The first reason why “The Daemon Lover” is an effective horror story is that it does such an impressive job of evoking a state of mounting anxiety. From the first line — “She had not slept well” — we can tell that despite the appearance of normality the protagonist is in a state of considerable nerves. As the hours pass, we watch her slips into forced optimism and rationalisation, of the kind we cling to when we know admitting something’s wrong might very well undo us — especially as it becomes increasingly obvious that it is. “The Daemon Lover”, then, is a powerful study of subdued panic, of having your worst fears confirmed but delaying the moment when you acknowledge it because of everything it implies. It also captures the psychological harm inflicted by lack of clarity: it’s not just that Jamie Harris leaves; it’s that he doesn’t say he’s going and instead leaves her to piece this message together as the hours drag by on her wedding day.
However, I was even more interested in the second layer — in everything that’s bubbling underneath the surface. There are sociological reasons for our protagonist’s mounting anxiety and for all the little moments that reveal her fear of ridicule; there’s also a hidden layer of fury in “The Daemon Lover”, particularly as the story gives voice to what she could not say. Shirley Jackson exposes social attitudes towards women who are single, who work, who leave the house in search of the man who left them waiting, who have the audacity to exist in public, and the result is as effective as it is infuriating. Here’s a passage that I think captures the story’s core especially well:
There was a policeman on the corner and she thought, Why don’t I go to the police—you go to the police for a missing person. And then thought, What a fool I’d look like. She had a quick picture of herself standing in a police station, saying, “Yes, we were going to be married today, but he didn’t come,” and the policemen, three or four of them standing around listening, looking at her, at the print dress, at her too-bright make-up, smiling at one another. She couldn’t tell them any more than that, could not say, “Yes, it looks silly, doesn’t it, me all dressed up and trying to find the young man who promised to marry me, but what about all of it you don’t know? I have more than this, more than you see: talent, perhaps, and humor of a sort, and I’m a lady and I have pride and affection and delicacy and a certain clear view of life that might make a man satisfied and productive and happy; there’s more than you think when you look at me.”It’s important to add that her fears about the policemen’s potential ridicule are not unfounded: they come after the woman at Jamie’s building whose “voice sounded amused”, and the newsdealer whose “smile was knowing” and whose “eyes shifted over her shoulder to the man in back of her”. To describe the protagonist of “The Daemon Lover” as paranoid, then, would be gaslighting at its most insidious: her wariness is an all too human reaction to a social context that does mock women like her. Fear is an entirely appropriate response. Her counterarguments, the ones she can’t bring herself to make, are still ones that reduce her value to her ability to make a man happy, but that’s the point and the horror, really — the weight of patriarchal assumptions forces you to debate your humanity in their terms rather than your own.
Trying to imagine a story like this with a straight male protagonist makes for an interesting thought experiment. Imagine all the tragic glamour we’d assign to a man searching for his missing bride; imagine the layer of romance that would permeate his hurt and confusion. Imagine, most of all, how the possibility of deliberate abandonment, hurtful though it might be, would never really call his humanity into question. He would have a right to walk the streets asking questions. He would be allowed to exist. It’s nothing like the thinly veiled scorn we reserve for women in the same position: a woman left by a man, or searching for a man who might not want to be found, is assumed to be desperate and pathetic. She becomes the punchline of a joke nobody is quite making but that is in everyone’s minds. The weight of all these dehumanising assumptions is what the protagonist of “The Daemon Lover” is up against — it is, again, the story’s real source of horror.
“The Daemon Lover” is the kind of story I’ll always want to rewrite in my head, giving it an ending where the protagonist tells the policeman, the porter and the newsdealer “well, screw Jamie Harris and screw you too”. She then goes home and greatly enjoys having a cup of coffee on her own while reading the newspaper or a good book, before getting ready to go out with her friends in the evening. However, I appreciate that Jackson is writing about a world where such a simple, ordinary possibility is outside the imagining of a large portion of the world. This world is one where “chronically unmarried women have long endured the injustice of being set aside, ignored, dismissed, made invisible”. Defiance, small or large, is far more difficult in isolation, and “The Daemon Lover” is powerful because it shows us how patriarchy can get inside our heads and relentlessly assault our sense of worth.
Links of interest: that one time I invited a bunch of friends over to talk about “The Lottery” (that was fun).