Missing Girls, Dead Girls, and Shirley Jackson

Posted on Sat, Sep 10 2016 9:00 am by Erin Kate Ryan


I read a lot about dead girls. Missing girls. It’s my area of interest. In my mind, the “Missing Girl” stories I’m looking at have become a genre all their own. When I pick up a new novel with a missing girl at the center of the story, I have an internal checklist that I overlay on the plot—a checklist that has been shaped by years of reading these books, watching these films, even playing these games with missing girls at the center. She’ll be white (very rarely, she’s biracial, with a white parent), she’ll be conventionally pretty, she’ll be middle-class or upper middle-class. She’ll have a secret life that’s revealed after she’s disappeared (secret psychic! [The Vanishers, Heidi Julavits] secretly pregnant! [Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier] secret sex worker! [see any of a dozen Jerry Orbach-fronted episodes of Law & Order]) and there’s likely to be a scene in which her physical shape is referenced by its absence—her mattress holding the shape of her, a chalk outline on the street, even a piece of her clothing that appears to still remember the contours of her body (Night Film, Marisha Pessl). Very often, she’s wearing red—red coats are perennially popular in missing girl fashion (Night Film, again; NYT bestseller The Girl in the Red Coat, by Katie Hamer), though sometimes it’s red hair, a red backpack, or a red dress. She’ll be somewhere between 7 and 30 years old. Rugged “anti-hero”-type dude cops have played heavily in missing girl novels of the past 30 years, though now, more often than before, the girls’ pursuers are themselves women. When that’s the case, these women always have a moment in which they see the missing girls as a reflection of themselves (think, very specifically, of Tana French’s The Likeness, the ball scene in du Maurier’s Rebecca, the opening scene of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, or even that creepy-as-hell moment in the film What Lies Beneath when Michelle Pfeiffer transforms—mid-coitus—into Harrison Ford’s dead mistress).

Perhaps the original missing girl, Eurydice (wife of Orpheus), fell into a nest of vipers and died on her wedding day. Indescribably grief-stricken, Orpheus followed her into the underworld. The story has analogues in North American, Japanese, and Sumerian cultures. In each of these stories, the missing girl is the object, the instigating event. She is never embodied except in her absence. She left a girl-shaped hole in the world, and it’s the people left to feel her absence who get to tell the story. Who get a story at all. What do you know about Eurydice but that she died?

Shirley Jackson, genius that she was, played with the convention itself (as Hannah Pittard would, in The Fates Will Find Their Way, 50 years later), problematizing and twisting it back until her story, “Missing Girl,” became an ouroboros. This story, a hard-to-find gem* that was collected in the 1996 volume Just an Ordinary Day, was heavily influenced by Jackson’s observations of a real-life missing girl story in 1940s Bennington, Vermont. (If you, like me, happen to have tattooed on your brain the facts of Paula Jean Welden’s disappearance, there’s even greater joy to be found in Jackson’s choices.)

Here is “Missing Girl”: Martha goes missing from her upscale girls’ camp and after she’s gone for a few days, her roommate finally reports her absence. In fact, Martha’s last lines are the story’s opening lines, letting her distracted roomie know she’s leaving the room. She’s barely even on the page (and maybe isn’t at all, since the roommate later doubts her own account). The search that ensues is about everyone else—the Camp Mother, the chief of police, the other campers, the townspeople, the girl’s uncle—and not at the least about the missing girl herself, whom no one can remember except vaguely. The townspeople murmur about girls who go off on their own; the camp counselors complain about the lack of artistic interest among the campers; the roommate just remembers being irritated by the girl’s humming. The administrators philosophize, the uncle gains weight on the police chief’s wife’s cooking, the police chief feels inadequate. And although the search has been at the center of the story, it’s no real surprise—in fact, just a mild embarrassment—when the uncle realizes that none of his nieces are missing, when the administrators realize that no camper of that name was accepted to the camp, when they all realize that there was no missing girl at all.

How can we know that Jackson was cognizant of the missing girl convention rather than just tossing us one of her signature twist endings? A couple of ways.

The campers and staff who populate this story are all named for characters in boys’ adventures tales—Tarzan and Eeyore and Rabbit’s friends and relations, Will Scarlett and Little John of Robin Hood’s Band of Merry Men. (Jackson further hits this point by having Chief Hook mistakenly called Captain Hook by another character, and by having the only possession Martha’s roommate can remember being an alarm clock.) Jackson has populated this world, a summer camp for girls, with the props and people of boys’ adventure stories—boys’ adventure stories that keep the boys at the center. Think about this: Harry Potter went missing from Privet Drive, Huck Finn went missing from the Widow Douglas’ house, Peter Pan disappeared from his cradle, and yet the stories followed them. Hell (ha!), Orpheus took off for the underworld and we don’t know if anyone clocked his absence. (Imagine otherwise—that boys’ adventure tales focused instead on the dreary, stifling existences from which they escaped.) They exist because the narratives were theirs. So what happens to the girl who disappears from the page and the story?** Shirley Jackson makes a fine case. And in doing so, by pulling the subtext of the missing girl stories into the plot, she twists the convention and the reality of the story—flips it, wrinkles it, problematizes it. The girl was never missing because she never existed, but by not existing she still was missing. The snake here eats its own head.

Another way Jackson signals that she’s manipulating a familiar story structure: she lets the twist land softly. Oh, erm, maybe this girl was never here to begin with, we’re all a little embarrassed to have put forth the energy, we’ll just set that file aside now. And yet, the story continues for a few more paragraphs to a moment a year later when a “body that might have been Martha’s was found, of course, something over a year later.…The body had been stuffed away among the bushes, which none of the searchers had bothered to tackle, until two small boys looking for a cowboy hideout had wormed their way through the thorns.” (Again, the juxtaposition of boys’ adventures and girls’ fates.) The Camp Mother and the roommate are the only two folks to show up at the funeral (because that was the inevitable ending if Martha had existed, and does it even matter whose body it is?). “Although she did not cry over her lost girl, Old Jane touched her eyes occasionally with a plain white handkerchief, since she had come up from New York particularly for the services.” Nothing, not even death, is really about this missing girl.

Here’s a little dessert, too. What would Shirley Jackson have made of the fact that, just a few years ago, a novelist heavily implied that Jackson was in fact the murderer of Paula Jean Welden, that missing Bennington college student? In Shirley, a fictional account of a period in Jackson and her husband Stanley Edgar Hymen’s life in the 1960s, Susan Scarf Merrell relies in large part on the enduring mystery of Welden’s disappearance for emotional tension. Ultimately, she implies that Jackson killed Welden for having an affair with Hymen, and uses that as a threat to the fictional main character’s safety. (Hymen, a critic and New Yorker writer, was a professor at Bennington College for many years, and shortly after Jackson’s death, married one of his much younger students.) For 70 years, the mystery of one girl’s disappearance has been catalyzing other peoples’ adventures. Where might the story have led us if the adventure had been hers?


*One great way to get your hands on this story is taking Missing Girls: A Craft Based Book Club, starting September 26.

**Two exceptions that I maintain prove my rule—Alice in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—allow girls to have adventures only to the extent that they return home and awaken (because it never really happened!) refreshed and newly engaged in the domesticities that they had rejected initially. Something similar happens with Marilyn, the missing girl’s mother, in Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

Erin Kate Ryan has been named a 2017 Minnesota Emerging Writer grantee and a 2016 Minnesota Artist’s Initiative grantee; both awards support work on her novel about Paula Jean Welden, the missing Bennington girl from 1946. Erin Kate is teaching Missing Girls: A Craft Based Book Club this fall (in which students will read from The Girl on the Train, The Song Is You, Everything I Never Told You, The Likeness, and The Fates Will Find Their Way) and a class on using fiction to write about big ideas this winter. Visit www.erinkateryan.com.