Sunday, October 9, 2011

Shirley Jackson Road Trip, the report

[March 2013: Please don't request directions or addresses for these locations -- the throwaway offer I made in the comments has lead to a barrage of requests.  The residences are actively occupied by families who may not realize the significance of where they live and we could have been wrong. Readers can puzzle together locations via the books we referenced, which is how we made our educated guesses. --Audra]

Last weekend, my wife surprised me with a mini-vacation to N. Bennington, VT, home of author/goddess Shirley Jackson. While I like Jackson's fiction, my wife loves her. Loves. So it was with much giddiness we made the trip, armed with a biography and Jackson's autobiographical works, hoping we might be able to glean something of where Jackson lived and worked.

The trip turned out even more amazing than we anticipated!  Despite the rain, we enjoyed the gorgeous three plus hour drive to Vermont: fog, mountains, trees turning to gold and red, lots of adorable, decaying New England towns.  The ambiance was perfect.

Grecian-pillared rental
North Bennington seems unchanged from the '50s when Shirley Jackson lived there: we were able to find both houses she wrote about as their facades were literally unchanged from sixty years ago.  (Which was good as North Bennington had zero signs indicating Jackson lived and worked there.  Perhaps they still hate how she saw them.)

The first house was the rental featured in Life Among the Savages, notorious for the over-the-top columns that literally towered over the rest of the neighborhood.

Photographic evidence
...and Doctor Ogilvie modeled his house after, presumably, a minor Greek temple; he set up the four massive white pillars across the front, threw wings out to both sides and then, with true New England economy, left the house only one room deep behind its impressive face. (p11, Life Among the Savages)

But this picture from Jackson biography, of Jackson's father-in-law with one of her sons, and a street name, confirmed it for us.

Lean-y gatepost house
We had lunch at Powers Market, where Jackson did all her shopping; the Bennington College students who now buy their sandwiches and microbrews there only stared a little bit as we took pictures.  After that, we went in search of Jackson's next house, a purchase documented in Raising Demons.  Armed this time only with a street name and some geographical references (near the bank and school), we drove around trying to look as unsuspicious as possible until we hit upon what we think is The House.

...I drove on up Main Street.  The house with the gateposts was unmistakeable, particularly since the left-hand gatepost leaned at a sharp angle inward toward the driveway.  I saw maple trees, and a wide lawn, and a barn almost as big as the house. (p10, Raising Demons)

Jennings Hall, Bennington College
After that, we headed for the Bennington College campus to find Jennings Hall, the building that was the inspiration for Hill House in her novella The Haunting of Hill House. The campus is stupidly gorgeous and deliciously foggy and we were enjoying the scenery when BAM!  We turned a corner and caught sight of a building so creepy and gorgeous, it had to be Jennings Hall.  And we were right.

Creepy drippy ceiling!
Like crazy people -- or diehard fans -- we circled the front and took a ton of pictures, then went inside.  We didn't have a copy of The Haunting of Hill House with us, sadly, so I can't offer any passages, but the decor of the inside felt right from the story: the lion motif, the dripping ceilings, the ornate woodwork.

Lion fireplace!
Outside, the building faced thick woods and weirdly, awesomely enough, a path that led to a forested, walled off alcove plunked randomly in the thick of trees.  There were stone pillars and random statuary scattered, and with the fog and the grey sky, I felt exactly like I was in one of Jackson's stories.  It was brilliant.  After taking nearly one hundred pictures, we finally collapsed back at the car, hyper as chipmunks, babbling about our discoveries. 

Wife racing down path to nowhere
We babbled all the way home and we're still babbling about to anyone who will listen (sorry friends!).  I can't exactly say that North Bennington is a worthwhile trip -- it's kind of a depressing little hamlet -- but as Shirley Jackson fans, this was a meaningful pilgrimage that brought her stories vibrantly to life all over again. 
Awesome but random wall in forest


  1. Awesome trip - I love doing those kinds of things. My aunt and uncle are actually from Bennington so I know what you mean about it looking beautiful up there and still hasn't changed any.

  2. Great pictures! I love the creepy ceiling and the random wall!

  3. I like the totally random wall :)

  4. This is such a cool post, and I am excited that you shared all the details and photos with us! I really like that drippy ceiling. Very unusual. Glad to hear that you had such a nice time!

  5. how awesome is this! thanks for sharing your author trip adventure!

  6. What a great little detour for the day and learning trip! Thanks for posting. Burlington is one of my favorite towns. I often go to Johnson to Vermont Studio Center for writer's residencies and stop off in Burlington to meet a friend. (I'm originally from NH.) So this blog took me back and brought me more in touch with Jackson.

  7. What a terrific time you must have had. I love the Bennington area. I spent some great times there before we had children (long long ago).

  8. This sounds like the perfect trip for you both and it sounds like you made the most of it. I love trips like this. I have a thing for old towns and buildings, especially abandoned buildings and such.

  9. What fun! I love going to the homes of authors (and other famous people). It's so fascinating. If you want a bit of a longer drive, Edith Wharton's home in western Massaschusetts is worth a drive!

  10. Wow this is an incredible post! What a fun trip. Thanks so much for sharing!

  11. That is so awesome that you guys took a trip like this. I was seriously hanging on every bit. Love the photo evidence, too.

    Glad you guys enjoyed it. You have me wanting to read Hill House.

  12. What a great trip! Jackson's short stories are amazing and I really enjoyed We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Hope to get to The Haunting of Hill House soon. Thanks for sharing al the pictures.

  13. That sounds like one wonderful trip! Glad you both had such a good time, and thanks for sharing the photos.

  14. I am envious, you have no idea. I live in Vancouver BC and I'm considering riding my bicycle from here to Vermont next spring in order to see this town!! Shirley Jackson is one of my biggest influences and has a powerful toehold in my heart and mind.

    I'm currently writing a semi-fictional comic zine about a day on her life - you (and your wife) sound like you may enjoy such a thing...could I presume to forward you a copy when I'm finished?

  15. Just came across this post because my partner and I are going to Vermont for the first time next week, and since we'll be driving through Bennington I had hoped to make the same pilgrimage. I loved Shirley Jackson when I was a teenager and read all her books, I think. Nice to see the photos of the houses she lived in - hope we'll be able to find them as you did!