviates almost immediately as fantastical elements which would be treated as superstition in Confessions are portrayed as simple fact--a theme which compounds throughout the book as supernatural creatures and occurrences with no possible natural explanation become increasingly prominent. The most prominent way in which Mirror, Mirror differs from books such as Wicked and Confessions, however, is in the portrayal of the villain of the tale. If Maguire had kept with the precedent he set up in his previous books, readers might expect that the protagonist of Mirror, Mirror would be the 'evil' stepmother/queen in the tale. At the very least, they might expect that this character would be humanized in a way that leaves readers wondering at the fairness of her characterization as the antagonist. However, instead of taking the fictional character of the 'evil queen' and granting her a chance to be understood in a more positive light, Maguire takes an actual historical figure (Lucrezia Borgia) and dehumanizes her into someone as vain, self-obsessed and sinister as the queen in the classic Grimm tale.
Mirror, Mirror can be uncomfortable to read at times because of how Maguire deals with sexuality, especially of pre-pubescent and pubescent girls. Part of this can be understood as deliberately shedding a light on what was historical reality. Lucrezia Borgia was married at the age of 13, after all. However, something about the way Lucrezia is portrayed, in particular, was deeply unsettling to me. There’s a judgmental undertone to descriptions of her dying her hair and taking care with her appearance in other ways. She was clearly victimized at a very young age by both her older brother and others within the context of the story. However, she is very much depicted as a jealous, heartless woman who has turned her own attractiveness into a tool to manipulate others for her own gain, and who cannot truly see anything outside of herself.
In contrast, whereas Bianca de Nevada (Snow White) is similarly sexualized, Maguire portrays this as an imposition laid upon her and something to which she is exposed against her will rather than something internal to her character. Much like the white color for which she is named is actually a reflection of every color, Bianca is a mirror reflecting back the character of those who look upon her. Bianca herself is 'pure' and, really, somewhat featureless. Things happen to her and around her rather than her truly causing the action of her own tale.
I could write an entire essay exploring the symbolism and themes within Mirror, Mirror. Much like the onions that Maguire frequently references and uses for imagery and metaphor throughout it, there are layers upon layers which can be picked apart to get to the core of this book. Perspective, color, light, identity, and sexuality are only some of the themes on prominent display throughout the novel. I will explore some of my thoughts on these themes in the Book Club discussion to follow.
If you are looking for a somewhat surreal, dark, adult fairy tale retelling, then Mirror, Mirror might be just the read for you. If you are looking for a twist that does some interesting new thing to the story of Snow White, turning it on its head the way Wicked and Confessions do with their respective tales, you are likely to be disappointed. If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly of the Italian Renaissance, then this could either be a very interesting or a very frustrating read for you, depending upon how you view the liberties Maguire takes with the historical figures presented.
I would not recommend Mirror, Mirror for light reading. While it is a very rich book for readers willing to plumb the depths of the imagery and themes Maguire employs, it is not at all the escapist fantasy that many fairy tale retellings are. It may very well leave you feeling unsettled as you read--not a bad thing for a novel to do, but certainly something to keep in mind when determining whether/where on your reading list to place this book.
It used to represent freedom and absolute comfort. I never had my own space, never had privacy—not really. The very idea of being able to strip down and slide, naked, between the sheets of my bed, was tantalizing and titillating on its own. I’ll admit that it was deliberately to tease, when I first mentioned it to him. Just a casual remark completely in keeping with the tone of the conversation. Oh, sometimes the reason it takes me so long to answer my door is that I sleep naked and I’m slipping into some clothes. I relished in the response received, in that feeling—so new to me, so difficult for me to believe—that I was desired.
Similar, the first time I allowed him to see me naked. Lying there—nervous, yes, but also so very excited, almost catching a laugh upon my breath as I thought upon the reaction he’d have when he pulled back the covers of his bed only to find me waiting there, more ready for him than he had any reason to expect. Sharing myself that way was a choice all my own. It wasn’t forced upon me, it wasn’t rushed, it wasn’t expected or even outright requested. I knew that it was something he wanted, something he would like, something he would appreciate…At least, I thought that I knew that. Looking back, did I ever really know anything of his thought or feelings? Part of what pains me most now is the fear that I never did, not really. How much--just how much—was false? Whether my own misconceptions (false hope, assumptions) or deliberate deceit, the end result was the same.
What moment was it, that something which once empowered me, which I once chose to share, became a crippling prison into which I’d allowed myself to be forced? When did something so harmless, so freeing, become a prison unto itself?
It’s amusing to see how in film nudity is so frequently, so studiously avoided. Lovers who never quite seem to get naked in bed, women who ridiculously sleep without removing their bras (as though that weren’t the first thing to come off at the end of a long day): it’s just one of the ways that media doesn’t quite map on to reality. Equally unrealistic, in my experience, are films where a captive is tortured or ridiculed while remaining clothed. Nothing matches the feeling of vulnerability that comes from being altogether naked. Nothing.
Unprotected. Unable to run. Humiliated. Cold.
The chill settled within my stomach, an unshakeable ache that my hands, my arms, could not soothe away. Any sort of cover would have been welcome—even the ability to curl upon myself so only my back was exposed to the chill (indifferent) air would have been a blessing. Clothing, comfort, cover of any kind were all barred to me. I stood, naked, shifting my weight from foot to foot, bending subtly to try to shake the pain gathered in my spine, trying to be silent, to seem totally still.
Yet, obeying sometimes made it worse. Don’t obey and risk beating, bruises, blood. Obey too long and risk the same. How to find the balance? How to know whether or not it’s safe, now—at least somewhat so—to crawl into bed, or to possibly at least sit upon the floor? Perhaps bed was allowed, but no blanket? If I slumped to the carpet, would I be beaten, filthy fool that I was, and forced, again, to bathe until my skin was itchy, raw, tormented by the torrent of now-cold water—warmth long gone? If I slipped into bed, would I awake to cuddles and the pretense that this didn’t happen, doesn’t matter, is at least over for now? Or would I awaken to a sudden blow, to split skin and bloodied sheets and desperate scrubbing--out damn spot—to forestall stains even as I wipe the blood and tears from my aching eyes? Or would I flinch from a blow sensed, but not yet landed, and so earn a beating even if one were not actually imminent prior?
Damned reflexes that betray. A hideous guessing game where, even when I gained some small reprieve, I always lost. There was no chance of winning. Not there. And so I stood—naked, vulnerable to him in every possible way, trapped by the equal powers of fear and indecision.
Looking back, the moments blend together. I see myself…
The time I thought maybe I’d leave, after all. Downstairs, desperately pulling a long wool coat on over my nakedness, cowering in the entryway. Reaching for the door only to be pulled back, yanked down, left gathering the scattered fistful of hair I’d lost; penance, perhaps, for the attempt.
The countless times I was denied cover—whether lying in bed without a scrap of blanket or standing at attention. Not allowed to sit, to crouch, to lie down, to move, to think too hard about just what I’d come to--mustn’t think, mustn’t cry, mustn’t run, mustn’t flinch, mustn’t speak, mustn’t let out the scream that’s welling up inside. Even when it is warm, cold will settle into your belly if you give it such chance to do so. It will ache.
How must I have looked, huddled within the dripping confines of the tub in our bathroom? Hair hopelessly tangled, curls turned to knots and loose strands caught up with those still attached to my scalp. Snot and tears and blood running together in a mess that progressed from damp discomfort, to itching, to a burning, unrelenting sting.
Wanting to shower, but then also wanting to stop. Neither one my choice to make—oh, certainly, I was left to make it. Yet, with such harsh penalties for making the wrong choice and only one correct selection I was supposed to somehow discover—what choice was it, really?
Just how many times did I sit so long damp in the shower after bathing that I had to bathe again in order to feel clean? Even once already one time too many; I truly could not count, could not guess the hours.
Whatever the situation my memory places before me, elements remain the same. Desperately trying to distract, to change the mood, to wait it out, to gauge what action (or inaction) will lead to the least amount of pain, of punishment. Hating my own flesh for its weakness, hating him for exposing that weakness, and hoping he’d never see some telltale flash of fire to speak to that hate, that resentment that smoldered deep within my being, that said this is wrong even when the rest of me failed to fight. Hoping my own thoughts and feelings—so very opaque to me—weren’t just as naked to him as he kept the rest of me.
I'll readily admit that it was the thorough enjoyment that I took in Netflix's 2018 series The Haunting of Hill House which led me to seek out the novel which inspired it. What I discovered was a book that is very rightfully considered a masterpiece within the horror genre, and an author whose books and stories will certainly provide fodder to haunt my dreams for years to come. Shirley Jackson's writing, whatever else I may say about it, most certainly left an impression upon me.
The basic plot of The Haunting of Hill House arises from the premise that an investigator of ghostly phenomena (Dr. John Montague) has invited several individuals "who had, in one way or another, at one time or another, no matter how briefly or dubiously, been involved in abnormal events" to live with him in Hill House in order to study its reputed haunting. This premise has very clearly proven incredibly influential in ghost stories of all kinds in the decades since Hill House was first published back in 1959. I grew up reading books and watching films that were very much based around the idea of the paranormal investigators inviting a group of psychics and experts together to live in a haunted house in order to study it. I have to say that, while it's been done well in the time since, no one has improved upon Jackson's take on it.
Of the numerous individuals invited by Dr. Montague, only four replied. Of those four, only two actually came. The events that follow, while very much captivating, struck me as being less important than the tone in which Jackson conveys them, and the perspectives from which they are explored. The primary protagonist of the book is arguably one of Dr. Montague's two guests, one Eleanor Vance. Eleanor is a fascinating character who is at times completely relatable and at other times utterly incomprehensible. The transformation of Eleanor's character over the course of the story was, for me, the most beautiful--and horrible--aspect of this novel. I would go into more depth, but I would hate to spoil the experience for any uninitiated reader who might want to delve into this book after reading this review. Suffice it to say that even if you have seen the film adaptations of this work, it most certainly still contains surprises for you.
The tone Jackson employs in this novel reminded me of Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw (first published in 1898). This is true both in that Hill House very much reads as a Gothic horror story, and also in that it left me with the same sense of unease and vague dissatisfaction in the end that I remember having as a child upon first reading The Turn of the Screw. There are no definitive answers given, and this is compounded by the fact that there is certainly reason to doubt the reliability of the narrator. If you have read and enjoyed Henry James, then you will almost certainly likewise enjoy Shirley Jackson; both wrote the sort of horror that leaves a reader feeling unsettled and confused rather than truly horrified.
In summary, it is for very good reason that The Haunting of Hill House is considered one of the best ghost stories ever written. If you enjoy ghost stories, Gothic fiction, or psychological horror, then you should absolutely give this--and Shirley Jackson's other written works--a read. If you do not appreciate ambiguity, or are simply not in the mood for reading something which will haunt you with its imagery and with lingering questions, then this is likely not the book for you. However, I do highly recommend it; let's all be delightfully unsettled together.
When people learn how long I stayed with him, how long I dwelt with his violence and his control, they often remark upon it. Specifically, they question: how could someone like me—someone as smart as I am—stay in that sort of situation? How could I let him treat me that way for so long? Even if they don’t say it, I know they’re thinking, “I wouldn’t have stayed; I would have left; I wouldn’t have let myself be treated that way.” Yet, when I respond with a bare acknowledgement of my own stupidity—my own complete and foolish disregard for myself—they’re equally quick to backtrack. “No, I didn’t mean to say you’re stupid.” What did you mean, do you think? Do you even know?
I’ve always been this person inside. Always this strong, this caring, this kind, this careful, this carefree. I just buried it deep beneath insecurity and neuroses; beneath the conviction that he was right and I can help and don’t be so selfish, Elizabeth. Selflessness, charity, putting others first. It isn’t sustainable if you’re only a ghost of yourself, a shell emptied and hollowed and beginning to crumble apart.
I stared out the window at the bright sunlit world, briefly mesmerized by the slight sway of the tender branches of a young pine and the tall stand of lavender, set to motion by a breeze that was undoubtedly welcome to those outside in the dry desert heat. Sun-baked sandstone and glittering pale granite lined a patio that overlooked the mountains, and a part of me wondered at the knowledge that the metal tables and chairs that bedecked the paved area would be scorching to the touch should anyone try to use them.
I felt weirdly cut off from the world, sitting in a chair that, while it had seemed welcomingly soft when I first sat down, now felt hard beneath me where the fake leather molded to my form. The coolness of the air-conditioned room had been welcome, too, at first. Now, though, I found myself shuddering and thinking almost longingly of venturing outside into the blazing heat of the summer afternoon. I knew that I wouldn’t, though—that there was no way I would be able to bring myself to leave my spot at the low table, open laptop sitting before me so that I could make some pretense at business, waiting. I was waiting for him, just as I would always wait for him, and the thought of it sent a pang through my chest and had me suddenly suppressing tears. Blinking rapidly to forestall an embarrassing episode of public weeping, I quickly turned away from the window, staring blankly at the open document on my computer screen. The contrast between my situation inside and the brilliance of the summer just out of reach beyond the glass was suddenly more than I could bear; it all too clearly resembled the contrast between my current existence and the seemingly-blissful normalcy of the lives of everyone who passed in and out of the building around me. When had I become such a mess? I questioned myself, although I well knew the answer; he was the reason I was here, after all. Waiting. As usual.
Thoughtlessly, I rubbed my arm in an attempt to warm it—whoever controlled the air for this building obviously did not spend much time in it, or was one of those strange folks who prefers to wear a sweater indoors even during the hottest desert summer—and winced when my hand brushed too strongly against a nearly-forgotten bruise. “Fuck,” I whispered the word beneath my breath, then instantly flushed in embarrassment, checking furtively to be sure that no one had heard me—speaking aloud to myself as I sat in my little corner would be bad enough, but cussing … I reddened further, and had to force myself to take a few deep breaths.
No one was looking towards me, and there weren’t that many people around anyway. The university was sparsely populated, most students choosing to take a break rather than continue to study over the short summer semester. Further, it was a holiday weekend—most students and faculty would be home preparing to celebrate Independence Day. It felt as though I was a part of a small, exclusive club of those whose lives so revolved around the university as to have no reason to ever be anywhere else. Or, rather, I wished that it could feel that way—I felt far too isolated, and too aware that I was no longer a student myself, to feel comfortable the way everyone else appeared to be. It felt as though ever since I had graduated, I had a sign pasted to my forehead that warned people that I didn’t belong; it was with wistful nostalgia that I remembered the days when I felt comfortable anywhere and everywhere on campus, no matter the day or the hour—when this place had been school, workplace and home.
I glanced again at my watch, although I knew there was no real reason to do so—after all, there was no set time he would arrive; he would get here whenever he was done, and no sooner. Nonetheless, I kept checking the time—appealing to watch, cell phone, and laptop alternately—it wasn’t as though I really had anything else to do. Although, even that was a lie. There was plenty that I could—and should—be doing; I simply couldn’t bring myself to embrace those few activities that I could accomplish while I waited for him.
Trying to convince myself my shudder was solely the result of the cool air blowing down on me, I shifted in my chair and crossed my legs, the cold air striking unpleasantly against the back of my thigh where I had grown sweaty from sitting for so long. Smoothing my slacks along my legs, I tried to focus my attention on the work that awaited on my computer. The blinking cursor in the open document seemed to taunt me as I sat with fingers poised over the keyboard. With an inward curse, I again gave up. Giving myself empty assurances that I would be able to do it later—there was plenty of time, my mind just wasn’t in the right place—I sat back and once again settled into staring out of the window, this time hardly seeing the bright colors of the plants set against a clear blue, sun-washed sky.